This is a re-post of an article from The Newsletter of The Villages Genealogical Society, Volume 6 Issue 11, July 2014.
“My Journey to Italy”
Text and photos by John Seymour a member of the VGS Italian SIG
My mysterious research journey into the life of my paternal grandmother began with very few, but specific items that my sister had written on the back of a napkin. These items, obtained during a conversation with my grandmother’s niece, included exact dates and times of birth, marriage, and death as well as names of places, ship arrival times, occupations, and little nuances such as strict table manners.
I soon discovered that the task wasn’t going to be that easy. Finding her place of origin and correct surname became a real challenge. Was she born in Albania, Greece, Italy, or New Jersey? We always assumed that she was born in New Jersey. Was her surname Lepera, Bellaspica, Lyare, Laspesa, or Layare? We always assumed that it was Layare. It seemed that her family’s country of origin and surname changed with each Census and City Directory. It wasn’t until I started exchanging information on various forums that I began to focus in on the correct place and surname. The correct place was San Demetrio Corone (population ~4000) in the Province of Cosenza in the Calabrian region of Italy. There were other places with similar names, but this one fit the bill.
The correct surname of LePera (also Lepera) was obtained through the State Archives in Cosenza. San Demetrio, along with many other isolated villages, was settled by the Abanian Greeks (known as Arbëreshë) fleeing the Ottomans in the middle 1400’s. Click Here to read the Wikipedia article on The Arbëreshë People. (Editor’s note: The Arbëreshë name of San Demetrio Corone is Shën Mitri.) Since they retained their own culture and language for over 400 years, it could be understood that their nationality and homeland was misstated. The changes in surnames and given names appeared to be their own doing after they arrived in the U.S. I was astonished to learn that my great-grandfather’s name in San Demetrio Corone was Angelo Maria Matteo LePera and not Napoleon Bellaspica Layare, his most frequently used name in the U.S. And, my grandmother’s birth name was Guistina Augusta LePera and not Justine Augusta Layare, the name by which I knew her. Turns out that the letter ‘Y’ was not even in their alphabet. Since my grandmother was only two years old when she emigrated, she probably never had all the information that we can obtain today.
Routine E-Mail correspondence with the State Archives in Cosenza, translated by Google, revealed so much exciting information that I had to take a trip to San Demetrio Corone this year. I flew to Rome where I rented a car and took the day-long drive to Cosenza. I stayed four nights in Rende, a suburb of Cosenza. During my stay I made two trips to the Archives and two trips to San Demetrio. I was fortunate to find an English speaking employee at the Archives, Maria Colosimo, who assembled a group to sit with me to answer my questions. In San Demetrio, I met a resident, Furiati Angelo, sitting on a bench in the center of town. He knew no English, but after showing him my list of questions translated into Italian, he provided nonstop assistance. He took me to the Town Hall, through the Church, and to the cemetery on the outskirts of town. On the grave stones at the cemetery were the surnames of Macri, Baffa, and Bellucci in my great-grandmother’s line. There are still many LePera’s in the area, but none remain in San Demetrio.
Best of all, Furiati introduced me to a school teacher, Teresa Taranto, who knew the local language and was fluent in English. Teresa’s father had emigrated from San Demetrio to the Bronx where she was brought up. She has since returned to San Demetrio teaching on a full-time basis. Joining a San Demetrio Facebook group, I was able to connect with several more people in town. I must add that driving was a challenge. Without Google Maps on my iPhone, I would have really gotten lost. The drive up the hill to San Demetrio took all of an hour. And, parking at the Archives required a very small car to negotiate the alleyways around the 15th century building. It’s amazing how Maria was able to extract tidbits of information from the original documents which would likely have remained unknown. Needless to say, my Italian research is far from over. John Seymour