Walking Along the Family Tree (Agnone, Italy)

It’s fitting to begin where it all begun: Agnone, in Molise province of Italia, the home of not just my grandparents, but my extended family before they immigrated to Montreal in the 1950’s. Walking these streets I feel like a child again going to the park in Ville LaSalle. Not that the towns have any resemblance, but it’s all these faces I have seen before. The wrinkles of an old lady are the same as my Nonna, another one’s sleeveless house dress, blue with a pattern of little yellow flowers, with a white t-shirt underneath, I saw the same one growing up in the garden.

View from the cemetery

So, needless to say, I have a level of familiarity with the people here. Language plays an important role, though I am far from fluent in Italian. Having been exposed to the Agnonese dialect I understand these people better than their Northern countrymen. It helps to speak a language, but when you are versed in their slang doors open up, and they no longer treat you as an outsider, or a tourist, but a distant relative coming home again.

This occurred to me right away. Agnone is not known as a tourist town. If anything, it is only Italian tourists who come to this town boasting about being a city of art. Agnone is home to the oldest recorded, and perhaps most famous, bell manufacturer. Their bells chime in churches all over the world. So as I look foreign, I can tell by the way they stare from the benches that something chimes in their minds when they see me. I think it is a form of recognition. They know I’m not from Agnone, simply because they know everyone from here, but they see a familiarity, maybe I’m a bastard son. All I need to do is give a friendly buon giornio and that focused stare lightens into a friendly smile.

My first encounter was with an older man named Constantine at the oldest church in Agnone, Chiesa di San Pietro. I quickly found out that we share a last name Sabelli, but more so, my Nonno and his father also have the same, Rocco Sabelli. He couldn’t believe the coincidence so he immediately invited me for a café to further explore this issue. As it is in small villages, he bumped into a friend along the way, Luigi. It turns out that Luigi is from a small village (if you can call five houses a village) called Belladonna, and was just a child growing up next to the house of my Nonna. Può essere maledetto, he said, be cursed, meaning more or less something like unbelievable in this situation. Studying my face his eyes shone bright in astonishment as it took him back to his childhood full of wonder where the unexpected is still possible.

These encounters continued for three days. I met people that know my family history better than my father. My godmother’s two cousins, sisters Anna and Rosella, own a small grocery store, and wouldn’t let me leave without two pinches on each cheek and a bottle of ice tea for my walk and a beer for my lunch. I met my aunt’s cousin Angiolina Sabelli, an eighty-six year old memory vault who recited not just mine, but the family tree of all my Nonno’s brothers and sisters. She also stared with bewilderment, touching my face saying how she can see Rocco’s. No one ever told me that before, not even in Ville LaSalle.

And so it went like this. I was piecing together clues of my origins. I was seeing friendly ghosts who guided me to where I should go next. And more than anything else, I was discovering the true nature of my roots with every little detail that was omitted, that changed and transformed with time, or simply forgotten altogether. I was told that we came from Campobasso, both a city and region. This was said because it is better known than Agnone, but Agnone isn’t even in Campobasso. When I met with Constantine I found out that my Nonna wasn’t from Agnone, but from Belladonna, and that my grandfather too was from an even smaller place called Cantulupo, which is basically a farm region on the side of a mountain with a couple of houses sporadically placed throughout the bushes.

Details bring a story to life. They make it more real. Visiting the birthplaces of my grandparents made me somehow feel more of my existence. I was also able to see my grandparents and elderly relatives in a way that I always struggled to my whole life, as young. My grandmother wasn’t always tending the garden at a delicate pace in Ville LaSalle, or sticking her face in the fridge snacking in all her senility, but like Angiolina told me, they use to chase down a chicken, catch it with agility, kill it, pluck it, cook it, and feast on it before anyone else found them.

More than anything else, visiting Agnone was a trip down memory lane to days that are long past, and even slower than they are now in this sleepy town. Dead relatives live on in a meaningful way, never to be forgotten. Just as it is with Italian culture in general, the way of life with all its traditions continues uninterruptedly as if globalization hasn’t reached these hills. For tradition in the form of the proper way to roll gnocchi or the hour to promenade down main street gossiping about the present and telling stories of the past, continues in just the same way as those who are long gone have done before. The site of the wind turbines on top of the mountain ridge in the distance is the only clue that Agnone has made it to the twenty-first century. But even then they turn taking their time as if they too know the proverb of the land: Chi va piano, va sano e lontano, ma chi va forte incontra la morte.  Who proceeds slowly will go far with health, but he who goes with haste will only find death.

26 thoughts on “Walking Along the Family Tree (Agnone, Italy)

  1. WOOOW! I was looking for you through couchsurfing and I found this… I loved these stories from Agnone, and I’m happy that you discovered so many interesting things. What are you doing right now? How are you? Do you miss Molise a little bit?? 🙂
    ciao, a presto!
    Marta from Campobasso

    • Marta, I’m glad you enjoyed my story, as you were also a part of it. And of course I miss Molise, and still dream of moving there and building on my Agnonese dialect. It’d be great to see you there again some time soon!

  2. We must be related…I am also a Sabelli and my parents/grandparents are all from Agnone. I have family in Montreal too.

    BTW…Angiolina Sabelli you quote in the story is my aunt…my dad’s older sister. Her married name is Gualtieri. That’s a good picture of her.

    Thanks for the story

    • Tony, thanks for getting in touch. I mentioned you to my parents and they guess that you live in Calgary and if not, Windsor. My nonna’s first husband was a Gualtieri, my zio Michele also had that name. It was a great pleasure to meet your aunt and have her tell me stories about her childhood with my nonna. So for sure we have family ties. I hope my story brought you back to our roots.

  3. Bonjour
    Ma belle famille est d’Agnone s’appelle Gualdieri ou GUALTIERI suivant les années.
    Les parents et grand parents ont vécus dans une maison en contrebas de Belladona
    lieu dit CANTALUPO
    Dans la famille il y a Michele GUALDIERI marié avec Cristina TOTATO.
    Avez vous un arbre généalogique en Ligne


  4. I visited Agnone in 2009 and was taken with its beauty. My father’s father, Raffaelle, came to US at turn of the century. He was from Salerno but how we got the Agnone name is unknown.

  5. Hola M Sabelli !!! soy de argentina y tanto mi padre como abuelos, son Agnoneses. (Sabelli-Di Menna),
    Hermoso Agnone. Saludos

  6. Hello, I’m Adriana’s brother…. we have parents in Canada too (actually Ontario), Our nonno’s name is Antonino Sabelli and our bisnonno Francescantonio Sabelli. For sure we are far parents! Hugs!

    • Ciao EVERYONE! 🙂 I am no doubt related to most of you commenting on this great story about Agnone and the Sabelli family 🙂

      Bruno, i really believe i’m related to you, as i have a family tree that shows my bisnonno is Antonio/Antonino and that his father’s name was Francescantonio!!! 🙂

      • Hello… Tony (Antonio) Sabelli here from Windsor, Ontario. It’s great reading some family history on this site. I have family in Leamington a small rural town outside of Windsor and in Montreal. The story mentions my aunt Angelina Sabelli… One of her sons live across the river from Windsor in Detroit Mi.

  7. What a wonderful journey! Thanks for sharing it as I truly enjoyed. My family ancestors are from Agnone. The Pannunzio’s. I hope I can visit someday and learn about our family.

  8. Hello there,

    Can you email me some details of your immediate family so that i can connect you onto the family tree(s) i have here at home? It would be great to sit and chat with you as well!! Info that would be great would be your parents’ names, your siblings, your grandparents, and so on. I love this stuff, thank you for posting this! 🙂

  9. Hello, my mother Argentina Sabelli married my father Angelo D’Agnillo who was born in Agnone and my mother was from Cantulupo. Her parents were Feliceantonio Sabelli and Emilia Totaro. They both passed away approx 25 years ago. They all lived and live in Montreal. There is a large ‘clan’ of Sabelli`s that live in St Leonard and Lasalle QC. I visited Agnone in Sept 2018. It is a beautiful small town with lots of history. While there, i asked my uncle to drive me to Cantulupo, but we couldn’t find in based on his memory. Maybe next time. Tks Felice D’Agnillo

  10. Hello and thank you for good reading! My husband’s great grandfather was Rocco Sabelli and his grandfather was Luigi Sabelli. Luigi came to Ohio USA in about 1920 at the age of 28. Luigi got married to an American Italian woman and they had four children, one of them my mother in law. Do you think you could be related to my husband? Have you heard of this arm of the family?

    • Thanks for answering so quickly. I should have said that Luigi Sabelli (my husband’s grandfather) came from Agnone, leaving his father, Rocco, in Agnone. There is vague family information from my mother in law (maiden name Sabelli) that there are Sabelli relative in Canada.

  11. hey!

    wow, this story is amazing! my nonno is Luigi Sabelli from Agnone and his parents were Emilia Totaro and Feliceantonio Sabelli. Felice and Tony, who commented further up, as well as Angiolina, are all my second cousins. The house you posted looks exactly like the picture that my nonno has in his house of when him and my nonna visited Agnone!

  12. These connections are soooo amazing, I would love to connect and share some family pictures.
    I live in Montreal and also related to the Sabelli’s, Totaro’s, D’agnillo’s and Delli Quadri family.

  13. My grandfathers parents, Leo Bax and Ernestine (Natale) Bax came to the United States from Agnone in the early 1900’s. Leo’s mother (Lucia (Lemme) Bax came with them, as did three of his brothers and one sister. Leo’s father, Giuseppe died in Agnone in 1897. I’ve done a very small amount of research, wondering how an Italian family had the surname, Bax. I discovered there were Bax’s in Agnone as far back as the late sixteenth century. Some people have suggested they may have cone to Italy from France or Spain, while other’s have suggested that perhaps they arrived from Albania for religious reasons.
    My grandfathers family were proud people and very good cooks and story tellers. They made wine from Dandelions and very thick sauce with beef and pork mixed in.

    Your travel story has inspired me to plan a journey to Agnone. I will try and find the grave of my 2nd great grandfather and the home that my family lived in, provided it’s still standing.

    Thank you for the inspiration!!!!!

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