"La sede è dove il cuore è. Ciò ora è la nostra sede."

 

By Jay Nies

Editor, the Catholic Missourian

 

In her final column for the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota, Celeste Calvitto told readers she wanted "to go to places that few people have heard of and visit with the few people who are there."

She then began work on Searching for Italy in America's Rural Heartland, a book that would introduce more people to those little places and their inhabitants.

Ms. Calvitto plans to visit Rosati, Mo. -- the subject of one of the chapters in the book -- Sept. 7 and 8 for a book signing during the town's Grape Festival. She plans to autograph books after 5 p.m. on Sept. 7 and during the day on Sept. 8.

"Of all the places I visited for the book, I'd say Rosati came closest to reflecting the title," she said.

In “Searching for Italy in America's Rural Heartland,” Ms. Calvitto discovered powerful insight into the ordinary recollections of people who have weathered the immigration experience, as well as the Great Depression, a world war, the march of technology, and the national odyssey from rural to urban and suburban culture.

"So many of the people I talked to said, 'I can't imagine what I could tell you that would be of interest,'" said Ms. Calvitto. "What they don't always understand is that everyday life is very interesting to people -- those small details you can't find anywhere else."

The author wanted to gather firsthand histories from some of the rural areas in the Midwest that had Italian populations a century or more ago. In the process, she wanted to find the answers to cultural questions that have played a role in her own life as a third-generation American of Italian lineage.

"It doesn't have to be earth-shattering to be of interest," she said. "It may not seem important to them, but it is important to other people who want to know about that era and how they lived. Most of the people I talked to understood that and gave wonderful details about their life.

"One girl talked about the dress she wore when her father would come home from the coal mines," she said, "and about how they would slaughter their own hogs and make their own sausage -- the everyday things that really give you a perfect picture of what life was like for Italian immigrants in rural America in the last century."

 

"Lost forever"

Ms. Calvitto's search for Italy in America began in Mount Kisco, New York, in 1992, when she was in charge of organizing a local observance of the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary (500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World). During that time, Ms. Calvitto, who received the 1991-92 Civic Award from Mount Kisco's Knights of Columbus Sisqua Council, found her grandfather's name on a list of immigrants who entered the country through Ellis Island.

"My grandfather came from the same town as Padre Pio: San Giovanni Rotondo," she said. "Grandma was from Cento, near Bologna. All their children were born in the United States."

She had long regretted that she didn't ask her grandparents more questions when she had the opportunity.

"I wish I had shown more interest in how they got here and what it was like for them," she said. "A lot of that has been lost forever.

"I guess I'm trying to find answers in other ways."

Although her family settled in urban Italian enclaves in the Northeast, she has connects better with rural areas and roads-less-traveled.

"The smaller, the better," she said.

Once, while taking one of her signature "road trips to nowhere in particular," she arrived in McAlester, Okla., during an Italian festival.

"I was thinking, 'Italians in Oklahoma?'" she said. "I never thought about some of the smaller rural areas that had immigrant populations. And it turned out that some of the people who founded these towns aren't around anymore. But it was fun to talk with the people there. So I set out to find other communities like that."

She sought out contacts in Clinton, Ind.; Herrin, Ill.; Oelwein, Iowa; Pittsburg and Frontenac, Kan.; Krebs and McAlester, Okla.; and of course, Rosati, Mo.

"The Internet is a wonderful thing," she said. "I developed contacts in each community, for people to help me find subjects.”

Each town has its own chapter in Searching. The book also includes favorite recipes from people featured in the book, including Corrine Zulpo's gnocchi and Leo Cardetti's "Mama Cardetti style" peas.

"I can't tell you how many people came out of nowhere to help a stranger fulfill her dream of writing a book," said Ms. Calvitto. "I found wonderful people and made lifelong friends. It has been one of the most fulfilling things I've ever done, and I've had a long career in journalism."

 

Active identity

Most of the towns she visited had several nationalities, but the Italians seemed to be the most active and ethnically cohesive ethnic group, she said.

"In each community, the Church seemed to be the center of their community life," she said. "In many cases, it was the glue that helped hold things together."

A man in Herrin, Ill., told her the town's early residents included people from many parts of Italy.

"He told me it was the Church that helped bring them together," she said. "It was always a huge factor, if not the major factor."

Ms. Calvitto's trip to Rosati coincided with the June 11, 2006, centennial celebration for that town's St. Anthony of Padua parish. Her book includes a whole page of photos from the centennial Mass with Bishop John R. Gaydos.

"It was a really beautiful experience," she said. "It shows how the Church really brought everybody together, and still does."

 

Running interference

Ms. Calvitto emphasized the importance of intermediaries clearing the way for her interviews in the towns she visited.

"You can't just show up on someone's doorstep and expect them to share their life's story to a stranger," she said. "A lot of the folks are older and a little gun-shy. Most of them have never talked to reporters or writers before. I asked for addresses and wrote them letters, explaining who I am and who recommended that I talk to them. So by the time I met them, they were a lot more comfortable."

She found Rosati through an Internet website -- http://rosatimo.com -- researched and maintained by Steve Zulpo, who grew up in Rosati.

He turned out to be a tremendous resource and an adept intermediary.

"Steve was a big help," said Ms. Calvitto. "You can't find Rosati on a map, but you can find everything you want to know about it on that website."

All the other towns featured in the book had drawn immigrants through to work in coal mines or on the railroads. Mr. Zulpo explained to her that Rosati was different: The founders were farmers searching for a home that looked like northern Italy. They came through the Port of New Orleans to work at a plantation in Arkansas. Working conditions were bad, so they sent an advance party to Missouri. They negotiated with the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad to buy acres of land in Phelps County, Mo. On that land, they built a town and grew produce, especially grapes.

"Rosati is really, really emblematic of the whole book," the author said. "It's a rural area. People came to try to find something better, and they did, and they worked at it, and they kept at it. As far as the location and the philosophy, Rosati is pretty much the essence of the title of the book."

Ms. Calvitto found people in Rosati who remember its early days from their youth. She talked to Mr. Zulpo's parents, Joe and Corrine Zulpo; Leo Cardetti; Jodie Donati; and George and Vera Piazza. Each section in the Rosati chapter includes photos, the family's place of origin, and information and quotes gleaned from face-to-face interviews.

"I think I was really fortunate to find the places I found," she said. "They were so representative of the people and the era."

 

Much in common

She found that the Italian communities in the towns she visited have much in common in terms of their philosophy and way of life. Each has some kind of annual commemoration of their Italian heritage.

"In fact, I've had many people call and ask me how to get in contact with someone they read about in the book," she said. "I think this is something anyone who went through the immigration experience -- or who is descended from someone who did -- can relate to, no matter where they are."

Each community in the book is working to preserve the sense of community and shared experience, and pride in the immigrant experience, she said.

"Everyone does their own thing in their own way," she said. "People are really trying to keep it going. That's what I saw. Now in another generation or two -- who knows?"

Every family and every community needs a Steve Zulpo to draw together and publicize its heritage, she said.

"What he's done with his research and his website is absolutely phenomenal," she said. "He's sort of a one-man Rosati preservation society. Rosati is really lucky to have him. People like Steve are keeping it together."

She said people on her dad's side of the family are thrilled with the book.

"I think they understand why I went to another part of the country, because that really interests me," she said. "But they also know how much in common we have with the people I wrote about."

 

Still searching

Ms. Calvitto lived and worked all over the country during the 34 years with her daily newspaper business. She left a job outside Manhattan several years ago in search of "someplace off the beaten path." That's what led her to Rapid City, S.D. -- in a vast state that has fewer people than the New York county she forsook.

"I don't mind that the next big metropolis is six hours away," she said. "Besides, I don't like to travel in cities. I love this country and the back roads, that's how I go. If I can avoid an Interstate and an urban area, I do it."

Ms. Calvitto left her job as a politics reporter and columnist at the Rapid City Journal to write this work. Right now, she's free-lance writing and traveling to promote the book.

She said the traveling, writing, publishing and promotion of the book have been stressful but well worth it.

"I'd do it all again," she said. "In fact, I want to do a Searching for Italy book for each part of the country. It's going to take awhile, but I'm looking forward to doing it."

Her own Internet website -- www.searchingforitaly.com -- has information about the book and how to order it, as well as links to newspaper and radio interviews.

 

Call 1-800-882-3273 to order a copy of Searching for Italy in America's Rural Heartland.