My Waldensian Great Grandparents

Woman in center front is Ernesta Risi, a Waldensian from Voghera in Northern Italy with French ancestry.

My great grandmother, Ernesta Risi (abt 1856-1933) and her husband Felice Spairani (1854-1909) were baptised Waldensians from Voghera, Pavia, Lombardy, Italy.  Felice married Ernesta Risi in 1884 and then arrived in the U.S. on 15 May 1886.  A pregnant Ernesta must have come over soon thereafter to be able to deliver my grandmother, Angelina Carlotta “Angela” Spairani on 24 December 1886 in New York. NY according to Angelina’s Social Security registration.

They left Italy as a result of the turmoil in Italy in the 1870’s and 1880’s that triggered the so called Italian Diaspora, and I’m guessing with something to do with the discrimination they felt as protestants in a predominantly catholic Italy.  It wasn’t the first that they and their ancestors had dealt with persecution at the hands of the Pope and his agents.

Peter Waldo (1140-1205) founded in the late twelfth century the Poor Men of Lyon which eventually was renamed the Waldensians, probably following Peter Waldo’s death in 1205.  I want to remind readers that this was the time of the founding of the Plantagenet dynasty in England, who were descended from William the Conqueror, the Norman conqueror of England in 1066.  The Plantagenet reign in this period included the last 20 years of King Henry II’s reign, as well as the entire reign of Richard the Lionhearted (Richard I), and part of the reign of John I. During this period the Plantagenets built a great empire that included most of the East coast of France including Normandy and Aquitaine, in combination with England, Scotland and Ireland, and then lost the continental territories to the French King Philip II.  It was also the time of the Golden Age of Islam when Saladin was extending and firming up his rule to establish the largest extent of the Turkish Empire when the third and fourth Crusades would happen (with Richard the Lionhearted being a major character in the 3rd Crusade). This was also around the time when the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa’s forces lost the Battle of Legnano against the Lombard League resulting in recognition of the sovereignty of the Papal States.  Being fought in the Piedmont region, this battle must have had a major effect on the peoples of Northern Italy and Southeastern France, where Peter Waldo wrote the first vernacular Bible that could be understood by peasants as well as nobles.

Piedmont Map
The area of Northern Italy and Southeastern France included in the Piedmont where the Waldensians were founded and concentrated for many centuries. Note that Lyon, France is just to the west of the Piedmont region of N. Italy. SOURCE: Google Maps https://www.google.com/maps/place/Italy/@43.4371251,8.0039373,6z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x12d4fe82448dd203:0xe22cf55c24635e6f!8m2!3d41.87194!4d12.56738

The Pope didn’t much like people who could understand the Bible, which said nothing about the Pope being God’s agent on earth.  Furthermore, the Waldensians came to reject the indulgences, a means of paying to get your sins absolved and, therefore, a source of funding for the Pope’s infrastructure.  Through his relation to the Lombard League and other Catholic leaders, he supported efforts for finding solutions to their problems with the Poor Men of Lyon – typically extermination.  As of 1215 on, Waldensians were persecuted as heretics by the Catholic Church.  

The Waldensians actually spread quite extensively from the Italian and French Piedmont to Spain, northern France, Flanders, Germany, and even Poland.  However, regular programmes of the Pope and his Catholic Kings to excommunicate, persecute and execute, the Waldensians eventually were restricted in the 15th century mostly to the French and Italian valleys of the Cottian Alps.  Halting later expansion as the Lutheran movement became of concern to the French King Frances he supported the so called Mérindol massacre of 3000 Waldensians in Provence in 1545 – a plaque in Mérindol honors the dead.

En_mémoire_des_Vaudois_de_Provence_morts_pour_leur_foi
A plaque in Mérindol honors the 3000 dead in the massacre that happened in 1545. SOURCE: By Paul Munhoven – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5506201

In 1532 they became a part of the Calvinist tradition, mostly due to their proximity to those areas of the Swiss Confederation where this tradition had been founded and supported.  Then in the 17th century when Protestants were despised by the church, they were nearly exterminated during the Savoyard-Waldensian wars. Apparently this was when Savoy controlled much of the western side of the Piedmont, which is now part of both France and Italy.  Noting that my great grandmother had French ancestors and may have been French herself.

Lands_of_Victor_Amadeus_II,_Duke_of_Savoy
Piedmont-Savoy circa 1700 where Savoy-Waldensian Wars took place almost exterminating the Waldensians. SOURCE: By Raymond Palmer at English Wikipedia – Own work (Raymond Palmer), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12271418

My great grandparents Ernesta and Felice were baptised as Waldensians in the late 1800s, and with the Calvinist association, they became connected to the Presbyterians.  I’ve heard some speculation that the Scottish Presbyterians provided support for emigration of the Waldensians, and so the connection would be natural. Waldensians immigrated to the U.S.A., Argentina and Uruguay.  In the U.S.A. I expect most ended up in New York City, at least as a first home, and a number decided to create a Waldensian community in Valdese, North Carolina. My ancestors came to New York, probably because they knew at least one other Waldensian who had established themself probably as a member of a nearby Presbyterian congregation.  This is true, that relationship brought them to Brooklyn, New York. Born on 24 December 1886 shortly after I expect that my grandmother’s pregnant mother landed in the U.S.A. in summer of that year. My grandmother got married to Franco “Frank” Nicholas Caruso on 6 December 1906 just 18 days before her 20th birthday on Christmas Eve. Three years later they would have their first child, Paul Felix Caruso after his great grandfather Paulo Caruso, and his middle name from his maternal grandfather (Felice Spairani) who had died that same year of 1909.  The next child would come in almost another 3 years and be named Francis Domenico Caruso after his father (not sure why it’s Francis unless this is a traditional variation for a child of Franco) and the paternal grandfather (Domenico Caruso). Their third and last child born on 28 October 1918, Victor Ernest, my father, named as a foretelling of the eventual victory in World War I on 11 November 1918, which must have had a major impact on the Caruso family between 1914 and 1918.

So I recline in my chair thinking of how I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors.  Those ancestors not stopping at my Waldensian great grandfather and grandmother, but going back through the years most memorably to the years of King Richard the Lionhearted, Saladin, Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, and Popes Alexander III, Urban III and Innocent III, and including the many determined men and women who brought the Waldensians through seven centuries of persecution.  I have much to learn about those connections in my genealogical search which puts me thinking about the doors of the Waldensian church in Turin. I hope to go knocking before too long.

Author: T.P. Caruso

Retired from a healthcare and biomedical research career and now enjoying connections with anyone interested in history, geneology, healthcare, leadership or consciousness.

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