Adventures in Canna, Calabria

The adventure began in the train station in Rome where I met with two cousins to take them to the town of birth of their Grandparents. He had spent a lot of time researching their family in the LDS microfilms and the town records with the help of a lawyer cousin in another part of Italy. This trip would take us first by train to Bari where we would rent a car and drive some 160 kilometers to Canna in the Province of Cosenza in Calabria, just south of Basilicata.
On the train we discussed our research goals which were:-
• To confirm the birth a child Maria born before the couple emigrated in 1900.
• Confirm the death of the maternal Great Grandmother when the Grandmother was just 8 or 9 years old.
• To prove a family story that this Great Grandmother was married after the birth of the Grandmother, but before her death.
• To learn the names of the fathers’ of both Grandparents who were listed as ‘unknown’ on the birth records.
• To visit the town and church.
We drove through some beautiful countryside, with rolling hills and as we drew closer to Calabria we could see the mountains where we knew Canna would be located. We were booked into an ‘Agriturismo’ for the three nights we expected to be in the area. Two full days to accomplish our goals.
It was late afternoon when we pulled into the town and parked beside the church on a warm and sunny Sunday. We decided to see if we could speak to the priest and make an appointment to search the parish records. I had been unable to reach him by phone all week. The church was open and there were just a few older women sitting in the pews. We looked first at the large wooden baptismal font located just inside the main doors. Just as it had been for centuries, waiting for the entrance of the newborn babies who could not approach the altar until they were baptized. The church was newly renovated and beautifully appointed. Much larger than expected for such a small town of just 800 or so inhabitants. As we wandered around looking at the statues of the saints standing in their niches with the lighted candles at their feet we came across the Madonna surrounded by flowers and holding the place of honour at the front of the church. This was the first Sunday in May, the month of the Madonna and a special service was about to begin. The church was beginning to fill with women and we stopped to talk to one who stood as we approached. As we introduced ourselves she announced that the Mayor had told her we were coming and that she too bore the same surname as my clients!
The church continued to fill with women of all ages and soon one of them began the ‘novena’ in honour of the Madonna. We went outside into the square where we were amused to see the local bar filled with the menfolk of the town. We began to make inquiries about the road to our ‘agiturismo’ and their were concerned looks on everyone’s face. Apparently it wasn’t easy to find, and the road was so-so, and eventually it was agreed that we should call the place and they would send someone to guide us. I wasn’t sure how we would find our way back here if it was that complicated but fortunately we did have a ‘Tom-Tom’. (GPS) Hopefully that would do the job!
The brother of the lady we had met in the church introduced himself and it turned out that both he and my client had the same first and last names. Instant bondage took place. My client was immediately adopted as a long lost cousin and an appointment was made to meet the following day at the Mayor’s office where we had our first appointment. We were ushered into the bar for a celebratory drink with our new ‘cousin’. It was getting late and the priest had still not arrived when our guide arrived from the Agriturismo.
The Agriturismo was set in the hills 5.7 kilometres from Canna. It took us at least 20 minutes to get there, at least half the way in first gear! The road was partly paved, partly gravel and partly a rutted track with grass growing up the centre, effectively cleaning the underside of the car as we passed over. Although a 2-way road, there were few places to pass another car on the final 2 kilometres and in fact, two cars leaving the place had to back uphill to let us pass. Fred (the client) was assigned to pray that no cars would come towards us each time we took the road. It worked! On the three other occasions we took the road we passed no one. Good work Fred.
I won’t describe the food we were served, suffice to say there were three antipasto dishes, a first course of pasta, a second course of meat and vegetables, followed by fruit and/or ice-cream. The owner had great difficulty making ‘American’ coffee which involves putting an espresso into a large cup and filling it with water. Needless to say she was horrified at the thought of serving ‘dirty water’ to her guests and although she did add some water it was never enough for our American friend.
The next morning we navigated the road to town after setting the GPS to ‘remember’ our location. We had a meeting with the Mayor at the town offices.
The Mayor received us promptly and surprisingly could speak quite good English although he conducted most of our discourse in Italian. Our new friend Federico also showed up and participated in the investigation. The Mayor called on the ‘anagrafe’ clerk to find us the records we needed and off she went while we were entertained (well, I was) to a historical outline of the town and its history and presented with a very large volume on loan for the night of the Catasto Onciaro of 1747 for the town, which had been transcribed by a local person. This was a real bonus as we would now be able to determine if the family had been in Canna or had come from some other place.
We obtained the birth record of a baby born to their Grandparents before the left for America. Disproving the story that they had worked in Naples for some time to earn the money for their passage. The baby was born in February 1900 and they sailed in July 1900.
Although both the Mayor, the clerk and I searched manually the marriage records for the marriage of both Grandmothers’ we did not find one.
A death record was found for the maternal Great Grandmother just nine years after Felice’s birth confirming that story at least. It was the only possible record that fit, however the age was much younger than that stated on the birth record of the daughter. 35 years old at the birth and 26 years old at the death. The family story said that the mother had married after Felice’s birth and that after her death Felice was left with a local family as a maid servant while her stepfather went to Argentina. A husband was named on the death record. It fit, but didn’t fit. We hoped to confirm some of this in the parish records later.
Although only records after 1865 were kept at the town office, earlier records were housed in the ‘archives’ to which the Mayor conducted us personally, gave us the key, and asked us to return it the next day. Happy searching!
When we saw the room, piled high with boxes and papers of all descriptions laying on the floor with their contents spilling out we were dismayed, but the Mayor picked around, located a box for us and left.
Conditions were damp and humid and although we hunt for other records it was apparent that those between 1840 and 1865 were either missing or buried under the mess. We left. It was 12:30pm and I knew that the stores would close at 1pm and since the only restaurants in town only opened by advance booking we had to find a grocery store or we wouldn’t get any lunch.
We found the only store in town was more like an American convenience store but I knew they would make us a sandwich except, all the bread and buns had been sold. She sent us down to the bakery promising not to close the store until we came back. Armed with our buns, we returned to the store where she made us a sandwich. Our American friends wanted, mayo and mustard, but this wasn’t a sub shop and they had to be content with cold cuts and cheese with a slice of tomato. After all was added up lunch for three with drinks came to under $10. We took our lunch and sat on the benches in the square in the warm sunshine with the silence wrapping itself around us. Everyone left in town was eating pasta and relaxing in their homes during the heat of the day. We heard only the birds, and a solitary car whose owner stared as he rounded the traffic circle in the wrong direction. Well, there was no one else on the road!
Our plan for the rest of the day involved meeting the priest and asking permission to search the parish records hopefully with the sacristan since mass was 6pm and we didn’t want to be on that road after dusk!
With several hours to kill, we started to explore the old part of town, looking for the streets named on the birth records. Via San Martino, Via Plebiscito and Contrada Maddamma. As we entered Via San Martino a metal bench around a tree invited us to sit while we pondered which house might have been n° 8. We had been told that the house were renumbered after every census so we knew that we would never know for sure. We hadn’t been there long when people started coming out of their houses, curious about us. Fred was wearing shorts, unheard of for a man of his age in the late afternoon! We began chatting with the neighbours and learned that N° 9 was the home of our friend Federico of this morning. His wife came out to talk to us and after a while invited us for coffee, saying that her husband was out. I knew Gwen was curious about the interior of the very antique homes in the town so I accepted quickly. As I expected the interior was finished in a simple but beautiful manner typical of many homes in the historic parts of these towns. After Federico arrived home he took us up to the balcony and explained how originally the house had been only the upper floor and entered by a steep exterior staircase. The rooms underneath, where we had been taking our coffee were originally used for the animals and for storage. They had restructured the house, making the upper rooms bedrooms, and the lower floor a living/kitchen area. We were then taken outside the house and into the ‘cantina’ beneath the living room. Here a summer kitchen had been created in the old wine/root cellar where the family could escape the heat.
Federico then took us on a tour of the town, describing all the former palaces and important families that had once inhabited the town. He even inquired about obtaining some local olive oil for Gwen from a local manufacturer. We arrived back in the town centre well before the mass.
This time we went directly to the sacristy to wait for the priest, this time he wouldn’t escape without talking to us. The church was once again filling up with women who began to say the Rosary for the Madonna.
Eventually the very young, Filipino priest arrived full of smiles to see us all in his sacristy. He brought out chairs and invited us to sit. As we explained what we needed from him he patiently stopped us and explained that he had orders from the Diocese to perform any searches personally due to privacy laws. As I tried to explain how complicated this search was, the Mayor burst into the room and promptly took a seat. He began to almost harangue the priest into letting us do our search, announcing how confident and trustworthy we were, and how professional I was, so much so that he had entrusted us with the key to the archives and left us to search alone. The young priest tried again to explain that he could not do this, it was against his orders etc. etc. The Mayor continued his plea until the priest threw up his hands and declared that he had a mass to say, that he would open the cupboard and we could search while the mass was on, but he was convinced we wouldn’t find anything. The priests in the past had been very sloppy and many acts were not recorded.
At his point I was relieved that the priest had not answered his phone all of the previous week, otherwise I would have had to accept his refusal to let me do a personal search. With the Mayors help we had accomplished our goals.
We quickly set to work searching first the Stato delle Anime (the parish census). It was not dated but it quickly became obvious that it was taken after 1900, and therefore after their Grandparents had left for America.
We turned to the death records and located the paternal Great Grandmother who died in 1901. The birth record obtained prior to the trip showed that this person was also born illegitimately and gave HER mother’s name and age.
The marriage records gave up no useful additional information. Disappointed we thanked the priest, made a donation to the Madonna and set off up the road to our lodging as dusk was rapidly approaching.
Thanks to the Mayor’s intervention we had accomplished all the research in one day!
That evening I turned the pages of the Catasto and discovered that in 1747 there was just one family with the clients surname. The family consisted of a widow and her two sons. Although they owned their home, they owned nothing else and lived off what they could earn by working as ‘forese’ or wood gatherers.
The following morning we had a leisurely breakfast and then returned the book to the Mayor and requested a couple more records that were missed yesterday. Then we took a ride further up the mountain to the town of Nocara where the view from the piazza was spectacular. On our return we stopped at the cemetery.
It’s a place I like to take people who are coming back to their roots. Not because we will find any graves, but because it is so different from what you find in North America. The cemetery in Canna was hidden up a gravel road with no signs to say where it was. As we passed through the gate in the wall I was surprised at the desolate and lonely appearance it presented. Italian cemeteries are usually vibrant and full of flowers and people tending the graves of their loved ones while the faces of the dead watch from the photos attached to the marble face of the ‘niche’. There is always a patch of ‘ground’ where the poorer people who cannot afford the ‘niche’ rental are buried for 10 years after which their bones are removed and placed in the communal ‘ossario’ or bone vault. In Canna there were two large squares of earth on either side of the path as we entered with very few grave markers in the scorched dried earth. Surrounding this, against the walls were the older ‘niches’. Many were empty and others were bricked up so it was difficult to know if the owners simply couldn’t afford the marble front piece. Plastic flowers were placed at many tombs but it was obvious they were placed there months ago, possibly last November 1st. In the newer area at the back were the more recent additions but even these were not well kept. We took photos of those bearing names the client was interested in and returned to town.
By now it was after 1pm and nothing was stirring so we opted to return to our agriturismo and ask for some fruit and biscuits since we had not ordered a meal until the evening. Later that evening our new friend called to say he had located two bottles of olive oil produced in Canna and when we told him we did not intend to return to town, he quickly arranged to meet us on the road back to Bari the following morning to say goodbye to his new found relatives. A real gentleman! The perfect end to our trip to their ancestor’s birthplace.


  1. Ann, what a great story of your trip to Canna. There are many people that travel back to Calabria to learn more about their ancestral roots and it can be quite difficult sometimes as I am sure you know! Great story thanks. Carlo


  2. Thank you. That was a great adventure to read. It enlightened me to Italian research in a few ways. Lucky for you to have become friendly with the Sindaco.


  3. My wife and have just returned from a similar trip. Too our delight we actually found two second cousins, in their 90’s still living in the family house. We also met a few locals that knew my grandfathers brothers. Quite and experience.
    Ann – have you thought about getting a copy of the Canna city seal? I am going write the mayor and see if he can provide some artwork.
    Ciao, Nicolo


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