Town’s Italian heritage celebrated

Greenwich First Selectman Peter Tesei, at right, accepts a flag from the Italian city of Rose from the city’s mayor Sindaco Stefano Leone as Natalia Quintavale, consul general of Italy, at left, looks on. — John Ferris Robben photo

Greenwich First Selectman Peter Tesei, at right, accepts a flag from the Italian city of Rose from the city’s mayor Sindaco Stefano Leone as Natalia Quintavale, consul general of Italy, at left, looks on.
— John Ferris Robben photo

All photos by Post photographer John Ferris Robben,

Greenwich has long had a strong and proud Italian heritage, and that tradition was celebrated last Friday at a special ceremony at Town Hall.

There, the town’s sister city relationships with the Italian cities of Rose and Morra De Sanctis have long been spoken about and unofficially acknowledged. But on Friday, Mayor Sindaco Stefano Leone of Rose and Mayor Sindaco Gerardo Capozza of Morra De Sanctis and delegations from both cities were on hand to meet with First Selectman Peter Tesei to formalize those partnerships. During a special bilingual ceremony, the cultures and histories of all of the towns were celebrated, and Mr. Tesei, himself the descendant of Rose residents who came to America, called it a “historic occasion.”

“The story of our ancestors who traveled from Morra De Sanctis, Rose and surrounding towns from the late 19th and early 20th Century is the American story of a dream of an opportunity for a better way of life,” Mr. Tesei said. “The adversity faced by these immigrants is not very different than those who arrived on these shores before and those that are coming today.”

Mr. Tesei noted that people who came from these cities went on to have a major impact on the town, serving as first selectmen and tax collectors, becoming local business leaders and even having rooms in Town Hall, like Chimblo, Evaristo and Mazza, named after them.

“Future descendants will be able to view and appreciate the Italian ancestry and heritage they carry and the imprint it has had on the town of Greenwich,” Mr. Tesei said. “It is also a time to solidify the relationships with our original country so we can move into the future learning more about each other and the special relationship between our communities.”

Mr. Leone said his town had researched Mr. Tesei’s ancestry and presented him with a family tree and a birth certificate for his great-grandmother. He also extended an invitation to Greenwich to send a delegation to Italy to be honored. Both mayors, through the help of translators, spoke at the event and said how honored they were to have been invited to Greenwich and welcomed so warmly.

“I am the son of an immigrant,” Mr. Leone said. “I was born in Germany and I know the difficulties a family goes through in order to be accepted in a totally different community. I know the sadness you feel when you think about your homeland and your distant relatives. But I also know very well the strength of the will of the spirit of sacrifice that characterizes the lives of those who live thousands of miles away from their homeland.”

Mr. Capozza added, “We want today to be the coronation of a very long friendship that has been living since 1880 when the first people of Morra came to the American coast in hope of a better life.”

It was truly a day of celebration, and those in attendance were in high spirits.

“This is a very important moment for us,” said Bea Crumbine, the town’s ambassador-at-large, who served as master of ceremonies for the event. “We are celebrating the arrival of Italian immigrants in the 1880s from these two towns to our town and the new lives they established with their families as they created beautiful homes, churches, stone walls, stunning gardens, and elaborate iron works. We are thanking our Greenwich Italian families for their strength, their sacrifice, their courage, and their family bonds. They have clearly changed Greenwich immensely.”

The event wasn’t just about good diplomatic relations, however. It was also to launch a new exhibit at the Greenwich Historical Society. From Italy to America — Greenwich Stories details the many Italian families who came to the United States and settled in areas like Chickahominy and Cos Cob and ended up becoming vital parts of the community. The exhibit, which also features photographs from the famed Anthony Riccio that were part of a bigger exhibit at Fairfield University, is now open, and a special reception was held at the Bush-Holley House last Friday to mark it.

The exhibit is a very personal one for many families in town, as precious photographs of baptisms and family gatherings as well as vital documents showing the steps of their immigrant ancestors are now on display. Additionally there are personal narratives and videos of local people talking about their families’ journeys to town, and Ms. Crumbine says those personal touches make the exhibit more than just dry facts. She said people talk about adapting children to a new country and a new culture, the crossing itself from Italy that their families made under difficult circumstances, and even family recipes.

“All of the pieces make a very beautiful whole,” Ms. Crumbine said.

The event at Town Hall was highlighted by several exchanges of documents between Greenwich and the two Italian cities to formalize the sister city relationship, and there was also an exchange of flags. A huge crowd was on hand to see it, too, with all the chairs filled and the standing-room-only attendees extending out into the hallway. In addition to Mr. Tesei, Selectman David Theis, state Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36th District) and state Reps. Stephen Walko (R-150th District) and Fred Camillo (R-151st District) were on hand, as were U.S. Congressman Jim Himes (D-4th District), a Cos Cob resident, and Natalia Quintavale, consul general of Italy.

“The history of Greenwich is strictly linked to these two villages,” Ms. Quintavale said. “I think only this way can the real origins of the town be celebrated.”

The project was a labor of love for the Greenwich Historical Society and particularly for Ms. Crumbine, who told the Post that this was the result of more than a year of hard work by those involved, especially Ennio DeVita, whom she singled out as her right-hand man. The packed room was seen as a validation of that effort.

“It’s absolutely thrilling to have a response like this,” Ms. Crumbine said in an interview before the ceremony. “It’s amazing to see all of this come to fruition and be able to witness the joy in these families’ faces. They’ve all spoken to the videographer or the archivist at the Historical Society. They’ve shared very touching personal stories, and it’s a lovely thing.”

Ms. Crumbine said the real joy of the work that went into the exhibit was hearing the individual family stories and examining old documents, some as vital as tickets from Naples, Italy, to Ellis Island in New York City. She said the experiences of these families and what it told about the immigrant experience in America was not only fascinating but also inspiring.

“These families not only faced settling in and starting a new life but they then faced the pandemic of 1917, they faced the Depression, and through it all they established community bonds that allowed them to make the adjustments necessary and help each other,” Ms. Crumbine said. “I get utter joy out of being able to share these stories. I love these people. I love Italy. I love the language. I love the culture and the music. And it’s so very important for the town of Greenwich to recognize how much Greenwich has changed because of these Italian families.”

The biggest challenge with putting the exhibition together, according to Ms. Crumbine, was that there was no clear direction it was going in. Typically when an exhibition is put together, what it will tell and how it will tell it is clearly defined. But this time there was no knowledge going in of how many families would come forth and what they would tell. Ms. Crumbine said the exhibit is as strong as it is because the families were “so enthusiastic and so caring and so proud.”

“They were the magic that made all of this happen,” Ms. Crumbine said.

On Sunday, March 10, from noon until 4 there will be chances for people to tour the Bush-Holley House and view the exhibit while also learning how to make homemade pasta. Ms. Crumbine will be on hand as well to treat children to the famous Italian tale Strega Nona, meaning The Grandmother Witch.

The exhibit is scheduled to run until June 30.

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