Un Miracolo Di Natale – a Reader’s Story

Auguri di Boun Natale!

December 15th the best Christmas present this blogger could ever want came from Kristen Ross.  Kristen posted a comment asking for help finding out more about her friend Nancy’s family.  I e-mailed her, then she e-mailed me and soon we were chatting on the phone like old chums.  The surnames in her pal’s family can also be found in my family! Rinaldi, Fusco, Mancini – wow – my bis-nonna was Mariantonia Rinaldi who had a brother Francesco.  Nancy’s grandmom, Maria Rinaldi, was the daughter of Francesco Rinaldi !  Could this Californian’s family tree intersect with mine?

Those of you who grew up in or live in Pontelandolfo may know the family – if you do please leave a comment on the blog.  Nancy’s dad – Domenic Mancini was born in the Minicariello section of Pontelandolfo.  His dad was Antonio Mancini and mom was Maria Rinaldi.  Antonio’s father is Angelo Mancini and his mother is Catterina Fusco. Maria Rindaldi’s father was Francesco Rinaldi and her mother was Antonia Rinaldi.

This is Kristen’s Story –

Kristen, Domenic & Nancy Mancini

Un Miracolo Di Natale

By Kristen Ross

Domenic Mancini was born on a small farm in Pontelandolfo, Italy. During World War II, nine year old Domenic was the first one in his family to discover that his father, Antonio, was killed in Bardia, East Africa.  His mother’s inability to read meant that this little boy had to personally deliver the devastating news to the family.  As I began to hear more about Domenic’s early childhood, I was deeply affected by the tragedy of it all…images of Domenic being held back by his Mother as the only father he knew left for lands and battles unknown, the longing of a little boy for an absentee father, and the courage he had to support his grief-stricken mother.

To compound the sadness of war, he never knew where his father was buried.  He was told that Antonio was buried somewhere in Africa, but no one had been able to locate any information, and Domenic (now 82) had begun to come to terms with the idea that he might never be able to pay his respects to the father he lost and have closure.

After hearing him tearfully tell this story, I could not imagine what is was like to not know where his dad was after all these years.  I was determined to do some research of my own.  I felt the sense that nothing is impossible and nothing is ever lost, it just hasn’t been discovered.

Having taken only one Italian class, after traveling to Italy several times, I used my broken Italian to make numerous phone calls, emails, and research Italian websites. Having looked at almost two thousand names, a thousand war memorial sites, and spent countless hours of translating Italian handwriting from the 1940’s I was coming up with nothing.  It was like searching for a needle in a haystack, an Italian haystack for that matter.

I needed un miracolo; a miracle.  Every time I find myself helpless, I turn to something higher. I simply prayed for this right intention to manifest itself.  For a father to be reunited with his son, even 72 years later, is still possible.  Having lost my father too, I knew how much this would mean to Domenic to have some sense of unity, closure, full circle ect… I kept ricerca; searching.

Before I went to sleep that miraculous night, I checked one last Italian website.  I typed in the letters of his last name and there he was.  Antonio Mancini had been found.  I started scrolling down to make sure I was actually seeing straight.


 Luogo Sepoltura means Place of Burial. He was back home in Italy. From previous research that I had done, I knew the bodies of the Italian Soldiers who died overseas, were sent back to Italy in December of 1967 and placed in a beautiful memorial museum in Bari, off the coast of the Adriadic Sea. Dominick’s father has been honored there.

I called Nancy, and she quickly made the phone call to Domenic! He was in total shock and was filled with so much joy. He told us that this was the best gift he’d received in his entire life. As his voice teared up on the phone, he told us he would travel back to Italy to see his father. This summer, we will be traveling with him on this beautiful journey to witness this father and son reunion.    

 Unconditional Love is the best gift in the world.  

This is the true meaning of Christmas to me.


  Sample Photo from Location


The Sacrario Militare dei Caduti d’Oltremare (Military Memorial to the Fallen Overseas) was opened on 10 December 1967 on the outskirts of Bari, on the way to Brindisi. The structure houses the remains of more than 70,000 Italians who died in foreign lands. These lands include Greece, Albania, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Germany and the Mediterranean Sea, in the First and Second World Wars.

Nonna Comes to America

Passport 1
Mia nonna coraggiosa e zii.
One woman alone
with three kids in steerage.

Before we can talk about my nonna’s trip to America, I thought we’d take a peak at where she came from. There isn’t much left of il casolare in pietra – the stone cottage my nonna, Mariarosaria Solla left behind. I was going to say hut – stone hut – but it was a tad bigger than that. Imagine a stone one-car garage built when all cars where VW Beetles.  When Rosaria (I never heard the Maria part of her name) left for America, she had been living in a one-room house of stone that dated back to the Middle Ages. Obviously, houses constructed of huge rocks were built to last. This one did until an earthquake took out most of the town.

Following sprightly nonagenarian Filamena as she scampered over rocks, past thistles and up the hill, my stomach gave a twitter. It might have been because I haven’t been able to scamper like a goat since I was ten and here was Filamena sporting the traditional kerchief, dark stockings, long dress and nun’s shoes laughing as she guided us to my nonna’s house. Or it could have been because with every step I took I felt more and more rooted in this community.

We found the house at the top of a hill in the section of Pontelandolfo called Brecciale.  From the remains of the cottage, one can see the village center, tower and church steeple. The view is spectacular! The thought of walking down the hill through the valley and up the hill to the central piazza carrying goods to barter or sell brought tears to my muscles. It was my nonna’s parent’s home – Liberantonio Solla and Mariantonia Rinaldi.  Story has it that my bisnonno, Liberantonio, was a musician! The vein of artists in my family obviously can be traced back to our beginnings. Accepting wages of wine, Liberantonio would play his concertina in the piazza. He’d make it down hill number one, across the small valley and be crawling by the time he was mid-way up hill number two. That’s when my bisnonno would bellow for bisnonna, Mariantonia, to drag him up the hill home. She’d ignore him. Good for her. I come from great stock!

Nonna did what the children of every other poor family did than and still do today, lived with her parents. As I explore the village that sprouted my family and meet cousins I didn’t know I had, I’m meeting families that still have two or three generations living under one roof.

Up a piece from nonna’s house was a patch of rock that the local farmers used to grind wheat. The marks from a heavy stone wheel are permanently imbedded in the rock. An oxen or mule was harnessed to a contraption that smacked on the grain. You can also still see the circular track of decades of animals walking round and round and round and round.

Living on the top of a hill, means to fetch water from the river or the nearest fountain Nonna Rosaria walked down steep paths.  Easy for Jack and Jill to go down the hill – but with buckets full – it is up hill to home.  Even though life was tough, nonna and her children loved living there. I understand now why my nonna’s farmhouse and land in New Jersey looked the way it did. She and my nonno, Francisco Guerrera, tried to remake their little piece of New Jersey into a little piece of Pontelandolfo.

Take a peek at the video of her house today – Nonna’s House

To find out more about my grandmother’s trek across the ocean to America, we took my Zia Caterina to see Ellis Island. She had made that journey with her mother and two brothers.  When we walked into the great hall of the immigrant’s reception center her face turned grim and she started shaking.  Like a soldier suffering Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, residual fear racked her body. It was the same fear she felt when the line watchers at Ellis Island ripped her away from her mother and put her in quarantine.  We passed a door and she shouted, “that’s the room – the room they put the sick ones in.”  “They left us there and no one could speak our kind of Italian and tell me anything.”  “I was scared but looked them in the eye and said sto bene – I’m well.”

Caterina’s Story:

When I was two in Italy I got polio – they didn’t know what to do then – not many got polio.  My mother, put hot rags on me and massaged and massaged my leg and arm.  She said I just cried all the time.  I walked when I was 9 months old – I talked at 12 months.  Then at 2, it was over.  The priest wanted to send me away – he said cripples couldn’t stay. My mother wouldn’t let them take me.  She kept rubbing my legs and rubbing my arms.  She never wanted to come to America. My father came first and worked in the Patterson silk mills.  Mamma was afraid that if we stayed in Pontelandolfo they would take me and put me away with the crazy people.  The priest kept coming to look at me – he’d shake his head. When papa saved enough to rent a place to for us to live in, he sent for us.  The Pontelandolfesi women told my mother to only pack her nicest clothes for America – in America everyone was rich. What nice clothes?  They were contadini – kind of like sharecroppers. (Serfs – I told you I come from good stock.)

Mamma was a fool and listened. She left her good wool skirt, heavy wool shirt and shawls. Beh, those stupid women kept saying only peasants dressed in those.  I think the other women wanted her warm clothes. On the ship it was so cold mamma couldn’t stop shaking.  She didn’t have anything heavy to wear.


She promptly made a warm cape in NJ!

Mamma was shivering and had a fever. She just stayed in the bed – we were all way down in the bottom of the ship – hundreds of us.  My brother Nick, Sal and me – mamma was so sick – we were kids. We didn’t know what to do. They didn’t give us good food only bread. We had a piece of cheese in our bag.  An old man felt sorry for mamma and took care of her.  He got coats from the other men and piled them on her. Somehow she lived.

When we got to Ellis Island because I had polio mamma was scared that they wouldn’t let me in America.  She made me stand between her and Nick in the long line – close so you couldn’t see my little arm and shriveled leg.  Men in white coats walked up and down the line and looked at us – even made some people open their mouths.  A man stopped and took me.  I could hear my mother screaming. They took me away to quarantine and she didn’t understand what was going on.  None of us did. They kept me at Ellis Island for a couple of weeks.  She and papa came every day to ask for me. They told her nothing.   Finally they let me out – I thought I would never get out.  My mother cried that day until there were no more tears inside her.

My nonna, Mariarosaria Solla, overcame her fear and was the rock that my family was built on.  She learned English immediately – I was never spoken to in Italian by anyone – we were Americans.  Also, I was born just as WWII was ending and even though young men like my dad served in the military – Italians had been persecuted in America – many put in interment camps and others sent back.

This woman of the country was now living in an industrialized part of New Jersey.  The long shifts that my grandfather worked at the silk mills meant that she had to learn to be self-sufficient in a new place.  Eventually, my grandfather and Great-uncle John bought a farm together in Neshanic, New Jersey.  Later nonno and nonna bought their own fifteen acres in Flagtown – where I was raised with the sheep, chickens and goats.  Nonna was an incredible farmer – my family continued to be subsistence farmers – just like they had been in Italy.   Nonna and Zia Caterina could grow just about anything.  Those skills came from Pontelandolfo. Yes, nonna did snap a chicken’s neck so we could have a roast and butchered goats, sheep etc.  I only learned how to kill and clean fowl – not sure if I could even do a rabbit.  But hey, life brings new adventures for all of us.  I just hope that I have inherited a piece of her courage for my journey.


15 acres to farm – and just like what I see today in Pontelandolfo – the women are in the fields. Nonno worked for the railroad.