Non Catholic Italians?
Everyone usually associates the Italian people with Catholicism. Why not, the Vatican is in Italy, most popes have been Italian, some of our greatest saints were Italian and most of us remember our ancestors, whether from Italy or America, as very Catholic. Yet, believe it or not, all Italians are not Catholic, even Italy today is about 90% so.
Therefore, the subject of this month's column are those other 10% who profess religious beliefs other than Roman Catholicism.
To begin with, the Protestant population in Italy both past and present is concentrated in the far Northern regions particularly in and around the Alps. Those regions border Switzerland and France primarily. The religious denomination most notable are the Waldensians, not well known in the United States. They hail from the Alpine Valleys in the region of Piedmont fairly close to the city of Turin, adjacent to the French border and are the largest Protestant group in Italy.
Other Protestant sects can also be found in the same Northern districts. Although small in number, one can identify Methodists, Seventh-Day Adventists and Baptists. In more recent times, the Evangelicals have sprung up. These groups hail from the Lombardy region adjacent to Switzerland.
The access to these records is virtually no different than researching the archives of the Catholic parishes. These Protestant ledgers revert back well into history, as far back as the 1600's. Therefore, the non Catholic genealogist will find a virtual goldmine of information spanning several centuries. Many of these sources have been already microfilmed by the Mormon Church. The records of the Waldensians are written in French, a new adventure for Italian genealogists who have those non Catholic ancestors.
The second group of non Catholic Italians not only aren't Protestant, they aren't even Christian; they are Italian Jews. Jews? On my yes! Believe it or not, those of the Jewish faith have existed in Italy since Roman Empire times. It is believed that the Jews who lived in Italy were the first in all of Europe. Rome itself housed the very first Jews not only in Italy but in the entire European Continent. Most Jews then, as now, reside in major cities. Their attraction was the marketplace for their various business and wares. Although past their peak population, a small number still inhabit a few of Italy's major cities, particularly Rome.
When tracing Italian Jewish ancestors, keep in mind the 1600's was the period of time when Jews were the most numerous in Italy. That century, of course, is a prime era for Italian genealogists. The researcher will find not only synagogues, but cemeteries as well as museums and cultural centers devoted to the Jewish existence and influence in Italy. Surprisingly many Jewish records have been preserved and exist today. But the catch here is only the local rabbi has access to these records. You cannot browse the ledgers yourself if researching in Italy. You must write him.
However, you also should realize that World War II not only took it's toll on the Jewish population but also their records which were maintained in the synagogues. As a result of the desecration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, many vital Jewish records are gone forever.
The final group of non Catholic Italians of any consequence are the Orthodox, specifically the Greek Orthodox. After examining a map of Europe, it will be clear why Greeks and Italians co mingled. Greece lies just across the sea from Italy. The Eastern coastal area of Italy was the prime dropping off point for emigrating Greeks. The regions of Puglia and Molise, in particular, experienced the majority of Grecian migration. Today, most Greek Italians are so absorbed into the Italian culture, one would find it difficult to distinguish between Greek or Italian heritage. There is one notable exception, that is Sicily. A number of predominantly Greek Orthodox settlements still flourish today in Sicily. The genealogical records of Greek Italian comune's are generally well preserved, some can be traced back to the middle 1500's.
The other Orthodox group besides the Greeks are the Albanians. These neighboring Europeans settled on the west coast of Calabria and the inland area of Basilicas a and also Sicily. Their culture and language differ significantly from the Italians. Even today, these towns exist with a way of life that is Italian, but with a history and culture which is very Albanian.
In summary, although representing a relatively small segment of the Italian population both then and now, be aware of roots which may not necessarily be as Catholic as you may think. You could find your heritage is Protestant, Orthodox or even Jewish. Shalom!
© PIP Chapter 1, 2003 ~ Webmaster: LPRoots@yahoo.com ~ page last updated on Tuesday, April 22, 2003