The beginnings of the story lie so far back they have been contested for centuries. High in the beautiful Alpine valleys of northern Italy lives a small group of Christians called Valdese (Waldensians) who have maintained their identity for nearly a millennium, or perhaps longer. Some call them a remnant of the early church as established in Italy by the ancient apostles after the ascension of Christ. Modern scholarship traces their origin to the 12th century, when a young French merchant named Waldo renounced worldly possessions and began to preach the rejection of Roman Catholic traditions and a return to strictly Biblical doctrines and practices. Centuries before the Reformation, these indomitable Christians defied the powers of Rome and were persecuted and tortured for their faith.
Fleeing hostile governments, they took refuge in a series of valleys near Turin, Italy. Even there, they experienced violence and oppression. They preached and worshipped in secret, and were periodically attacked and massacred. At the entrance to the valleys is a towering mountain where the Waldensians often took refuge from marauding armies, and which was the site of one of the most notorious massacres. It is called Castelluzzo, or “little castle.” In a nearby hillside can be found the entrance to a large cavern, impossible to find if you’re not looking for it. Here, at what they called The Cave Church, the Waldensian Christians would gather, lowering themselves into the cavern by ropes. There in the stillness inside, safe from outside persecution, they sang hymns of worship. If you stand outside that cavern as I have done, on a sunny, blue spring morning, you can almost hear the echoes still, rising from the holy darkness of the cavern below and mingling with the songs of birds.
My husband Tony’s great-great-grandmother, Henriette Chatelain, was born in these valleys on a cold February day in 1827. She grew up to become a children’s tutor at the court of the future Kings of Italy in Turin. But when she heard the message of the Mormon missionaries, she traded her life at the Italian court for a life across the sea in rural Utah. As was the custom of the time, Henriette, who was nearly thirty and not yet married when she emigrated, had hand-embroidered a beautiful set of linens in anticipation of her future marriage. She packed them carefully for the journey, happy that she would have a beautiful remembrance from home when she arrived at her destination. But her only shoes wore out as she walked the hard earth of the western United States, and she was forced to tie those delicate linens on her feet one by one, and wear them across the plains to Utah. By the time she reached the Salt Lake Valley, she had nothing left of her embroidery. She must have shed at least a few tears over a loss so personal. But I think that now Henriette would smile to know that her descendants treasure more than an heirloom the precious story of her faith and sacrifice.
Domenico Bodrero, Tony’s great-great-grandfather, was not Waldensian. He was a Catholic from another high mountain valley a few dozen kilometers south of Turin. He ran away from home at the age of twelve to the French port of Marseille. It was there that he and a few friends heard of a street meeting to be held by some preachers of a strange new religion from America. Domenico and his friends showed up at the gathering with rotten vegetables to throw at the Mormons. But as he listened to the message they taught, his heart was touched, and the would-be projectiles fell unheeded from his hands. He was baptized and also crossed the plains to Utah, where in the house of Lorenzo Snow, he met Henriette. Shortly after their marriage, they settled in the Cache Valley in Utah, where they raised six children and spent the rest of their long lives together.
I had never heard of Henriette and Domenico Bodrero when I married my husband, although I knew that his family was of Italian descent and loved good food almost as much as they loved spending time together. And I never imagined that someday those great-great-grandparents would somehow reach forward in time to help us move to Italy. But that’s a story for tomorrow . . .