Sometimes you run across a document that not only fills in dates and names, but also is a snapshot into a person’s life at a specific moment. The Passport Application of my great-great aunt, Francesca Sancetta, is a perfect example of such a document.
Francesca was born in the New York in 1892. When her mother, Rosa, died in 1905, her father made the decision to travel back to Sicily. I knew through family stories that his oldest child, John, traveled back with him, and I suspected more of the six children went as well. Two of them, my g-grandmother, Jennie, and her married sister, Mary, did not return to Sicily (and that’s why I’m here today!). It was a mystery to me what happened to the other children from the years between about 1905 to the 1930s. Did they go back to Sicily and then return to the States? Or did they stay here? It just wasn’t clear. Especially because ship logs going from the U.S. back to the “old country” are so scarce!
Because I already knew that three of the remaining four mystery children, Jim, Tom and Francesca, were in MN or NY in the 1930s, I started searching for clues online for the missing years. For years I searched for the family in Sicily with no luck. Then one day that little “hint” leaf appeared next to Francesca’s name on Ancestry.com. While sometimes these hints amount to nothing, when I clicked on the link, I discovered it was Francesca Sancetta’s application for a U.S. Passport…from Salaparuta, Sicily in 1920! I started jumping up and down and had to chill myself out before I could read the document. Finally had something to work with!
This document is a gold mine of information about what happened to Francesca and her family. First, she states that her father Joseph Sancetta lived in the U.S. for 16 years, from 1890 to 1906. She states that she left the U.S. in April of 1906 and lives in Salaparuta “temporarily” with her parents. She affirms that was born in the U.S. in 1892 and she is a U.S. Citizen.
The reason she gave as to why she resides in Salaparuta, she stated, “My oldest brother was in the Italian Army and due to the fact that he remained in the Army for ten years it was impossible for me to return to the U.S. unaccompanied. So I remained in Italy waiting for my brother.” She goes on to state that she maintained ties with a sister and uncle in the U.S. Then on the “Opinion of Officer Taking Affidavit” section of the application, the officer wrote, “…she was brought to Italy by her parents. She adds that domestic troubles arose in her family and that the parents have no intention of going to the United States…”
With this one document I learned so much, and now have so many more questions!
1. Francesca states she is waiting for her “oldest” brother. An assumption can be made that this would be John. Jim and Tom were younger, but where were they in 1920?
2. Francesca states that she is living with her “parents”. We know that Rosa is dead, so is there a new step-mother?
3. If there is a new step-mother, did Joseph marry here in America or Sicily? Are there half-siblings to discover yet?
4. What were the “domestic troubles” that were causing a rift in her family?
5. The oldest brother (most likely John) had to serve in the Italian Army from 1909 – 1919, the years covering WWI. Are there records of his service somewhere?
6. We know her older sister and younger sister were already in the U.S. Who is the “uncle” she mentions?
7. Is Salaparuta the original point of origin for the family in 1890?
8. If Francesca returned, did John come with her and stay in the U.S.? What happened to John?
9. It seems that Joseph is still alive in 1902. What happens to him after this?
10. Looking at this from a 21st Century point of view, Francesca would have been about 28 years old when she applied for this passport. What social norms were in place that a grown woman could not travel unaccompanied in 1920?
These are the next questions I hope to answer. The road won’t be easy though. Salaparuta was destroyed in 1968 by the Belice Earthquake and the entire town moved to a nearby location. (see http://www.protezionecivile.gov.it/jcms/en/terremoto_belice.wp;jsessionid=4AA7C520FCB8B341AA29DE85BE270976) I haven’t yet tried to get in touch with anyone there, but I’m hoping that some parish records survived, and perhaps city records as well. The good news is the name Sancetta does not seem to be very common, so hopefully I’ll have some luck doing research.
For those of you who lost track, rest assured Francesca did make it back to the U.S. at some point, where she lived in Minnesota until her death in 1989 (she was 97!). I doubt Francesca would even guess that someday her g-g-niece would be fascinated by the story she told the consulate officer in Palermo on that September day in 1920. I’d like to think that by doing this research, I honor her unique experience and thank her for being so honest in her passport application all those years ago.
One more mystery remains from Francesca’s life, one that someday I’ll tell if I can get some facts straight. Apparently the sons of Francesca and her husband, Peter DiGiovanni, were caught up in a plot to assassinate Benito Mussolini sometime around the years of WWII. There is come confusion as to where Francesca was at this time, here or in Italy again. Somehow the boys or the family made it to Morocco where they were evacuated with the help of another Sicilian family here in MN, the Piazzas. I think Francesca’s life might be worth exploring further!