Research into family history reveals legacy of faith

A note from the writer: Looking back on the Church’s history, many of the parishioners here in the Diocese of Greensburg are descendants of immigrants whose homelands were scattered all over the world. Recently, our family discovered that our patriarch, Florino Scalzitti, immigrated to the United States from Italy and died in the Spanish Flu pandemic more than 100 years ago. Five generations later, his great-great-grandchildren are emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic — the deadliest disease in American history. Uncovering that family history has been like digging for treasure.


The theme of Vacation Bible School at Immaculate Conception Parish in Irwin this summer was “Digging for Treasure.” The faith formation staff and volunteers used parables to help students unlock the Bible’s teachings.

“The stories that Jesus tells have a meaning. Each has a lesson in it,” Susan Cheplic, Director of Faith Formation, told the children.

“Just as Jesus taught with parables in the ways the people of the time would understand, we can look at the parables again today as instructions for us and ways we can apply Jesus’ teaching to our lives,” added Tyler Randolph, Director of Music Ministry.

In the crowd of nearly 150 students were my own two children, Francesca, 9, and Vivienne, 8. They recently began digging for their own treasure, uncovering family stories from more than 100 years ago and discovering that they are fifth-generation parishioners at Immaculate Conception Parish.

The COVID-19 pandemic gave us some together time at home, which we used to research our family history. We knew that our family patriarch, Florino Scalzitti, immigrated from Italy in the early 1890s, married his wife, Carolina, fathered 11 children, and owned both a coal mine and general store in Yukon, Westmoreland County. But an internet search led us to something totally unexpected: Florino’s grave was located in our own parish cemetery.

With the help of parish staff, we uncovered their marriage record dated Dec. 10, 1899. They went on to have 11 children, including my grandfather, Art. According to parish records, at least three of his siblings were baptized at Immaculate Conception Parish.

With the discovery of these records, we began digging for additional treasure, hoping to find out even more about our family history.

“They were all born in Montenero Val Cocchiara, which is Molise, Italy. That’s about an hour and a half from Naples by car,” said Loretta Scalzitti, our family historian, who traced our heritage back to the 1700s.

Florino was born in 1873 and arrived in the United States at just 15 years old.

We also discovered that Florino died of Spanish Flu at age 45, 100 years before COVID-19 changed the lives of his great-great-grandchildren.

The Spanish Flu pandemic ripped through Western Pennsylvania. Many churches closed to prevent the spread. According to newspaper articles, countless temporary hospitals were set up across the region. Churches, borough buildings and fraternal halls housed emergency wards. And according to experts, the virus was most devastating to people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, taking the lives of many just two to three days after symptoms appeared.

In 1918, isolation and quarantine were the only defense against the spread of the virus. We learned that Florino had to miss the birth of his youngest child because he was infected with the Spanish Flu. Carolina named the child Florino after his father. But sadly, the two would never meet. Florino Sr. died when his new baby was just 5 days old.

Carolina was left alone to raise 11 children. She eventually remarried but died just seven years later. Older siblings raised younger siblings and kept them close to the Church during decades of hardship and struggle. Time went on, and the family tree grew too large to stay close-knit.

But the Catholic faith continued to be passed down through the generations, who have since lived through their own pandemic. Two years after the onset of COVID-19, Francesca and Vivienne were finally able to gather for worship at Vacation Bible School. They are part of the young church, who now dig for treasure in the lessons of the Bible. Our job is to help them find what they seek.


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