Thursday, November 15, 2012

An Italian Protestant Town in North Carolina?

In the United States, especialy here in the south, it is not unusual to find Protestant Italians, but most of them converted from Catholicism long after immigrating here. Imagine my surprise when, on a recent trip to Asheville, I pulled off of the road in the Town of Valdese, North Carolina, only to discover a whole town full of Italians descended from Protestants that had imigrated from the Waldensian Valley in the Piedmont region of Italy. The Alpine valley in Italy and the town in North Carolina were both named after the Waldensian (aka Valdensian) Movement, a movement that started in Lyon, France in the late 1170s, as a reform movement within the Catholic Church. Waldenesians advocated a return to the vows of poverty and preaching of the Gospel.

In 1184, the Catholic Church officially declared the movement heretical, and the Waldensians were persecuted by armies from both the governments of Italy and France and by officials of the Catholic Church. Because of this Waldensians fled to various parts of Europe, including Italy, putting down particularly deep roots in the Piedmont region of Italy in a Valley of the Cottian Alps that has come to be known as the Waldensian Valley, where they remained secluded until they received some degree of religious freedom with the Edict of 1848.

With the new-found tolerance their numbers grew, and in the late 19th century many Waldensian migrated to the United States settling in New York City, Chicago, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and here in  North Carolina.  The group of Waldensians that immigrated to North Carolina crossed the Atlantic on the SS Zaandam, a ship of the Holland-America Line, and arrived in Burke County via train on the Salisbury-Asheville line of the Richmond & Danville Railroad on May 29, 1893. Eleven families formed the first group. They were led by the Reverend Charles Albert Tron, who came to help them launch their enterprise, and to return to Italy once the community was established.

The immigrants founded the Valdese Corporation with a charter granted by the State of North Carolina and purchased about ten thousand acres of land near the Catawba River in eastern Burke County  from the Morganton Land Improvement Company. On June, 18th additional settlers arrived from Utah, and on August 23rd, six families of 14 persons came from Italy aboard the SS La Bretagne, and on November 23rd, 52 families totaling 161 persons, crossed the Atlantic from Italy on the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II, and joined the original group. Their settlement, the Valdese settlement, became the largest Waldensian settlement in the world located outside of Italy, and the town of Valdese North Carolina grew up in the midst of it.

A Protestant movement begun in France in the middle ages that led to a settlement in North Carolina, might be unexpected, it might even seem strange, but whatever else it is, it's Italian!