Five hundred years of history rested silently in the archives of the Catholic Church of Pieve di Controne. Parish registers, standing upright like soldiers on guard, held the records of the families in this quaint mountain village. Stored in a cupboard in the church office, they were waiting for an American woman to marry an Italian-American man and visit his ancestral home in this province of Lucca, Italy. In 1971, she arrived.
Ann Christine Ruth was a student at the University of Buffalo, studying in Spain during the summer of 1971. A friend introduced her to Oz Barsi, who invited them to visit his family home in Pieve di Controne. Of the drive up the steep, narrow, winding mountain roads of central Italy, Ann wrote: “Our car created swirls of dust as it climbed up the slender gravel ribbon of road, with mountain on one side and air on the other. One lane, no guardrails, no shoulders. It got scarier and scarier with each zig and zag.”
Arriving safely at the town square, Oz parked the little Fiat in the piazza and the group walked on a footpath past ancient stone houses built between 1200 and 1700. Shortly, they arrived at Menco, home of the Barsi family for hundreds of years.
“The archway over the front of the house was inscribed with the date 1675 which was when this new’ house was built,” Ann recalled. “There, standing at the door to greet us, were Oz’s two aunts, Nilda and Clarina Barsi. When we walked inside, we left the 20th century behind. There was a kettle in the wood-burning fireplace. Six wooden planks laden with freshly made pasta were stretched between chairs. There was no telephone, no hot water, no furnace, no indoor plumbing, and one light bulb dangling in the middle of the room. I felt like I was back 100 years.” Ann was entranced with the village, the people, and a lifestyle that was suspended in time.
Ann and Oz married and returned to Italy in July 1973 for a four month honeymoon. They traveled throughout Europe but spent most of their time at the family home. As Ann learned Italian, she began to inquire about the Barsi family history, fascinated by the concept that a family could live in the same house for 500 years. She had no idea then, that her interest would evolve into a passion that would span 40 years!
“At that point, I was content to figure out whatever I could from stories that people were saying,” Ann related. “A book about the history of the village had been printed in December 1971 and it listed families in the village back to the 1600’s. I found the Barsi’s-Oz’s father, grandfathers and great-grandfathers.” Ann created charts with information gleaned from both this book and the recollections of Oz’s aunts and family members.
Back in the U.S., Ann realized she was missing vital information on half the family because only male names were listed in the book. For nine years, her charts sat incomplete. It was not until their next trip to Italy, in 1982, that Ann began researching more extensively. Armed with specific questions and conversant in Italian, she asked the parish priest to help her find the names of women who married into the Barsi family. She started with her mother-in-law’s parents and grandparents. “The priest pulled out a register and we looked up the names,” Ann said. “Then I would go back to the 1971 history book and start with another family line. Getting hard data on the females was a big breakthrough.”
When Ann and Oz began to visit Pieve di Controne every two years, Ann’s research efforts intensified. She soon discovered that the traditional genealogical method of beginning with one person and working backwards through generations was neither efficient nor comprehensive when families lived in one area for centuries. “I realized that I couldn’t just research Oz’s family anymore because all the people are related,” Ann explained. “I would read pages of names to find someone in his family, then I would have to go back and re-read those same pages to find the name of another family that married into his.”
This realization resulted in a seismic shift in Ann’s work. At that point, she stopped extracting only the Barsi family names and began to extract every name in the parish records. Starting with the 1700’s and working forward, she built a database of every birth in the Pieve. For hours, she sat in the small parish office, transcribing names one-by-one. With the advent of personal computers, her handwritten charts became spreadsheets. It has taken her 40 years to enter every birth record into the database and sort the names into family units.
In 1988, Ann began to duplicate the books-first as Xerox copies, then photographs, now digital images-which enable her to transcribe the data at home. The records are written in Italian, not Latin, so there is no change of name. Below is a birth record and transcription of the second entry from the bottom, right column:
As different priests were assigned to the parish, Ann met them all. Explaining the scope of her project, she provided each one with the most current index of the names she transcribed. “Since 1973, every priest at the Pieve graciously allowed me access to the church registers to continue my research,” she relates gratefully. “I’ve created a digital version of almost all the registers, so accessing them now will not put a strain on these ancient books.”
Ann’s work began as personal research, but it has evolved into a massive family history project for thousands of people whose roots are in the villages of the Pieve di Controne parish. In an effort to share her findings, Ann made this first post to the Rootsweb message board in June, 2005:
If you happen to have ancestors from the parish of Pieve di Controne, Bagni di Lucca, Toscana, drop me a line. I have been working on the parish records for 30 years and have many family trees constructed from 1600’s on. Surnames: Barsi, Barsotti, Lucchesi, Buonamici, Buonanni, Magnani, Silvestri, Angeli, Brunicardi, Tei, more.…
It did not take long before she began to receive emails from around the world-Australia, England, Spain.
“Whenever I receive an email, the first thing I do is get excited,” Ann relates. “I verify what the person has and determine if the family really is from the Pieve. If they are, then I’m like Santa with a Christmas present -I can give them 10-12 generations of their family history. That’s the real excitement and the joy!”
The joy runs both ways, as revealed in this email from Anthony Silvestri to me:
I just wanted to share with you a few lines about Ann Barsi and how her dedication to Pieve di Controne has changed my life forever. My grandfather was from San Gemignano and came to America in 1933 at the age of 17, bringing with him the art of figuristi di gesso which is making sculptures from gesso or plaster of paris. My grandfather corresponded with people both in Italy and in the United States whom we had never met. I only had their first names and some photos but I was very interested to learn more. I found passenger ship records, immigration and marriage records but my big break came when I entered “Pieve di Controne” in the search bar on Ancestry.com and was directed to a forum. There I found Ann Barsi’s original post and, behold, “Silvestri” was on the list so I responded.
The next day I received an email from Ann asking for additional information to cross check her records. When she said she had information going back 500 years, I knew then I had hit the mother lode: birth registries for my grandfather and great-grandfather dated in the mid-1800’s and a six-generation family tree. Through the Internet, I was able to track down relatives including 25 cousins that I never knew existed. This past summer I was able to meet many of them for the first time, including my cousin, Leo Silvestri, who was celebrating his 90th birthday. He is the last living family member born in Italy and he shared many photos of my family along with some amazing stories about life growing up in Italy and how everything changed with the onset of World War II. I had come to a dead stop in my research, but Ann helped me find my ancestors and reconnect our family! I have so much to be thankful for. This photo is of my first meeting with my cousin, Leo Silvestri.
As a crowning tribute to the families of the Pieve di Controne, Ann has recently published the book, Pieve di Controne, Note Storiche. She has translated into English the original book written in 1971 and included additional historical information, family trees, photos and family pages. All proceeds from the sale of the book are being donated to rebuild the inside steps to the bell tower of the church, which collapsed this past year.
Ann’s tireless dedication to family history is inspiring to everyone who meets her or learns about her work. Her example teaches that anyone can learn to read and translate records in a foreign language. “The good news is if you know the basic order of the records and can read basic words (son, daughter, surnames), then you can read these records,” Ann says with enthusiasm. “The more you read, the more you can do.”
Ann’s next project is to extract and index birth records between 1577 and 1610. With records now transcribed from 1610-1930, Ann can provide up to 500 years of records to anyone with family from the Pieve area. She is anxious to help those with Pieve ancestors and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It is very rewarding to help people make new connections,” Ann says. “There is a difference that people feel about their heritage. Before, they had an awareness of being Italian. Now, their ancestors are not an amorphous Italian shadow. They are real people.”
Carol Kostakos Petranek is a Co-Director of the Washington DC Family History Center and a Citizen Archivist at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.