/A Thorny Family Tree Emerges in Basilicata

A Thorny Family Tree Emerges in Basilicata

Approaching Spinosa from the east.

The story of uncovering our roots begins in 1996 at my maternal grandparent’s 50th anniversary party in Princeton, NJ. Though they had already retired to Jacksonville, my grandfather threw my grandmother a surprise party up north because it was closer to most of their family and friends, who were based in and around their native New York. Around 75 guests gathered in a hotel ballroom for the festivities. My grandmother was convinced she was attending a neighbor’s wedding, an early sign of the Alzheimer’s that would cripple her over the next sixteen years, ultimately causing her death in January.

Spinosa’s thorny countryside.

During the anniversary weekend, grandma’s second cousin Tony wrote some of the family history on hotel stationary. His writings stayed in a drawer for years until I proposed to my mom last month that we go search for grandma’s family. Tony’s text named our ancestral town as Spinosa, though it was actually Spinoso, a small village in Basilicata so called because of the abundance of spine (thorns) that typified the area’s flora during the middle ages.

The trip was meant to be therapeutic and we didn’t expect to find much of anything. We had some birth, baptismal, and marriage certificates for grandma’s parents and grandparents, but they were frought with inconsistencies and misspellings and there was little precise info on our Spinoso ancestors in Tony’s writings.

After trancing the Padula line back to 1800 we were joyous.

Nevertheless, two trips to the Spinoso city hall were incredibly fruitful. The office’s two employees, Vincenza Maggi and Andrea Iannibelli, were generous and patient with us and helped us trace our roots back to my great great great great great grandfather Francescantonio Padula, a shepherd born around 1800.

We were extraodinarily lucky because 3 of my grandmother’s four grandparents were all born in Spinoso in 1883. Their births had been registered, as had the marriages and births of their parents, so we were able to look at the hand written documents, which were all kept in fraying leather bound volumes in the Spinoso city hall. With Vincenza and Andrea’s help, we pieced together a wonderful, if partial, story of my grandmother’s family.

Vincenza and Andrea locate Domenico Padula’s birth certificate from 1843.

My grandmother Theresa Spisany was born in Harlem in 1927 to Francesco “Frank” Spisany and Josephine De Louise. Both were born in the States around 1902. Josephine’s father was Francesco De Luise (which morphed into De Louise after immigrating) and her mother was Teresa Racioppi. That’s all we came up with on that branch. The paternal side of grandma’s family tree is much more complete.

The mailbox on the house where the Spisanos lived until 1887.

My grandma’s father’s parents were Biase Spisano and Gaetana Padula, step brother and sister according to cousin Tony. Biase called himself Biaggio, Will and William. He was a chauffeur, spoke with a British accent to impress his clients and put a shotgun in his mouth and “accidentally” shot himself in 1950 in the family brownstone in the Bronx. We tracked down where he was born 67 years earlier, a tiny house on Gradelle Ecce Homo, a narrow alley behind Spinoso’s main church. The mailbox bears the name Michele Lotesto. Perhaps this is sheer coincidence but Biase’s mother was a Lotesto.

My great great grandma Gaetana “Catherine” Padula’s birth record from 1883.

How Biase became Gaetana’s stepbrother is a mystery we will have to unravel at the NYC vital statistics. Perhaps her widowed mother married his widowed father in New York? What we do know is that Gaetana was born on Via Calatafimi (no house number given) to Beatrice Caltieri, mother of at least six children, the last of which was born six months after she was widowed. Tony tells us that she immigrated to the States with three of her children (including Tony’s father Michele, a 9-year-old shepherd). We don’t know how she supported the family in the eight years that separated the death of her husband and immigration, but Tony says his father would get one small loaf of bread a week as payment for tending a flock and he would save half to give to his mother.

The view from Via Calatafimi, where many Padulas lived and died.

Gaetana’s father Domenico died in the house of her birth in 1890 at the age of 46. His father Maurizio Padula was a shepherd and so was his grandfather, Francescantonio, who may have the best name ever. That’s as far back as the records go and, considering Francescantonio would have been born around 1800, that’s not too shabby. Clearly more work remains to be done and filling up grandma’s family tree will take some time, but I think we are off to a respectable start.

The family tree so far…

2017-02-17T15:19:21+00:00 March 23rd, 2012|Categories: Basilicata, Culture, Mamma Parla, Travel|20 Comments


  1. Jake March 23, 2012 at 5:27 am - Reply

    Very cool. You are fortunate they were welcoming in the town. You might be able to go back further if you can get access to the Baptismal records in the town church.

  2. pete March 23, 2012 at 11:38 am - Reply

    Wow, great start! You’ve found out quite a lot! I find these stories fascinating. It’s amazing to hear people’s lives and how far they have traveled.

  3. Janet Tedesco March 23, 2012 at 5:05 pm - Reply

    I’d like to be added to the mailing list. Thank you.

  4. Mitch W. March 23, 2012 at 3:53 pm - Reply

    So cool, Katie. Must have been a great emotional time for you and momma P.

  5. janie March 23, 2012 at 4:49 pm - Reply

    Great job-you’ve inspired me to go back and find out more about my family.

  6. Sarah May March 24, 2012 at 5:26 pm - Reply

    This is such an incredible story! Thanks for posting.

  7. J. Van Zandt March 25, 2012 at 5:04 pm - Reply

    It is quite startling to realize how little we know about our ancestors; your work has created a need in me to start the search!

  8. Arlene Gibbs March 25, 2012 at 5:07 pm - Reply

    So exciting! It must have been quite the experience to look at those old books and see your family’s name.

  9. s March 29, 2012 at 10:52 pm - Reply

    how fascinating, Katie. i wish you all the best on this journey- which is for something so close to your heart. i love the fam portrait- you look pretty! x s

  10. Betty Tommaselli Glaser June 18, 2012 at 9:22 pm - Reply

    I thank you for your efforts on finding your roots and yes I also find that differences in spelling, dates, etc. make finding information very tough.
    Although I think we are not related my grandmother was born in Benevento and her name was Brigida De Luise (born about 1885 and died in New Haven, CT 1922 at age 37). She married my grandfather Luciano Tommaselli in New Haven in 1907. She had a brother Biase who she called Biaggio as well as a brother Guiseppe and a brother Michele.

    Small world for sure. Wish you the best in furthering your search,

  11. Vivian and William Spisany July 8, 2012 at 6:28 pm - Reply

    I just happened to stumble upon this when I googled my husbands name, “William Spisany”. Wow! Bill is the son of Rose Suozzi (Spisany) and John Spisany. I believe Biaggio was John and Thomas’ father. They lived on 227th street in the Bronx. My husband, Bill, is now 79 years old and struggles sometimes remembering all his relatives but we would love to reconnect and see if we could help get this all down on paper.

    Feel free to email us and we will provide our personal information to you as we now reside in Arizona.

    Much love!

    Vivian and Bill Spisany

  12. […] Mamma Parla and I took a trip to Basilicata, one of our southern Italian ancestral homelands. We traced family roots, visited a desserted city, and checked out Francis Ford Coppola’s newest resort. Check out my […]

  13. Travel Year in Review, 2012 January 4, 2013 at 12:29 am - Reply

    […] mom to memorialize my recently deceased grandmother. We spent a week in her ancestral homeland and found our roots in Spinoso. A day trip took us to Craco, a haunting deserted city deep in the […]

  14. Gill July 26, 2013 at 11:45 pm - Reply

    I found this whilst searching images of Spinoso, very interesting. My husband is from Spinoso (we live in Melbourne, Australia) We are going back to Spinoso soon – I will be doing some research on my husband’s family origins after reading of your success

  15. Dani August 9, 2014 at 6:37 am - Reply

    That’s great! We are Padula’s too, paternal side from Basilicata

  16. Rose June 10, 2015 at 7:51 pm - Reply

    Plan on visiting Spinoso Sept. 2015, but not fluent in italian. Did the staff at city hall speak english?

    • Katie June 10, 2015 at 7:58 pm - Reply

      no i dont think they speak english. but have a fabulous time!!

  17. Rose June 11, 2015 at 4:48 am - Reply

    Thank you!

  18. Michael Sciarillo February 3, 2017 at 8:02 pm - Reply

    Sorry to hear about your Grans passing, Terry was a wonderful women say hi to your mom Joann
    great work on the research, My maternal grandfather was Anthony Padula born in Spinoso
    Cousin Michael

    • Katie Parla February 14, 2017 at 3:30 pm - Reply

      hey cousin Michael, have you been to Spinoso?

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