MONONGAHELA – The men living in a small town in the northern mountains of Italy were quickly losing their jobs by 1880 in water-powered trades that were becoming obsolete due to the Industrial Revolution.
The opportunities in the United States seemed endless then, and they drew many residents of Ono San Pietro to this country during the great Italian immigration period of the late 1800s. But these families also faced language barriers and racism in their new homeland, issues that helped to draw a great many of them to the Monongahela area, said Terry Necciai, a former city resident who works as a preservation architect in Philadelphia.
“Their industry bottomed out. My theory is their dialect was so difficult to understand that they needed to settle around each other to communicate,” said Necciai, who has been involved in plans to host nearly 50 residents of Ono San Pietro when they visit Monongahela in August under an informal “sister cities” partnership.
“They even decided to bring the town band,” Necciai said.
The town in the Italian province of Brescia is home today to about 920 people. It’s situated in a river valley similar to the Monongahela River valley, he said.
Necciai said these immigrants spoke a dialect so unique that Italians from other regions had difficulty understanding them when they spoke.
He also suspects they were drawn to work in the coal and railroad industries in the Monongahela area because they were not welcome in Pittsburgh.
“They ended up in disproportionate numbers in the mining towns,” Necciai said. “They didn’t intend to stay trapped by the coal mines.”
President Abraham Lincoln, however, encouraged Italians to relocate to the United States during the Civil War because he knew Italy was home to “some of the most-famous battle units” and its soldiers had the ability to climb hills, Necciai said.
The modern relationship between the two towns was initiated several decades ago by John Moreschi while he was mayor of Monongahela. Many of the Ono San Pietro family names, such as Vaira, are still recognized in Monongahela.
“They are related (today) to half of the people in Monongahela,” Necciai said.
Some of the visitors want to see where their ancestors are buried in Monongahela Cemetery, said Connie Vaira Russell, an organizer of the events that will coincide with the meeting of the two towns.
“It’s a great beginning for the two sets of people,” Russell said. “This is not just for Italians, this is something for the city of Monongahela to be proud about.”
The programs for Aug. 22, 23 and 24 will include a reception, dinner, ceremonial exchange of keys to each of the towns, social at Ripepi Winery and tour of Monongahela Area Historical Society, and a Roman Catholic Mass in Monongahela.
Historical Society President Susan Bowers said she grew up never having known much about her ancestors, only that her grandfather, Francesco Corbelli, was from a town not far from Ono San Pietro.
“I’m hoping someone over there knows or remembers them,” Bowers said. “It’s like a closure, a connection with where you came from.”
Monongahela Mayor Bob Kepics said the visit will mean a lot to his small city, which was home to 4,300 people during the 2010 census.
“We’re connecting people with their ancestors,” Kepics said.