Friday, November 23, 2007

Switzerland to West Marin (Part 8 of 10)

Religion changed more for Swiss who emigrated

By David Rolland

For the Ticinese Swiss, the core of social and cultural life has traditionally been the church. Locarno's Piero Lafranchi, 81, recalled the devotion of his mother, who gave birth to of one of his sisters while in the high Alps where the family summered its cattle.

Just out of labor, his mother put the baby "in one of those basket things they carried on their backs, and brought her down to the village so that she could be baptized," he said.

"That same day she went back up again to the mountain -- the day she had given birth -- all the way down and back up again with the child, about a four-hour journey each way just after giving birth," he said.

Such devotion was not uncommon, and the Italian Swiss carried their beliefs with them when they resettled in West Marin. Over time, however, the traditional faith has in some ways and in some families diminished. Less practiced here

As explained by Lafranchi's nephew, rancher Willie LaFranchi of Nicasio, "The church has always been the center of everything, [but in West Marin] some Swiss families went to church, and some didn't go to church."

As for his own family, "My parents were pretty strict churchgoers, especially my dad. He was from over there."

Indeed, Willie Lafranchi's aunt Virginia (another of Piero Lafranchi's sisters), immigrated to the state of Washington and returned to Ticino only once -- to pray to the Virgin Mary.

"Her son was in the war in Japan," Piero Lafranchi explained. "Of the group of soldiers he was with, he was the only survivor of a bomb. All his companions were killed.

"When he came back alive, his mother made a promise to Madonna del Sasso [Our Lady of the Rock] that she would come back here and go up to the sanctuary in person to give thanks."

Comfort for the afflicted

Such faith, Piero Lafranchi said, was rooted in poverty; the Church offered consolation and guidance to the impoverished villagers.

Piero's nephew Luciano, who with his uncle spoke to The Light at a cafe alongside Lake Maggiore, noted that to the minds of villagers, it was the Madonna who saved them each time someone misstepped and fell in the mountains while herding cattle, which happened frequently.

These days, the village of Maggia (population 750) has two Catholic churches. In one, two walls are covered with pictures depicting the Madonna saving Ticinese from all manner of catastrophes. They were all painted by Antonio Vanoni of nearby Aurigeno.

Monuments to Madonna

In addition, religious monuments mark spots in villages and on mountainsides where the Madonna spared various lives.

"It is superstition to think that this one didn't die because the Madonna interfered, no?" asked Luciano Lafranchi.

But, he said, for his father and grandfather's generations, "you must not forget that what we now call now superstition was for them religious faith, and it helped them to live and accept these conditions.

"What the priest would say was accepted. It wasn't questioned. Religion was accepted without criticism. The priest was the most important person in the village."

Even today, Catholicism is generally stronger among the Swiss in Ticino than among their relatives in West Marin, for the departure from the Old World was not only geographical but also cultural and religious.

Pressure to conform

For some, Catholic dogma felt oppressive, and provided additional incentive to leave Ticino. In Maggia, "you were blackballed if you didn't stay in line," noted rancher Harold Genazzi of Point Reyes Station.

Swiss families who emigrated to West Marin generally consider themselves Catholics, but nowadays worship seems somewhat less obligatory. Church attendance among the Swiss descendants is down, matching the trend in the general population.

"We've always been Catholics," said Hicks Valley rancher Bill Barboni. "We received communion and everything when we were young." But, he said, the rigors of running a dairy ranch made regular church attendance difficult.

These days, however, despite the declining numbers at Mass, Barboni said he's getting to church more often, with the encouragement of his wife Rosemarie. Swiss picnics

Religion, of course, was just one tradition Swiss carried across the Atlantic more or less intact. Another was the Swiss picnic, for years a much anticipated annual respite from the relentless, back-breaking work of dairy ranching.

Late historian Jack Mason, in his book Earthquake Bay, writes of one such celebration in Tomales in 1889, a commemoration of the 582nd anniversary of Swiss independence.

At that event, patriotic banners and bunting festooned the streets. A wagon bearing a portrait of Swiss hero William Tell went through town "behind a band playing Swiss airs," Mason writes. "Aboard the wagon were representatives of each of the 22 cantons [there are 28 cantons now] in the old Republic...

"CF Cavalli, editor of the only Swiss newspaper on the Coast printed in the Italian language, gave an oration in Italian." More songs and speeches followed, with festivities building to "Mme. Martinoni's closing of the Star Spangled Banner."

Picnics in other towns

Although not always so extravagant, Swiss picnics continued as a tradition through the first half of this century. Willie Lafranchi and Peter Dolcini of Hicks Valley both recall attending the annual Swiss picnics at California Park in San Rafael during their youth.

"That was the big event of the year," Lafranchi said, "to go to the Swiss picnic. We never missed that. [The Ticinese] were so anxious to see their old friends."

Added Dolcini: "Each of the families would come, and you'd congregate with your own clan or with your friends. There was no yodeling or anything like that, but we would whoop it up. They had bands, lots of singing -- no shortage of wine."

Swiss clubs waning

Although a few Swiss clubs still hold social functions around the state, they are not nearly as well attended as they once were, in part because immigrant families have become "diluted" with other nationalities, Dolcini said.

Aside from the picnics, other forms of recreation for Ticinese immigrants included one distinctly American pastime -- baseball -- as well as regular Saturday night dances.

During the 1930s and 40s, semi-pro baseball teams from San Francisco and elsewhere would come to play at Nicasio Square. "It was big before the war," Lafranchi said, "and then after the war it started up again for a while."

Rodoni baseball tradition

Although baseball was a new sport for the Swiss, there were soon Blooms (formerly Fioris), Righettis, and Rodonis on local teams. Among the Rodonis were current Point Reyes Station residents Fred Rodoni Sr. and his brother Julius.

"Fred...was a good baseball player," recalled Lafranchi, "and Julius too." In fact, Rodoni Sr., 77, is still going at it; the Point Reyes Station insurance salesman is the starting pitcher for his team in the West Marin Softball League.

Bars and dances

There were saloons, of course. "At one time, I think, there were four bars in Nicasio," Lafranchi said, adding that there used to be 26 dairy ranches in Nicasio Valley, compared to three today.

But it was the weekend dances that young Swiss looked forward to most. Indeed, many of them met their future spouses on the dance floor. "The Saturday night dance was held over there in Nicasio," Peter Dolcini said. "You'd pick your wife or your husband within the territory because you all socialized together."

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