Tracing Our Italian Roots

Joseph DiTrapani, Sons of Italy Foundation® President

Joseph DiTrapani, Sons of Italy Foundation® President

All Joseph DiTrapani knew about his family was that they came from Palermo so it was a challenge for the genealogical firm, My Italian Family to research the lineage of this former OSIA president and current president of the Sons of Italy Foundation®. In big Italian cities like Palermo, researchers must contend with a byzantine and illogical bureaucracy. Fortunately, our team knows some tricks.


Our researcher begins in Palermo’s town hall in Piazza Pretoria, a square graced by the intricate Fountain of Shame (Fontana della Vergogna). These beautiful buildings house the municipal archives that could have records about the DiTrapani family.

Working through the protocols and hierarchy of Palermo requires luck and know-how from our researcher. To begin, he builds rapport with a low-level clerk in the archives—a grunt worker who might break a rule or two.

After friendly banter, the clerk grants complete access to the archives. The registers begin in 1866 and are still in their original, handwritten ledgers with crumbling covers and dusty pages. Our researcher carefully selects volumes from the industrial metal shelving units that hold them.

The clerk interrupts. Procedure prohibits our man from photographing the pages. Instead, he must leave a detailed list of the documents. We rely on the clerk to photocopy the pages and mail us the documents. For Palermo, this round of research went quite smoothly.

Next, our researcher moves on to Palermo’s state archives to learn about DiTrapani’s family before 1866. The archives are a beautiful building that began as a 15th century farmhouse for visiting Franciscan friars. It also was used as a church before being converted to a government building. Procedural red tape limits the number of registers one person can browse daily. Knowing this, our researcher brings along a friend to access twice as many records.

Our researchers get caught photographing the DiTrapani family entries. No photos can be taken without permission of the archives director who summons our two men to his office. It is full of dark wood, leather furniture, oriental rugs and antique silverware. After small talk, the director agrees to have his staff photograph the documents and mail the copies — for a fee. Another list, another wait for mailed photocopies. No matter; these records will take us back a few more generations in DiTrapani’s roots.

Palermo Town Hall

Palermo Town Hall


Finally, the research bears fruit as the promised documents arrive. We learn from the last name that an ancestor came from the Sicilian town of Trapani, but this family has been in Palermo since at least 1700 when Francesco Di Trapani was born. Settling in Via Resuttana, a neighborhood of northwest Palermo, the family scarcely moved until many immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s.

When Salvatore came over in 1913, he listed his occupation as baker or fornaio, the same occupation as Filippo Di Trapani, born more than 120 years earlier in 1791! Though the aftermath of World War II greatly changed Palermo’s cityscape, we tracked down still-standing family homes and village squares that DiTrapani’s ancestors probably frequented.

It has taken some elbow grease to gather the information, but it’s worth it when we see the surprise and awe on DiTrapani’s face after we reveal the historical information we’ve found about his roots.

Written by John J. Chinnici of My Italian Family, a genealogical research firm in Pennsylvania.


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2 thoughts on “Tracing Our Italian Roots

  1. Don’t understand the difficulty of finding your roots in Sicily.
    I was able to find my Grandmother’s family still in the town that she came from by sending 100 letters to members in the town with the same surname. Then it was magic, one of my letters was answered with a box of gifts and reissued birth certificates of my grandmother and her siblings. That was followed by an invitation to Sicily to meet my distant cousins and being treated like the son that left 30 years ago and finally returned home.
    When I was taken to the town of my Grandfather, all it took was being extremely nice to the priest and then a request to look at the books that contained the baptismal date of my Grandfather. Then you learn with assistance that a cash gift to the municipal clerk will help in locating and receiving reissued birth certificates of your grandfather and his siblings.
    I was able to trace my Grandfathers family back to the 1750’s and my grandmother’s family back to the late 1780’s.
    When I returned home, I sent a donation to each church in the amount of $500.00 each in memory of my Grandparents.
    It would take much more time and money to find my Grandfathers family because his father only had two sisters and you would have to research 150 years of the two sisters married names and their descendants names.
    There is nothing like Sicily! The people, the beauty, the food, the language, the history and then there is the feeling of walking the cobble stone streets that you ancestors played on as children and attending mass at the church that they were baptized at.
    Although I may never be able to visit Sicily again, my “Will” states that when I die my ashes are to be scattered off of the mountain towns that my Grandparents came from.
    May Sicily continue to be as beautiful and wonderful as it was when I visited and God Bless America for taking in my two Sicilian families in the early 1900’s.

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