TALLMADGE – A journey to Irsina, Italy in November of 2018 was the trip of a lifetime for Fire Chief Mike Passarelli who carried a manuscript detailing the emigration of his grandfather, Michael I. Passarelli, in 1913 to the United States.
"My grandfather wrote a book," Mike said. "It was never published. It talks about his time growing up in Irsina, migrating to the United States, being processed through Ellis Island and living with his Uncle Carmine Passarelli."
Some families know nothing about their ancestors except the country they left and the year they arrived in the United States, but the Passarelli family had a 300-page manuscript detailing the journey from Irsina, Italy to the United States.
"It's a very good accounting of where he got his starts," Mike said. "I took the book with me so I could visit the same places where he was born and lived."
He stood in front of the place where Michael I. lived in a three-room house.
"My great-grandfather, Caesar Passarelli, worked as a vineyard keeper for the Garzone family," he said.
Mike traveled with his wife, Patti, son, David and his wife Linsy, daughter Jennifer and her husband, Justin DaVanna, and their children Gabrial, 14, and Lilly, 4.
"We had lunch with the Garzone family," Mike said. "My great-grandfather was four generations away. It was neat to meet them."
Irsina is in the southeast region of Italy and was a medieval walled city. His grandfather was a bell ringer at the Chapel of St. Francis. Today, Irsina is mostly a tourist attraction and agricultural place.
"It hasn't changed a lot," Mike said. "The government in Italy has put a lot of money into keeping that area as it was hundreds of years ago. The nearby city of Matera is where the Passion of Christ was filmed. That whole region has been preserved as it was."
The city of Irsina sits on a knoll and is surrounded by olive groves, vineyards and wheat fields with stunning sunrises and sunsets, Mike said.
"It's drop dead beautiful," he said.
His grandfather completed the fifth grade, which was the level required, and learned to play the clarinet, Mike said.
"Every village has a patron saint, and he would play at various festivals in a traveling band," Mike said.
By 1913 fascism and communism powers were taking over, and Caesar gave Michael I. the choice of emigrating to Brazil or the United States.
"He didn't want to work on a coffee plantation and opted for the U.S.," Mike said.
Others who had come back told him it was the "land of opportunity," Mike said. It was a "refuge of the oppressed and the pantry of the world."
"He kissed his mother goodbye and with two other teens boarded a ship Aug. 21, 1913 and left for the U.S. and never returned," Mike said. "He was 17 years old."
His grandfather died when Mike was 15 but he remembers him.
"He was an interesting man," Mike said. "The description he wrote of coming through Ellis Island always amazed me. He talked about what it was like to see the Statue of Liberty for the first time and how it made him feel."
Michael I. Passarelli finished high school and college and became a banker for Chase Manhattan and did foreign currency.
"He was a different type of guy," Mike said about his grandfather. "He had a flat sense of humor and he didn't say much."
He was in the banking business during the Great Depression and wrote about what they had to do to keep afloat, Mike said.
"It's an interesting read," Mike said. "The local historian in Irsina wanted to make a copy and reprint it in Italian and add pictures. It was the best accounting of life in Irsina in the early 1900s."
Jennifer made a book of their adventure in Irsina, and Mike said he hopes to publish his grandfather's manuscript in the future.
"It strikes home at what is going on at the border and how we've changed our vision of immigrants," Mike said. "He [Michael I.] made a life and family for himself, and I wouldn't be here as fire chief if he hadn't come here. My destiny is part of what he created back then. I feel very privileged to have found the manuscript. It was my father's and he gave it to me."
Reporter Laura Freeman can be reached at 330-541-9434 or firstname.lastname@example.org