The pieces all fell into place very quickly over the past five days.
For some time now, my wife Robyn and I have been delving into the history of my family since they emigrated from Sicily. We’ve learned quite a bit over the last year and a half, and even recently gave a presentation on the matter a month ago in front of the Historical Society of Hammonton. Despite everything we’ve learned, though, there was always one man who vexed us:
Domenico Berenato. Our progenitor. The father of those who first came here from the old country.
Very little has been known about Domenico. As far back as 1992, he was identified in materials supplied to a Berenato family reunion by the late Anna Bertino, a woman of some influence in Hammonton (and by “some influence,” I mean that she was so powerful that local lore holds that she managed to score a private audience with Pope John Paul II. That’s some influence!). In it, she mentions his children Andrea, Giuseppe (who was my great-great-grandfather), Antonia, and Maria.
Other family genealogists, notably my cousin Brian — great-grandson of Rose Berenato Giordano (Giuseppe’s daughter) — found information pointing to the existence of two more children, Francesco and Angelo, but very little was known about them, as well.
(A brief note about the aforementioned Maria: but for Anna Bertino’s letter, she appeared nowhere on any other family trees. Robyn and I found mention of a Mrs. Macrie as a sister of Andrea in his obituary, and some digging uncovered Maria (later Mary) as having married a Frank Macrie.)
The Hammonton Berenatos — my direct line, anyway — had lost track of Maria’s existence, and had no idea Francesco and Angelo even existed.
Turns out Francesco was the key to unlocking all of it.
Other family genealogists had Francesco (later known as Frank) in the family tree as one of Domenico’s sons, and a rudimentary list of his children, but no death date or other vital information. My wife, the most thorough researcher I know, used those trees as a springboard, but didn’t consider any information to be gospel until she was able to find supporting evidence to back it up. One by one we went through Frank’s children, reading newspaper articles, looking at census records, and so forth. According to the census, Domenico lived with Frank in Hammonton in 1900 (right after Domenico and Angelo came to the US on the Tartar Queen in 1899), but then Frank moved to Pennsylvania and there was no further trace of his father.
Soon (as in, two days after our presentation), we hit our first clue: we found Frank’s obituary, and with it, where he was interred — Greenwood Memorial Cemetery in Millville, NJ. A quick half-hour jaunt later, and we were standing at the grave of my 2X-great-grandfather’s younger brother. Buried with him are his son Leon Bernat and his wife, Viola. (Nobody knows why Leon, born Orleano, changed his name.)
A few more records searches later, we discovered that Leon and Viola had a daughter — also Viola — and she still lives in the house in which she grew up, also in Millville. We still weren’t quite certain that Francesco was in our branch of the family — if Anna Bertino didn’t know about him, and Anna Bertino knew everything in Hammonton, we were understandably suspect — but Viola the Younger came up as a fourth-cousin DNA match to me on Ancestry.
Robyn wrote Viola a letter. Two days later, Viola called me. We talked for a while. She had no idea she had such relatively close cousins in Hammonton; she knew that her grandfather had family there, but never knew the extent of it. She would make trips with her father into Hammonton when she was a child to pick up supplies for the family barber shop — Frank had a shop on W. Broad Street in Millville, and Leon later ran one out of his house — but she hadn’t been to town in years. We agreed to meet up, and this past Saturday Robyn and I called upon her at her house.
Things started to move very quickly once we met up with Viola.
Viola has pictures. Lots of pictures. Tons of her father and uncles and cousins; we’re still going through the copies we made, but among them were a few pictures of Viola’s grandfather, Frank, pictured here with his second wife, Rose:
Looking through Viola’s pictures was a fascinating trip, providing a window through time into Millville of the 1950s (including a picture of Leon, Viola, the Oscar Mayer, and two circus dwarves; Millville, man. Millville), but then one old picture caught our eye:
Wait. No. That… that couldn’t be. Could it?
We looked at that photo as closely as possible. We figured it was from somewhere in the early 1900s, maybe no later than 1915 or so. That elderly gentleman, definitely a Berenato, would be about the right age, but still. Better to err on the side of caution.
Then we saw this and caution went the hell out the window:
The same older gentleman. With people who are unmistakably Berenatos (the gentleman in front, for instance, looks like a cross between my Uncle Henry and Aunt Minnie).
The older gentleman is Domenico Berenato. Near as we can tell, the man in front is Francesco as a younger man, with his wife Mary behind him, their son Dominic and his wife Mary, Leon, and James. That makes the previous picture one of Domenico and Leon.
Viola Bernat, to the best of my knowledge, has possession of the only two surviving original pictures of Domenico Berenato anywhere in the world.
Then she dropped another bombshell: she knew where he was buried.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, had that information. There’s a marker with his name — no dates — at Andrea’s plot in Greenmount Cemetery in Hammonton, but there’s no body underneath it. Just Andrea, his son Anthony, several unnamed children (heartbreakingly common for the era), and another Francesco Berenato (who was buried in 1897 at the age of 85; just who the hell that guy is, we haven’t figured out yet). No Domenico.
But Viola? She knew. She used to visit the grave with her father when she was younger.
Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Cemetery in Marcus Hook, PA. She even gave us directions.
By the time we left Viola’s house on Saturday, it was almost 4 p.m.; too late to head to Marcus Hook, as the cemetery closes its gates at 4:30. So instead, we did research that night. Marcus Hook/Chester was an area we never even thought to explore for Frank and family. Soon, though, we had census records and city records for Frank Berenato, with Domenico Berenato living with him as a boarder.
Sunday came, and with it the drive to Pennsylvania. Just like Viola said, it’s exit 13 for the Commodore Barry Bridge, then a left at the light, then go all the way down past the Congoleum Factory until there’s a sign for Linwood, make a right, take the left fork, go all the way to the back, and there it is. A homemade stone.
I couldn’t believe it. I stood in front of that simple, humble stone for what felt like years. We’d gone in so many different directions, and so many members of our family before us had tried in vain to find him, and followed so many damned clues and dead ends that I was starting to feel like Nicholas Cage in National Treasure, and it all came down to one sweet little lady in Millville who was the last person on the planet who knew where he was buried. (That’s not hyperbole, either; the cemetery has no record of his internment there, and actually doesn’t have any records before 1935, so even they didn’t know he was there.)
And there he was. My great-great-great grandfather, Domenico Berenato. I was overcome. I was overwhelmed.
We left the cemetery a short time later and went to grab a bite to eat. Before we left the area, however, we decided to take a swing by the last known address for Domenico in Chester, and made our way to 816 6th Avenue, and damn if it wasn’t the house where his pictures were taken (and double-damn if I don’t wear my hat the exact same way):
The steps have changed, the door has changed, and the railing was added sometime in the 1970s, but the house next to it still had the wooden steps and porch. This was the house where Domenico Berenato spent the last years of his life.
A few blocks from there is what once was the Immaculate Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church. This is where Domenico and Frank and family would have gone to worship. This is where Domenico’s funeral mass would have been held.
Once we had an absolute address, and a rough timeline, filling in the final pieces were relatively easy. PA Vital Stats had a copy of his death certificate:
Domenico Berenato died on 26 July 1921 from excessive heat, and was still a laborer. The address matches, and Immaculate Heart is listed as his place of burial, which confirms that the tombstone is his. His age on the certificate (as well as his parents’ names) is incorrect, but that wasn’t uncommon for the time. In truth, Domenico was 84. His age was listed on the birth certificates for Giuseppe and Andrea, so that made finding his birth records from 24 May 1837 fairly easy:
There are still a few missing pieces — I’d like to see his marriage record to Rosa (as well as her birth and death records), and perhaps his naturalization record if there is one — but what we’ve managed to discover in these past five days has been nothing short of absolutely extraordinary. When we first started looking into our family history a year and a half ago, Domenico Berenato was just a name. Now, I’ve walked where he walked, from his first arrival in this country at Ellis Island to his short stay in Hammonton (in the same building that now holds Towne Pharmacy and that once held the barbershop of Guy Roselli, where I had my first haircut), to his home in Chester, to his church, and to his grave. I know so many things I never thought I’d know about him. I know where he’s buried. I know where, when, and how he passed. And I know what he looked like.
He looked like us.
He looked like me.
And he looked kind.
Yes, I know a lot of things about him now. And what I know most of all is that of these things make me wish that I had known him.
Rest in peace, Domenico.