To A Home in the Land of the Free
The Waldensians in North America
April 1, 1989
THE FIRST Waldensians in North America arrived in 1656. Having joined with recent Dutch emigrants who were settling “New Amsterdam,” these Waldensians were refugees from their native Piedmont after the terrible Piedmont Easter massacre of 1655.
Today there is inscribed on a plaque in Staten Island NY’s Borough Hall the words 1657 First Church Erected by Waldensians. Other witnesses are to be found at the Huguenot Church on Staten Island, where the names of Waldensian families occur in old inscriptions. One of these inscriptions records the work of Pastor David Jourdan de Bonrepos, who emigrated to America after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.
Due to the lack of documentation it is hard to reconstruct the Waldensian emigration to the New World during the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1850 Mormon missionaries in Italy persuaded 72 persons of the Waldensian valleys to emigrate to Utah. Today hundreds of Mormons in Utah, Arizona, and California have Waldensian names.
In 1875, a group arrived in New York from the Waldensian settlement in Uruguay. Having grown unhappy with the political situation in Uruguay, the group left for New York, where they were directed to Missouri by a pastor of the French Reformed Church. After several years this group affiliated itself with the Presbyterian Church, and in 1878 the Frisco Railroad Company gave the small congregation forty acres of land for a church, a parsonage, and a cemetery.
In 1887 new Waldensian families from the Valleys arrived in the Missouri colony (which had been named Monett). Today descendants of the first Waldensian colonists still live in Monett. The Waldensian Church and cemetery of Monett are in the National Register of Historic Places.
Piedmont of North Carolina
The most important Waldensian settlement in the U.S. today is that of Valdese in Burke County, North Carolina. In May 1893 a group of 29 men, women, and children, reached the place in North Carolina that was immediately named Valdese. Successive waves of immigration brought around 200 persons to the community. In 1920 Valdese was incorporated as a town; the first mayor elected was a native of the Piedmont Valleys.
The Waldensians in Valdese worked in agriculture and in the textile industry. A Waldensian Bakery that was founded remains in operation, with 600 employees. In 1895 the Waldensian church of Valdese became affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. After several years of leadership by Waldensian pastors who had come directly from Italy, the congregation decided to call American pastors and to hold services in English. At present about a third of the 500 members of the Waldensian Presbyterian Church of Valdese are of Waldensian extraction. In some Valdese families both French and the old dialect of the Valleys continue to be spoken.
In 1955 a Waldensian museum was founded in Valdese. Also, every summer in Valdese’s open-air theater a professional drama company acts out the story of the Waldensians. Alexis Ghigou, who arrived in Valdese in 1893 at the age of five with the first group of Waldensian pioneers, celebrated her one hundredth birthday in May 1988—she is a living document of the history of Valdese!
First Stop: New York
For those who arrived from Europe, New York was often the first stop. This city received millions of Italians at the turn of the century, among them an unknown number of Waldensians, perhaps many hundreds. The Waldensians were often able to find work more easily than their compatriots owing to their fluency in Italian and French.
In 1910 the first Waldensian Church in New York was organized. Named the Waldensian Union, the church was located at the Knox Memorial Dutch Reformed Church, with which it came to be affiliated. Ten years later, a hundred or so members split from the Dutch Reformed Church and formed a separate group.
After World War II Pastor Alfredo Janavel was sent by the Waldensian national board to New York. Janavel acquired a property at Manhattan’s East 82nd Street, where today the only Waldensian Church (not affiliated with another denomination) in the U.S. is to be found. This Waldensian congregation in New York has today dwindled to about 60 members, most of them elderly, yet it continues to carry on cultural events in French and English, all the while maintaining strong family ties with the Waldensians in the Valleys.
The Waldensians in the U.S. are widely dispersed and have largely been absorbed by several Reformed denominations. Some Waldensian families from Italy and Uruguay emigrated to the San Francisco area of California. A Waldensian presence was also established in Rochester, New York. Around 30 Waldensian families located in Philadelphia. Traces of Waldensians are also to be found in Oregon, Texas, and Illinois.
Waldensians, in the U.S. and across several other continents, though scattered and small in numbers, remain unified in the old biblical motto of their Church: “The light shines in the darkness.”
Copyright © 1989 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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