Category: Group Leader

Coincidence or Signs? Waldensians in the News

Twice in less than 24 hours—actually, within about 12 hours—I received notice from two friends* of two recent but very different news stories about the Waldensians. One was in here, in Friday’s New York Times, and the other was in here, in Ozarks Alive, only a few days before.  Coincidence or signs? To me, it was a double-sized sign—time to share.

Who, perhaps you ask, are the Waldensians? And why care to share?

A view of Torre Pellice, home of the Waldenisians, in Italy’s Piedmont

Waldensian Museum, Library and Cultural Center, Torre Pellice, Italy

Waldensian Museum, Library and Cultural Center, Torre Pellice, Italy

Both of these stories tell you who they are (a religious group who has fought for independence of thought and practice, often in the face of persecution) and their history and origins (12th century France and, later, Italy). The Ozarks Alive article speaks of some Waldensians’ 19th-century migration westward. One of two locales where Waldensians settled in the US is Monett, Missouri.

Both stories also celebrate the Waldensians strong beliefs in religious freedom and in social activism. The Times story points to contemporary Waldensians in Italy’s Piedmont helping with the resettling of Syrian refugees. The Ozarks Alive story focuses more on the history of those who migrated and the Ozarks’ settlement.

Both stories merit reading—they are heartwarming accounts for this dark time of year.

They tell us about long traditions of people trying to do right, in whatever ways they can. Sometimes the results flourish. Sometimes the small steps take people many miles.

They tell us about long traditions of people trying to do right, in whatever ways they can. Sometimes the results flourish. Sometimes the small steps take people many miles.

I learned about the Monett Waldensians in a weird way – sitting in the archives in Torre Pellice—a small community in the mountains of northern Italy. I had arrived during a sabbatical semester in 2015, driven to locate letters to and from a New Yorker named Emily Bliss Gould. Gould joined forces with Waldensian leaders after seeing their schools in the mountain villages near Turin in the 1860s. Drawn up in their beliefs in widespread education (as opposed to believing education was a privilege of the elite), Gould became a fundraiser among the wealthy back in New York. Funds she raised, sent to Italy, supported schools in Florence and in Rome. But Gould’s activism in Italy is another story for another place.**

Taking a break from my research in 2015, while I chatted with the archivist over coffee, he asked me whether I knew of the Waldensians in Missouri. I don’t know whether he or I was more surprised—that I knew nothing of them and yet lived less than an hour from Monett and frequently passed through it in route to northwest Arkansas!

Etta Madden in front of Waldensian library archive Italy

Here I am in front of the Waldensian library and archives, Torre Pellice, Italy

I wish I had read an article like Kaitlyn’s in Ozarks Alive before I arrived in Torre Pellice. Since that 2015 trip, I have met the historian and professor, Mark McMeley, mentioned in the article, who grew up in Monett, has lived in Torre Pellice, and frequently leads tour groups there. In fact, two years ago I had the privilege of visiting Torre Pellice again, this time with Mark’s guidance, and joined by a fantastic group of fellow travelers interested in “off the beaten path” sites and spiritual communities. Mark’s exuberant spirit and brilliant language skills added to the fun and uplifting learning. I’m sharing a few photos from those visits.

Enjoy the two linked stories above and the photos they provide as well.  And do let me know if you’re interested in a future trip to Torre Pellice. As always, you can sign up to follow my blog through my website. You’ll receive notifications in your email of new posts, rather than rely upon the whims of social media.

**Emily Bliss Gould and her work will be the star of a later letter.

*Thanks to Mark McMeley and Renee Arnaud Fogle. Both are from Monett and of Waldensian heritage.

Mark McMeley, left, with other group members, waiting for the cattle to pass before finishing our descent

Our group in front of a monument to the Waldensians’ heritage, on the hillside above Torre Pellice



As Italy crawls back to life, many of us mourn the loss of trips planned and cancelled. This week-after-semester’s-end at the university often finds me in flight across the Atlantic. For most of the last decade, returning to the peninsula I fell in love with during a study abroad semester has been an end-of-term ritual. Often those trips to Italy are with others–sometimes university students, sometimes life-long learners like me. This year was to be no different.

Image from a plane of Italian coast north of Rome

Nearing Rome in 2019

But the change of plans became official a couple of weeks ago. When the airlines sent the flight cancellation notice, I wiped off my calendar a group trip scheduled for late June. Our small group had anticipated the change, discussing it even in early March. Nonetheless, the message still delivered a sting of reality.

The trip would have been my fourth with a group of curious adults willing to follow my lead. Our goals?

  • Personal pilgrimages to lesser-known sites, but with a small group flair
  • Fun with a few others willing to explore “off the beaten path”
  • A schedule with time and room to explore individually
  • Daily reflections on the unexpected and serendipitous.

Rome would have been a starting point. The Colosseum and St. Peter’s were to be mere touchstones, as these spots famous for early Christian martyrdom create the context for thinking about the ways in which religious life and cultures change over time.

Connecting Spiritual Sites to Personal Journeys

Considering our own paths, our journeys would intertwine with what we would witness.  Passersby in the popular Piazza Barberini, for example, often miss the bones encasing the crypt of the Cappucin church in Via Veneto. Nathaniel Hawthorne twisted these into an evil scene in the Marble Faun. Yet we  would consider how they reflect a reverence for life and for death, admonishing us to think about our places in this Great Circle.

Another stop, Santa Pudenziana, originally a Roman bath house, is now a thriving Filipino congregation. Visit on a Sunday to experience a lively mass that exhibits ever-changing church life, but another morning allows a close up view of the apse mosaics. These date from the fourth century, demonstrating visions of Jesus and his disciples as Roman rulers–not uncommon imagery in these early Christian worship sites. Nearby, for example, the church of Santa Pressede offers similar mosaics and cool silence among central Rome’s heat.

Image of early mosaics in church of Santa Pressede in Rome

Mosaic in Santa Pressede, early Christian church in Rome

Image of mosaics in dome of chapel in Santa Pressede, Rome

Dome mosaics in chapel of Santa Pressede, Rome

Other early imagery decorates the mausoleum of Santa Costanza, outside the city’s walls. Our group would travel east on the Via Nomentana to experience the explosive floral and organic imagery inside this burial site of Constantine’s daughter. An effusion of flowers and abundant grapes combine to create an almost Bacchanalian aura. They evoke celebrations a far cry from Victorian pearly gates, golden streets, and singing seraphim and cherubim. On the same campus, the body of Saint Agnes lies entombed, at the entrance to the underground catacombs that provide insights to other ancient burial practices.

These three ancient sites are not secret–certainly others visit them–but they are far from the madding crowds of central Rome, thronging the piazzas and streets winding from the Colosseum and the Campidoglio through the Campo dei Fiori, the Trevi Fountain and the Piazza Navona. We would visit these–Saint Agnes’s head is in the church bearing her name in the Piazza Navona–along with other “not secret sites” in the city. All ask the thoughtful to reflect on their own journeys within this larger context.

From Rome to Umbria and Arezzo

Umbrian verdure from heights of La Verna

Our group after a few days would have escaped the urban hubub to the cool heights of La Verna. Perched aside a hilltop northeast of Arezzo, the village of La Verna sits sleepily. I learned of it while reading On Journey, the autobiography of social activist Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954), who visited regularly as she wrote a history of Saint Francis and his early followers. Further above the village, at the end of a drive that veers off a windy mountain road, the Franciscan Sanctuary that arose in the saint’s honor lies almost hidden in a thick forest. Arriving at the monastic sanctuary and guest house, I sense I’m following not only Francis’s footsteps but also Scudder’s.

Buffered by the dense foliage, the monastery and its inviting guest spaces inspire rather than intimidate. Of immediate note, the birds’ mesmerizing songs send spirits soaring. They speak the language of Francis’s life, known for a connection to animals. And they remind visitors of nature’s bounty, a far cry from the sounds of urban traffic. Rome’s sounds and diesel smells are also dissipated, as forest paths underfoot release their damp, earthy pungency. The paths, part of the larger system of The Way of St. Francis, lead to the nearby spot where the saint is said to have received his stigmata. Here our group would spend part of two days in times of silence, walking the trails and mediation. (Thanks to friend and former traveler Deborah Cox for giving me permission to share these four photos she took a few summers ago.)

Along one of the paths at the Franciscan Sanctuary above La Verna

Franciscan Sanctuary La Verna


Other Sites of the Saints

Other sites associated with Francis would dot our travel. Lodging two nights in another monastic site in Assisi would allow us to begin and end our days with views that stimulate and stir the senses. Later, an easy morning’s drive would take us to Siena. Although both Siena and Assisi are thick with tourists, we would add some lesser seen sites to our days–like the home of Anne Hampton Brewster, Philadelphia journalist who died in Siena, after writing from Rome for twenty years. And of course we would visit sites associated with Saint Catherine, whose life also motivated Scudder’s writings and social activism.

Assisi in the evening, when most tourists have vacated the streets


Siena’s campo, famed for its annual horse race, has fewer visitors after dark

A quiet corner in Siena, near the final home of American journalist Anne Hampton Brewster

Siena’s Basilica of San Francesco, slighted by visitors who opt for San Dominco, associated with Saint Catherine


Along the Tuscan Coast and South

After Siena, a short stop in Porto Santo Stefano, would precede a longer pause in Tarquinia. In this ancient Roman town, an Etruscan necropolis reminds visitors that other civilizations predated the Romans. And Tarquinia’s peaceful streets speak to most travelers’ needs for time outside of tourist centers.

We would end our trip with another site similar in its beauty, history and distance from the crowds. Ostia Antica lies near Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport in Fiumicino, yet far away from its bustle. A national historic cite, the grand park offers an expanse of ruins that exhibit an almost pristine amphitheater, ancient toilets, and rich mosaics. The remnants of former worship sites, such as the Jewish synagogue, would remind us once again of how ancient Rome embraced diverse religions. Ostia also boasts beaches–so some of our group would stroll the lungomare, or venture into the sand to dip their toes into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Perhaps this touch, like throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain, would signify a journey that they hope to remember, if not repeat.


Image of the amphitheater at Ostia Antica, Italy

Amphitheater at Ostia Antica

Remnant from the Jewish Synagogue, Ostia Antica

Restructured toilet fragments, Ostia Antica

View of the Sea from Lodging in Ostia

The Tyrrhenian Sea at Ostia


What’s Next?

None of us knows what the future holds for us, but we plan nonetheless.  As far as travel is concerned, we wonder what’s next.  Some trips have been cancelled–others have been postponed. Our group trip is a mixture of the two. With the indefinite future ahead, we hope to know more by fall. Then, if possible, we’ll plan more specifics–new dates, new times, new itineraries. And perhaps even a few new travelers. Maybe you would be interested in joining the group? Or maybe you are part of another small group–a few couples, a few single friends–with whom you’d like to travel? If so, let me know.  One of my passions is advising, planning, and sometimes leading such small group trips. Contact me here or through Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.


Alternative Spiritual Formation in the Italian Piedmont & Tuscany

Soon after I announced this summer 2018 spiritual formation trip, a full slate of travelers had signed up.  (A “full slate” means small–a half-dozen or so, a dozen at the most. ) So we were eleven, myself included, focused on “alternative communities.” We headed to the Italian Piedmont and Tuscany.

Sunset Arno River Florence Italy

Sunset over the Arno in Florence, Italy

With Roman Catholicism as a backdrop,  “off-the-beaten-track” sites populated the foreground. Santa Caterina del Sasso, Damanhur, and Torre Pellice were our starting points in the north.  What are these spots? A lakeside hermitage, an earth-centered ecovillage, and home of the Waldensian church, respectively.

Waldensian Museum, Library and Cultural Center, Torre Pellice, Italy

Waldensian Museum, Library and Cultural Center, Torre Pellice, Italy


Then we headed to the Ligurian coast and Tuscany for familiar stops in Pisa and Lucca.

Ligurian Coast near Rapallo

Then the English community of Bagni di Lucca (a hot springs resort that became a WWI refuge), and Nomadelfia, a Roman Catholic commune (that began as an orphanage), will remind us of many ways of putting faith into practice.

Altar to Minerva, Fiesole

Altar to Minerva, Fiesole

Finally, a few days in Florence  & Fiesole provided glimpses of Roman and Etruscan ruins, reformer Savonarola’s cell, and the historic Jewish community. Such alternatives have existed for centuries on a peninsula primarily known in the US for the influence of St. Peter’s.

If you missed this opportunity, keep a trip in mind for the future. What will be next year’s itinerary?  Think about it . . . . And then let me know. It only takes an idea–and a handful of interested travelers.


Italy: A Recent Group Experience

In the spring of 2016 I met several times with a group of adults in preparation for a pilgrimage to Italy. With a theme of syncretism, or the blending of faith traditions, I shared with them information about Americans traveling to Italy in the 19th century. Details about popular authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe initiated the discussions. However, lesser-known figures, such as newspaper correspondents Margaret Fuller and Anne Hampton Brewster, added to the diversity of experiences. These writers took to Italy varied views of religious traditions–whether New England Protestantism, the “new” Transcendentalism, or Roman Catholicism. However, all were changed by what they learned of another culture’s traditions while abroad. Something similar was in store for the contemporary group of adults.

A Thematic Itinerary

After the initial gatherings, the group set out on a ten-day trip.  A uniquely-organized itinerary distinguished the days from a typical vacation tour. The itinerary’s way points included Rome, La Verna, Ravenna and Venice. Most important, however, was the group’s aim: deepening travelers’ knowledge of western religious traditions and the influences of political situations upon them.

A Co-leader

The group journey was co-led with Dr. John White, Professor Emeritus of Loyola University, Chicago. Because his strengths include early Christianity, his insights lead the group to several lesser-visited sites in and around Rome. These included Constantia’s Mausoleum, Santa Pudenziana and San Stefano Rotundo. Their mosaics and architecture reflect beliefs much different from those of religious sites designed in the Renaissance and afterward. The group’s interests in the social activism of Saint Francis of Assisi took us off the beaten path to the Sanctuary La Verna, a site associated with his early spiritual experiences. This mountaintop retreat in Umbria provided a place of respite and reflection following the packed days among Rome’s urban chaos.

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