Passing the Torch

In this column La Gazzetta will profile notable members of our local Italian American community. We will get to hear from men and women whose ancestors’ contributions resulted in today’s outstanding, productive citizens. 

Roslyn Torella is an Italian American born in the Mahoning Valley and raised in Lowellville, OH, a village of less than 1,000 on the Mahoning River. She’s an accomplished genealogist and author of two books. Roslyn’s articles and columns in La Gazzetta have aided many of us in search of our ancestors or a traditional recipe. It’s no surprise that Lowellville’s rich Italian roots find an echo in her own life story. Let’s get to know Roslyn Torella a little better. 

La Gazzetta (LG): To begin, please let our readers know something about your Italian roots? 

Roslyn Torella (RT): They come from two small villages in the Molise Region, Castiglione di Carovilli and Pietrabbondante in the province of Isernia. My grandparents, Giovanna Di Domenico and Antonio Torella, were Italian immigrants who were part of the big exodus from Italy in the early 20th century. Their villages are about 10 miles apart, but it was here in America where they met and married, both immigrants looking for the hope and opportunity that America offered.

LG:  Lowellville feels like a place with a unique geography and history. Would you agree? 

RT:  Yes! Lowellville, in terms of history, is unique in that we hold deeply onto our roots and still acknowledge and celebrate them. The village was settled in the early 1800s before Ohio was a state and has a rich industrial history as the first place where raw bituminous coal was used to make pig iron. For over 100 years, the village was blessed with an abundance of natural resources nearby to provide for a thriving industrial base – iron ore, coal, limestone and access to the Mahoning River for water and transportation of goods via the Pennsylvania-Ohio canal. 

RT: The village also has a rich immigrant history with a population that celebrates its Italian, Irish, Scottish, English, German, Hungarian, and other European roots. Early immigrants to Lowellville from 1800 to the 1880s were the English, Scottish, Irish, and Germans. They were mostly farmers, but as the valley’s natural resources were discovered, industry sprung up along the river and a labor force was needed to mine coal and limestone, and to work at the Mary Furnace. The Italians, Slovaks, and Hungarians were that new source. Today, Lowellville’s prominent ethnicity is Italian American. 

LG: Tell us about the Italian flavor of Lowellville. 

RT: Our Fraterna Società della Madonna del Carmine is a longstanding Lowellville institution. It was started by Italian immigrants who strongly believed in creating a mutual help association. One hundred twenty-eight years later the Society still exists. Each July we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel with a spaghetti and meatballs dinner, morra, and bocce tournaments. Carrying the 1887, Italian-made Madonna, devotees then process to Holy Rosary Church. After mass, a four-day festival begins featuring Italian food vendors (one of which is Di Russo’s sausage which got its start right here in Lowellville). 

LG: You’re a published genealogist. Have you visited your ancestors’ hometowns in Italy? What was that like?

RT: Growing up, I was privileged to hear the stories my grandmother told of her life in Italy, and I always knew someday I would go there to see it for myself. My first visit to Castiglione di Carovilli was in 2015, a year after I lost my father, Dave Torella. He, too, had visited the town in the 1950s and often described it to me. So, when I was there, I felt this magical connection to him and my grandmother. I was able to connect with Italian cousins who still lived in the village. They continued to own our ancestral home – the house my grandmother was born in. 

LG: How lucky to still have that connection.

RT: Well, I happened to visit the house on the anniversary of her 122nd birthday. However, what I can only describe as serendipity was waiting for me in that house! My grandmother’s brother had been the last to occupy it with some of his furniture and other household items still there. I was looking around when my cousin and husband called me over to a cupboard they had opened. In her hand was my father’s 1948 Lowellville High School senior portrait! I could not believe what I was seeing – tears were flowing. My proud grandmother had sent her son’s photograph to her brother, and it got tucked away in a cupboard for decades until I was there to see it. My cousins gave me the photograph to bring home. It is my most treasured “Italian” souvenir. 

LG: Can you tell us about the books you authored?

RT: I wrote “Lowellville, Ohio: Murders, Mayhem and More” and “Mahoning Valley Italian Descendants”. The Lowellville book is a history of the village through the lens of newspaper reporting between 1850 and 1920. It was originally written as a birthday gift for my late father, who was born in Lowellville and who loved to tell me stories about the events he experienced here as a child. After his death, I self-published it. It sold over 700 copies, mostly to people in Lowellville, so I joke that I am the village’s bestselling author. My second is a companion text that I use when I teach Italian genealogy seminars here in the Youngstown area. It’s meant to be a guidebook for new genealogists. It starts with tips for locating U.S. records and then progresses to the most common Italian genealogy records.

LG: I hear good news about Lowellville. What projects is local government taking on? What are you involved in? 

RT: The town is looking to capitalize once again on the Mahoning River. But from a different perspective than its former role as an industrial asset. The river is clean now, and the start of a 13-acre waterfront park was dedicated in December 2021. Our village administrators were able to obtain grants for a canoe livery and public restrooms to attract visitors who needed a safe place to drop their canoes and kayaks into the river. Ultimately when the project is complete, Lowellville will become a destination spot for hikers, cyclists, fishing enthusiasts and those who want to enjoy the beautiful nature that surrounds our village. I’m involved in the town’s Enrichment Group, which plans events for the community and of course the Mt. Carmel Society. 

LG: What’s your present connection with Lowellville?

RT: I call myself the “self-appointed, unofficial village historian” after I embarked on researching the village’s history in 2013 and publishing the book in 2018. Each month I research and write a Lowellville history piece that is published in the village’s local flyer, and I administer a Facebook group dedicated to the village’s history. After being away from Lowellville for 30 years and approaching retirement, I decided that Lowellville was where I wanted to live out my life. My husband and I moved back in the summer of 2021 from the Baltimore-Washington area into the same home that my Italian grandparents bought 90 years ago. We just completed a major renovation to the circa 1890 farmhouse, so we intend to stay.

LG: Thanks so much for sharing your story with our readers. Although Lowellville is small, it’s hard to find another community with such energy. And it continues to thrive because of people like you.