The Duchy of Savoy and the inheritance of our faith

Some of our most treasured, earliest memories are of cuddling up on the couch with our parents, grandparents, great aunts and great uncles as they recounted stories from the “old” days. We loved to hear about their parents, their great-grandparents, and, if we were lucky, snippets of stories and legends that went back even farther.  Way father!  We especially wanted to know their names, what they did, and what were they like.   Being youngsters, we eagerly seek connections and an orientation of where we are in our family and how our family fits within the wider world.

My grandfather Roland Savoie and his sisters Rita and Florence took great interest in passing on what they knew of Savoie family history to every new addition to the family.

There were many great legends and stories.  Three of the most tantalizing, mysterious and persistent stories were:

  • We have a Spanish Princess as an ancestor
  • One of our Savoie ancestors was a Catholic Priest
  • The very first Savoie who came to Canada did so because he was forced to leave

Old family stories that get handed down from generation to generation are nothing new.  Sally Hemming’s descendants claimed that Thomas Jefferson fathered her children.  Alex Haley based his “Roots” saga on a story of his distant ancestor Kunta Kinta making a drum for his younger brother on the day he was kidnapped by salve traders.  Both stories persisted over centuries, handed down by word of mouth from parent to child.  Although the stories had their detractors, they both turned out to be true.

As the years went by I pushed the Savoie family stories to the side as I commenced with the business of adult life.  Besides, I had no idea what to do with these ancient Savoie tales or how to begin validating them.

The last time I saw Aunt Rita alive was while she was in hospice, in the final stages of cancer.  While I was there we talked about her childhood as I tried to catalog every memory I could before she left us. However, what she really wanted to talk about were the three family stories:  the Spanish Princess, the Catholic Priest, and the Savoie runaway.  I made the mistake of expressing some skepticism that one of our Savoie ancestors was a Catholic priest.  Aunt Rita was indignant, “it’s true!” she insisted.  The poignancy of the moment was not lost on either of us.  She was soon to meet her maker, and she was the last living person of her generation.  Her insistence and the circumstances caused me to listen very carefully so that I could remember the stories and later pass them on to others in the family.

Ten years later, on a whim I signed up for a genealogy research website.  Progress was slow at first as I worked my way backwards from my great-great Grandfather Joseph Savoie.  I eventually discovered that his father was Narcisse Savoie and his father and grandfather were both in turn named Pierre Savoie.  So far, all of them were born in Quebec.  Continuing to slog my way backward in time, I discovered Pierre’s father, Jean Baptiste Savoie, who was born in Nova Scotia. I was surprised but that was only the beginning: three generations from there I was introduced to Prince Francis Savoie, the first Savoie to emigrate to North America in 1642

After he arrived in Nova Scotia, Prince Francis Savoie married Catherine F. LeJeune of the Mi’kmaq Nation.  Catherine’s great-grandfather was Henri Membertou.

Henri Membertou on Canadian stamp
Henri Membertou on Canadian stamp

Yet another surprise.  Henri Membertou, was the grand chief of the Mi’kmaq tribe in Arcadia in Nova Scotia!  Interestingly, Henri and his entire family were baptized by the Jesuit Father Jesse Fleche.  From that point forward Henri became an enthusiastic Catholic.  He asked the missionaries to learn the Algonquian Mi’kmaq language so that his family and tribe could be educated in the Catholic faith.

My ancestors were beginning to emerge from the fog of time, not just as names and dates but as real people with personalities and histories.

I followed Prince Francis Savoie back across the sea, to his home in Turin, Italy and we found ourselves at the door of the House of Savoy in the Duchy of Savoy. I carefully pushed the door open and discovered yet more remarkable members of our family:  these were of men and women of adventure, leadership, and deep Catholic piety.  The first person I meet is Prince Francis’s father, Thomas Francis of Savoy, or as he would have been known in Italian, Tommaso Francesco di Savoia.

Thomasco Fransisco Savoie
Thomasco Fransisco Savoie

Thomas Francis’s parents were Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy and Princess Catherine Michelle of Spain, the daughter of King Philip II of Spain. At last I found Aunt Rita’s Spanish Princess!

Princess Catherine
Princess Catherine

As more ancestors come out from the shadows, the Savoys manifested themselves as a deeply woven thread in the tapestry of European royalty.

Duke Charles Emmanuel’s Savoy ancestors bore colorful names like Humbert I The White Handed Count of Savoy, Amadeus VI, The Green Count of Savoy, Humbert II The Fat, Count of Savoy.  Still earlier, I meet Amadeus The Crusader Savoy, who died in the Crusades and his son Blessed Humbert III, who was beatified by the Catholic Church.

Other Savoy saints step forward: The Blessed Amadeus IX The Happy, was the Duke of Savoy from 1465 to 1472.  Blessed Amadeus IX was known for his charity and concern for the poor and was beatified in 1677.  His daughter The Blessed Louise of Savoy (Our great ++ aunt), gave up a life of privilege and comfort to become a Poor Clare nun. She used her vast wealth to meet the needs of the poor and entered the monastery of the Poor Clare nuns in Orbe, now part of modern Switzerland. She was beatified by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839.

Joining the religious life or the clergy after the death of a spouse was common for Savoys.  It’s at this moment that I am introduced to  Amadeus VIII, the Duke of Savoy, who became a Catholic priest after the death of his wife, Mary, Princess of Burgundy.  So now we have confirmed another of Aunt Rita’s stories: the Catholic priest who was our direct ancestor. Amadeus VIII of Savoy was no ordinary priest though: in February of 1451 he was elected by the schismatic council of Basle as (anti) Pope Felix V (Savoy). Anti-Pope Felix was no rebel and for the good of the Church he resigned and quietly spent the rest of his life a cardinal.

As I move to speak to Pope Felix I am joined by  Anne, Princess of Cyprus di Lusignan, who was the daughter of King Janus of Cyprus and Charlotte of Bourbon; and a member of the celebrated Lusignan crusader dynasty.  With her marriage to Louis, Duke of Savoy, Ann became the Duchess of Savoy.  In 1452, Anne bought the Shroud of Turin from Jeanne de Charny in exchange for the castle of Varambon.  It remains in the Savoy family today although in the custody of the Church.

Anne of Cyprus
Anne of Cyprus

Farther back, I discovered my 20th great-grandmother: Saint Elizabeth of Portugal.

Saint Elizabeth of Portugal 

As I contemplate my ancestors, Kings, Queens, Dukes and Princesses, Popes, saints and sinners all, I have to ask what’s different now? There are no titles to inherit, no cold coins, art or castles. I feel there is a message here, they are trying to tell me… us, something… I sit patiently and listen.

Then one ancestor speaks up for all of them.  Fittingly, it’s Henri Membertou, whose efforts to have the Mass said in the Mi’kmaq language helped to preserve it to this day.   He died in 1611 and in his final words to his children he charged them to remain devout Christians.  Henri didn’t see his new faith to be just personal but transformational and transcending.  His Catholic faith was a treasure, an inheritance that must be passed on to his children and to their children.  Aunt Rita passed on the stories of Savoie family history that were told from generation to generation.  In like manner, Henri in turn passed on the most important treasure he had, his Catholic faith.  His daughter Marie passed that faith to her daughter who then passed it on to her daughter, Catherine Lejune, the wife of the very first Savoie in North America, Prince Francis.  From Francis and Catherine, they in turned passed on the faith to their son Germain Savoie, who along with his wife Genevieve Babineau, passed it on to their son Francois Xavier Savoie.

And so it went on, all the way to Phileas Savoie, my great grandfather, and then to Aunt Rita and Roland Savoie and on to his children and then down to us. The story is told, the treasure of faith is passed on.

Saint Paul in his epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that we have a great cloud of witnesses watching and cheering us on. . We have a very special cheering cloud of witnesses that includes our Savoie ancestors. They are us and we are them, all one family. The question is, does the story of faith that they passed on to us go on?  Let’s hope and pray so.

Meme Saint Elizabeth of Portugal,  Uncle Saint Thomas Aquinas,  Blessed Humbert Savoy and Blessed Amadeus Savoy, pray for your us your descendants 

______________________________________________________________________

PostScript and writer’s notes:

a.  All direct ancestors are in boldface. Poor Claire sister Blessed Louise of Savoy, is italicized because she is a great +++ aunt and not a direct ancestor

b. There’s another direct ancestor saint: Saint Louis the king of France.

Saint Louis King of France
Saint Louis King of France

He is a direct Savoie ancestor through  Elisabeth of Valois, the wife of Philip II and the mother of Princess Catherine Michelle.  Princess Catherine can be considered the grandmother of the North American Savoie line.

Elizabeth, the Mother of Princess Catherine and wife of King Philip II
Elizabeth, the Mother of Princess Catherine and wife of King Philip II

c.  Speaking of  Elisabeth of Valois: while her father’s line included the French Royal family her mother was Catherine de’ Medici of the famous Italian Medici family.

d.  King Philip II has an interesting family history as well.  His great grandparents were King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Yes, the same ones that commissioned Columbus on his journey to the new world.

King Philip II of Spain
King Philip II of Spain

e.  So that brings up yet another interesting question: What nationality are the Savoies?  Up until Prince Francis Savoie left Europe the Savoies were mostly Italian with a few French and German Princesses as maternal ancestors.  Once in Canada, Prince Francis Savoie and his descendants married into the Norman French settlers (along with a bit of Mi’kmaq Indian ).  Making it even more complicated is that if you go back far enough, the direct male Savoie line goes back to Geneva Switzerland before they moved to Italy.  You also should consider that through King Philip II of Spain the Savoies are Hapsburg (originally from Austria) along with some Spanish and Portuguese. In truth, the ethnicity of the Savoies is  typical for many of Europe’s royal houses.  The simplistic way to look at it is to say that the Savoies were culturally Italian until they went to Canada where they became culturally French.

f.  Speaking of European royal houses the Savoies also have ties to Hungarian Royalty as well as East Roman (Byzantine) emperors such as Michael VIII who was born in what is now Turkey in the 13th century.  So some of our ancestors were of the Greek Orthodox Faith.

g.  Alert readers will note that I confirmed two out of three of Aunt Rita Savoie’s family stories of the Spanish Princess and that the Catholic Priest. What about the first Savoie coming to North America under duress? There is some speculation that Prince Francis Savoie was disinherited after a dynastic dispute between his father and his uncle.  From researching other French Canadian family lines I found that almost all French Canadians originally came from the shores of Normandy France. That would make sense considering that if you are the French Government and you need bodies to load on ships to colonize New France you are not going to bother gathering them up from the interior of the country.  Prince Francis is unique in that he made the Herculean effort to traverse the Alps and the whole country of France to get on a ship to spend the rest of his life in the wilderness of Nova Scotia. We don’t know why he left but it is safe to assume he was highly motivated in doing so.

h. My thanks to Uncle Tom for his support and helpful suggestions and input!

14 thoughts on “The Duchy of Savoy and the inheritance of our faith”

  1. It is amazing to see there is some proof to the stories I heard as a child. I guess I really thought they were just made up. Nice job on the research and the blog.
    Patrick

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    1. It’s more then a good story, though, it’s our inheritance. I didn’t mention this earlier but there our many Savoie grand +++Uncles who were Catholic Cardinals and Archbishops of major European Cities such as Geneva. One Uncle, Boniface Savoie, was the 446th Archbishop of Canterbury. That’s not including the many Medici Uncles and Aunts who were Catholic Priests, Bishops, nuns and Sisters. The Savoies are woven deeply into the fabric of the European Catholic Church

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      1. Joe, this is one of your best blogs to date. Well written and very interesting!

        As far as accuracy, I’m am virtually certain of historical accuracy provided of course the source documents are accurate. I re-traced Joe’s work though the paternal ancestral line on ancestors.com. It was an easy task because I simply progressed from Joseph Savoie to his father, to his grandfather and great-grandfather, and on and on. There were no gaps nor were any assumptions necessary.

        Joe’s blog didn’t go back as far as he could have. Older ancestors are nothing less than mind-boggling. For example, our 35th great grandfather is Charlemagne “Charles the Great” Martel, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (742 – 841). If you have $35 to subscribe to ancestors.com, and some time to devote to it, you can verify the ancestral line for yourself.

        Also, this is just the paternal line. Joe’s blog included some maternal to give you a taste of the persons you’ll find. Interestingly, taking a detour through a royal maternal great-grandmother yields lines, including Louis I, King of France (34th great-grandfather); Rudolph I Holy Roman Emperor von Habsburg (21st great-grandfather); and a personal favorite, Thomas I De Savoy (22d great-grandfather). It appears that once you make a royal personage their marriages and cross marriages to other royalty makes it very interesting.

        By the way, much of the background information Joe included in his blog came from sources other than ancestors.com such as Wikipedia and the Catholic Encyclopedia.

        Sorry for the long-winded comment.

        Uncle Tom

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  2. Wonderful Savoie story, which I’m summarizing from Fatima e la passione della Chiesa by the historian Cristina Siccardi (Milan: Sugarco 2012):

    Blessed Humbert of Savoie (1135-1189) had a sister, Mathilde (Mafalda), who was married to Portugal’s first King. Alfonso I ended Muslim rule in his country with the help of an outstanding military leader, don Gonçalo, and (re-)Christianized it with the help of Cistercian monks. To Gonçalo he gave in marriage a Muslim girl named Fatima, who had agreed to convert on the condition that Queen Mafalda be her godmother. The Queen, who had catechized hundreds of converts (Muslims and pagan Lusitanians), gladly obliged and became like a second mother to the girl. Sadly Fatima, christened Oureana, died young. Her heartbroken husband entered the Cistercian abbey founded by King Alfonso at Alcobaça and had his wife’s remains removed to a nearby village, which he renamed Fatima after her. The Queen had a church built over her tomb and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, requesting that she herself be buried there one day alongside her goddaughter. The place became a Marian shrine and attracted many pilgrims during the Middle Ages.

    Giacomo of Savoie was forced in 1366 by feuding relatives to disinherit his eldest son, Philipp II of Savoie-Acaia, in favor of Philipp’s half-brother, then still a child. Philipp lived as an outlaw, gathering a band of rebels to help fight for the return of his inheritance. He was defeated in battle, captured, and sentenced to death by drowning. On December 21, 1368, he was bound and thrown into the half-frozen Lake Avigliana. His wife, with their infant daughter Humberta, fled to her own relatives, who adopted the little girl, gave her the de’ Storgi family name and promised her an inheritance. But mother and daughter were again forced to flee, this time taking refuge in the convent of St. Catherine at Alba. Humberta grew up deeply pious, single-mindedly dedicated to intercession for the soul of her father presumed to have died without the consolations of Holy Church, and entered religious life as Sister Philippina. Meanwhile, her father’s half-brother had also grown up and had a daughter, the future Blessed Margaret of Savoie. At her baptism, a stranger in pilgrim’s garb appeared, giving his name as Brother Goffredo. He explained that he was under a vow, visiting Marian shrines in honor of Blessed Humbert, to whose miraculous intercession he owed his rescue from great peril.

    So Count Philipp, still wearing the medal of Blessed Humbert with which he had been thrown into the icy lake, spent years walking from one place of Marian pilgrimage to another all over northern Italy, Switzerland, France, through Spain and finally to Portugal, where he knocked at the portal of the Cistercians at Alcobaça, requesting directions to the shrine at Fatima. ‟We have been expecting you,” he was told, ‟an angel revealed to us that you would be coming.” Visiting the shrine, he saw the tomb of Queen Mafalda, and understanding that this was the place to which Blessed Humbert had wished to bring him, he returned from Fatima to his own country, still as Brother Goffredo, to try and find his daughter. He searched for years but never found her. At last in his 79th year he sought out Margaret, recently widowed at age 28, who had returned to her father’s house and was discerning a vocation to the Third Order of St. Dominic. Count Philipp revealed his identity to his niece, told her the story of his long pilgrimage and his search for his daughter. He gave Margaret his medal of Blessed Humbert, requesting that if she should ever find Humberta, the medal be given to her. Then he went to the church of the Franciscans to pray through the night. In the morning he was found there, dead.

    Coming to Alba to live the life of a humble laywoman after the rule of the Dominican Third Order, Margaret heard of a saintly visionary in St. Catherine’s convent named Sister Philippina de’ Storgi, and sought her out for spiritual direction. When Margaret herself founded a religious house in Alba, St. Mary Magdalen’s, she obtained permission from the Pope for Sister Philippina to transfer there. On her deathbed six years later in 1454, Philippina revealed to Mother Margaret that she was her cousin. Margaret in her turn told Philippina the edifying story of her father’s long life of penance and gave her his medal. The dying visionary was caught up in an ecstasy, and according to a chronicle of the life of Blessed Margaret, dated October 7, 1640 and discovered among the documents of St. Mary Magdalen’s convent in 1999(!):

    …she spoke of future events, of prosperity and calamity for the House of Savoie, until an unnamed time of terrible wars, of the exile of Humbert of Savoie in Lusitania [N.B. this would be Humbert II of Italy, 1904-1983, exiled to Portugal after the Italian monarchy was abolished in 1946], of a certain monster from the Orient, tribulation of humanity, which would be killed by Our Lady of the Rosary of Phatima if all men would have invoked her with great penitence.

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  3. DNA proves that Catherine Lejune was French (European) and therefore confirms that the ‘stories’ that were handed down to you, were just stories. Search the web for DNA and Catherine Lejune
    https://www.familytreedna.com/groups/acadian-amer-indian/about/news

    It is my understanding that there is no evidence to support the royal connection. Maybe DNA will solve that mystery at some point, but for now at least the long disputed question about Esmee and Catherine has been solved.

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    1. Hello Michele! Welcome to my blog! Are you a Savoie descendant? If not, how did you become interested in Savoie family history? I would like to take a few moments to respond. First, I appreciate your information on my ancestor, Catheine Lejune and I did hear about the DNA tests. That information did come to me after I wrote this post. So, it’s on me for not updating it. However, Catherine Lejune was never mentioned in the family stories that were past down to us from my elder relatives and in any case, Catherine’s origin has nothing to do to the Savoie family royal connection. As such, your comment: “therefore confirms that the ‘stories’ that were handed down to you, were just stories.” really doesn’t apply. Interesting to note however, that American Indian ancestry does show up in our DNA.

      I also respectfully disagree with your assertion that “there is no evidence to support the royal connection.” There is evidence:

      Oral family history. Oral family traditions quite often contain much truth, even though some of the details may be lost over time. For example, Consider the long oral tradition of Sally Hemming’s descendants that Thomas Jefferson was their ancestor (proved true) or Alex Haley from Roots with the oral tradition that his ancestor was captured for the slave trade while out in the jungle looking for wood to make a drum for his brother. (Also true). The Savoie family oral tradition’s of the origin in the House of Savoie are not some recent invention but go right back to the very beginning of the Savoie’s in North America. Why do i say so? Because the tradition of decent from the house of Savoie is known in all branches of the Savoie family: in Canada, New England, and Louisiana. Therefore, the oral tradition had to be known before the Savoie family was dispersed by the British.

      DNA test results. I had the DNA tests taken from my mother and her brother and sister. The results show a family with a very diverse background and origin. The DNA results are exactly what you would expect from from a family of the House of Savoie that married into other royal houses from around Europe. And no, not everyone’s DNA tests are like that. My father’s results were far more homogeneous with almost exactly 2/3 Irish and 1/3 English. Here’s another interesting tidbit. I have just been contacted by a woman in Austria who noted that our DNA tests showed we had a common ancestor. From my research, almost all of my ancestors that left Europe for Canada did so from the Normandy region and that last one left almost 250 years ago. None of them came from North Italy/Austria region except Prince Francis Savoie.

      – Cultural norms. The Savoie family history in Europe with one of great Catholic piety, public service and leadership. I clearly see those same strong traditions in my Savoie family today. They clearly reflect their ancestors. Heck, two of my uncles are named Francis and Thomas. Both very common first names in Savoie family history.

      – Not accepting the long standing family oral traditions of Prince Francis origins leaves other mysteries unanswered. For example: If Francis Savoie didn’t come from the house of Savoie then where did he come from? Where is the record of his parents? I have found almost all of my Norman French ancestors in Europe for a couple of generations back in France. How come I didn’t find Francis Savoie’s parents in Normandy? For that matter, how did he get the Savoie royal name? It’s certainly not a Norman French name. Next Question: If the oral tradition isn’t true, then who made it up? Why did they make it up? No one gained anything by it. Why was it’s veracity never doubted until very recently? Why did it have staying powere? Keep in mind that the oral tradition has to go back to a time before the dispersion of the Savoie family across North America.

      See, the preponderance of evidence is there. Why are you holding a higher standard of proof? Genealogical research would go no where under the extreme skepticism that you are espousing here.

      Anyway, please feel free to continue to dialog.

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  4. Actually, Anne of Cyprus and her husband duke Louis de Savoie acquired the Shroud from Marguerite de Charny (not Jeanne de Charny), the granddaughter of Geoffroy de Charny who founded the collegiate church at Lirey, in 1353. Jeanne de Vergy was the second wife of Geoffroy de Charny.

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  5. Hey there cousin!
    I have the same lineage until the pierre’s. I have francois Xavier that died in Massachusetts who fathered urgel savoie. Urgel fathered Henry Joseph Savoie who fathered my grandfather Henry Joseph Savoie Jr. My father is Michael Scott Savoie all from Worcester Massachusetts but moved to southern California in the 1950’s. Other than that we have the exact same lineage ❤

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    1. Hello Cousin! I am so glad you found my blog and I was able to help fill in our family’s wonderful history. Are you on Ancestory.com? If you send me your email address I would be happy to give you guest access to the Savoie family tree. Our cousin Louis Savoy (it can be spelled both ways) wrote a book in 1951 taking about the history of the family in Canada to include the story of how Prince Francis Savoie, the first Savoie in North America, came to Canada back in the 1600’s.

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