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.
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.
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!
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.
Farther back, I discovered my 20th great-grandmother: 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.
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.
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.
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!