Before the 15th century word heretics had become common in Europe, three centuries earlier there was one group of non-conformists around the southeastern town of Lyon, France known as “the poor of Lyons” or the Waldensians. In the literature of the time these “heretics” followed the teachings of a man known variously as Valdes, Valdesius, Valdensius, and Waldo (Valdo) from the city of Lyons. Their apparent break from mainstream Catholicism began in about 1170 CE not because they gave up a life of comfort and wealth – in medieval Europe this was quite popular and common – but because Waldo began translating the Holy Scriptures into common speech and then allowed lay people to read it and share it anywhere.
If anyone is aware and knowledgeable of medieval Europe and the stranglehold the Roman Catholic Church and Vatican had over its parishioners and daily life, then you know the punishment for dissension or heresy was no slap-on-the-hand. If the fathers or bishops deemed your behavior severe, you could lose your life or soul, or both. The practices of Waldo and his followers was ecclesiastical usurping: no one other than the church pontiffs could interpret and teach the Bible. This crime was punishable by excommunication. These are the times my maternal ancestors come from: Waldensians: the Bonnet clan of Chambons-Mentoulles of Cluson Valley, Italy and Lyon, France.
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Groups of “heretics” began surfacing all over 12th and 13th century Europe as the Vatican and Pope Lucias III persecuted such dissension more and more. Many groups, including my ancestors, went into hiding or fled. My ancestors eluded numerous arrests and escaped massacre after massacre. During the late 1400’s several groups were fleeing into parts of Switzerland, and Germany, then Prussia the eventual birthplace of the Protestant Reformation. By 1532 because of many doctrinal similarities the Waldensians officially joined the European Reformation inside congregations of Presbyterian and Calvinist churches. The Bonnet clan (pronounced Bonné) and others found refuge in the Cluson Valley just outside of Turin. They would soon be tracked down there.
The Catholic Duke of Savoy located the Waldensians (also known as the Vaudois) in the Piedmont region of Italy in April 1655. This is known as the Piedmont Easter Massacre. The English poet John Milton pinned a sonnet about the slaughter:
“Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold,
Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones;
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To Heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O’er all th’ Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who having learnt thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.”
The Bonnet clan once again escaped…miraculously. By 1699 persecutions and inquisitions by the Papacy and King Louis XIV forced my ancestors into hiding and fleeing again. They settled their families in Charlottenberg, Germany outside of Koblenz. There were 91 families remaining of Waldensians and Huguenot refugees from Italy, all welcomed by the Countess Elisabeth Charlotte Melander von Holzapfel-Schaumburg of Prussia (whew, say that 3-times fast!). The hills and castles still exist there today as the town of Holzappel, Germany.
The late 17th century found many agricultural and economic hardships, even for The Poor of Lyons who graciously chose a modest frugal life focusing on others. During the decades of 1830 to 1840, many Waldensians and Prussians had heard about and read about the ease of acquiring land deeds in a place called The Republic of Texas across the Atlantic Ocean. The government there was ambitiously seeking Europeans of non-Spanish origin to come settle throughout central Texas. Texas was near bankruptcy after fighting Mexico for independence and desperately sought to grow and stimulate their economy. Johann Holzapfel from Charlottenberg had already started the immigration from Prussia, to Antwerp, Belgium, and on to Galveston, Texas in 1844. My direct ancestor Philipp Daniel Bonnet (sometimes spelled Phillip) arrived at the port of Indianola, Texas in 1845 just months before the Republic was annexed into the United States.
Much of the settlements of central Texas are of European heritage, particularly German. The group of Prussians my family followed were the ones who founded New Braunfels, Texas. Two generations later my great, great, great, great, great (five greats) grandfather Henry Daniel Bonnet moved to Austin, Texas and helped construct our state capitol building; little to no work could be found as New Braunfels and the surrounding towns had become over-populated with European immigrants seeking employment, land, and religious freedom. My mother’s ancestors and family still populate several towns around Austin, including inside its city-limits.
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During the flow of immigration into 19th century Texas, my paternal ancestors arrived as well. Not as much (or as detailed) is known about my father’s ancestors. Perhaps they were not as fortunate inside the kill-infested parts of Catholic Europe. However, and to my good fortune obviously, the few migrated to, settled and stayed near Galveston. My paternal grandfather and grandmother are also of German-French heritage: Miller (Mueller), Konzack, both German on his side, and Tacquard (French) on her side. This side of my family is understandably much more distrustful of large organized religious institutions.
I remember my paternal grandfather had a strong independent personality. He was one of few sons that had graduated from the University of Houston working most of his adult life at a chemical refinery. Not surprisingly my father was agnostic. His mother, my grandmother, I remember had a most kind gentle demeanor with a little pizzazz that shined on the dance floor. She was an intermediate school teacher her entire life. Both naturally loved family life and had unbelievable work ethics; they had to coming from and living through two world wars.
The most precious memories I have of my childhood and adolescence was the never-ending fun me and my cousins would have during family barbecues, beer drinking (by adults of course! Well…), music and dancing on top of the saw-dusted pavilion or barn floor. It was no surprise to me either, that in my same spiritual journey, why or how my two families found each other and became attracted. The historical and genetic record fits nicely onto a most intriguing suspenseful family tree of how I came to be.
I was born into the best two families – deeply bound in an intimate, intense, painful, passionate yet supportive SURVIVING two families – a person could ever wish for. It makes perfect sense why I have such deep Bohemian Free-thinking humanist-caring tendencies! And I thank God…no, correction…the family tree that I come from such an incredible history! I can picture my paternal grandmother teaching my father “We will teach you how to think, and not what to think” and my father passing down the same principle to me. Decades later my mother, working at Southwestern Bell Telephone in Austin, meets my father on a blind date, he a part-time engineering student at the University of Texas in Austin and putting himself through college while working for an electrical company. No surprise, there was a familiar (or familial) chemistry. About four years later cupid’s arrow found its mark and at the risk of stating the obvious…so did my Dad!
One of my dad’s favorite trees was the evergreen magnolia tree, especially when it bloomed. The flowers have a distinct smell, like fresh sweet lemonade. He, myself and my sister planted one in the front yard. When I last drove by the home of my youth, it had grown to some 40-50 feet into the sky. I could only imagine how the neighborhood smelled when it bloomed.
As the past weekend of resurrection stories and folklore prevailed, my larger perspective was much more personal, much more caring in small ways, like a close family who, to understate, has learned in so many ways over so many generations the real-life meaning of Easter.
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