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The Trail of Faith: Following the Waldensians to America.

Updated on February 25, 2013
The Piedmont region.
The Piedmont region. | Source

The Waldensian Exodus

By the middle of the 19th century, the Waldensian situation had begun to improve. Centuries of persecution for their protestant faith had come to an end. In 1848, King Charles Albert signed the Edict of Emancipation, giving them the legal right to openly practice the religion that defined them. Yet all was not well. The Waldensians were still relegated to their territory in the Piedmont region of the Cottian Alps. By the end of the century, population pressures and failing crops had forced groups of Waldensians to emigrate from their Italian homeland. One the largest and most successful of these exoduses was the migration to Burke County in North Carolina in 1893.

Waldensian schoolchildren and teacher in Valdese, NC, 1905
Waldensian schoolchildren and teacher in Valdese, NC, 1905 | Source

From Piedmont to Piedmont.

The first group of 29 Waldensians crossed the Atlantic to settle new land in Burke County, North Carolina in May of 1893. They arrived by train and were tasked with taming uncleared land and setting up shelter for themselves and the approximately 200 fellow Waldensians that were forthcoming. They left the Piedmont region of the Italian Alps to settle in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, and though the similar names are a coincidence, the foothills of the Appalachians must have seemed a familiar landscape. Their settlement became the town of Valdese, NC, incorporated in 1920. By 1938 Valdese was known as the fastest growing town in North Carolina. It survives as a beautiful village set at the edge of the Appalachians. Its transformation from unsettled wilderness to its present state is chronicled in an outdoor exhibit called the Trail of Faith, located just beyond the center of Valdese.

The Trail of Faith

The Trail of Faith is an open-air museum that recreates the physical spaces inhabited by the Waldensians. Churches, houses, and monuments come alive and the visitor can stand where the Waldensians stood, and see what they saw. A visit to the trail is a moving experience that creates a palpable sense of the Waldensian's suffering, struggle and perseverance. The Trail begins in Italy and moves through time and space to the present day. What follows is a photographic tour of the trail, shot on a quiet winter day when I had the whole exhibit to myself.

The Barbi College, built in the middle ages, served as both seminary and fortified sanctuary for the Waldensians.
The Barbi College, built in the middle ages, served as both seminary and fortified sanctuary for the Waldensians. | Source
Interior of the Barbi College at the Trail of Faith exhibit.
Interior of the Barbi College at the Trail of Faith exhibit. | Source
Three firs to symbolize the Trinity.  The gun turret is visible in the wall behind.
Three firs to symbolize the Trinity. The gun turret is visible in the wall behind. | Source

The Barbi College.

The Barbi College, where the early Waldensians worked to memorize the scriptures and train to spread the gospel in secret. The college was both a seminary and sanctuary fortified to fend off the attacks of persecutors. The stable, or lower floor of the exhibit features a gallery of medieval prints that illustrate the persecutions of the Waldensians in their native land. The prints are from woodcuts and even in their primitive style their detail of the torture wrought upon the Waldensians by their persecutors is haunting. The study room is reportedly the place where Pierre Robert Olivetan created the very first vernacular language Bible by translating it into French.

Shaft of light in the Church of the Cave exhibit at the Trail of Faith exhibit.
Shaft of light in the Church of the Cave exhibit at the Trail of Faith exhibit. | Source

Church of the Cave.

Another moving site is the recreation of the Church of the Cave. An actual cave has been recreated to reflect caves that the Waldensians used to conduct their worship in secret. The original Church of the Cave is the most famous of these, having a natural shaft of light that gave inspiration to the Waldensian worshipers. The shaft of light has been recreated in the exhibit.

The entrance to the cave at the Trail of Faith exhibit.  The Waldensian worshipers entered by crawling through the small opening.
The entrance to the cave at the Trail of Faith exhibit. The Waldensian worshipers entered by crawling through the small opening. | Source
A replica of the Monument of Chanforan, commemorating the Waldensian union with the Reformation in 1532.  From the Trail of Faith Exhibit.
A replica of the Monument of Chanforan, commemorating the Waldensian union with the Reformation in 1532. From the Trail of Faith Exhibit. | Source

The Monument at Chanforan

The Monument of Chanforan commemorates the Waldensians official coalition with the Reformation. It is also dedicated to the Olivetan Bible that was so influential to this movement.

A replica of the Temple of Ciabas, originally built in 1555. It is thought to be the first protestant church.  It doubled as a place of sanctuary during sieges.
A replica of the Temple of Ciabas, originally built in 1555. It is thought to be the first protestant church. It doubled as a place of sanctuary during sieges. | Source
Detail of the barricaded window at the Temple of Ciabas.
Detail of the barricaded window at the Temple of Ciabas. | Source

The Temple at Ciabas

A replication of the original temple in Ciabas that was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the 33 wars of invasion that were wrought on the Waldensians. Like the Barbi College, the temple was built like a fortress with thick walls and barricaded windows designed as gun turrets. The original still stands in Italy, and may be the oldest Protestant church in the world.

Exit Departure site

This monument marks commemorates the exile of almost 3,000 Waldensians from their homeland in the Italian Alps.  Forced to either renounce their faith or flee the country, the overwhelming majority chose exile.  200 people died in the Alpine crossing
This monument marks commemorates the exile of almost 3,000 Waldensians from their homeland in the Italian Alps. Forced to either renounce their faith or flee the country, the overwhelming majority chose exile. 200 people died in the Alpine crossing | Source

Exile Departure Site.

The genocidal campaigns launched against the Waldensians reached their height in the middle to late 17th century. Many thousands were slaughtered, and many of those killed suffered brutal torture by forces led by the Duke of Savoy. Those that were not killed were imprisoned, but a small number managed to escape and formed a heroic guerrilla resistance. This small band of survivors succeeded in bargaining for the release of the remaining prisoners. The Duke gave the prisoners the choice to either accept conversion to Catholicism, or exile to Switzerland. Most chose exile, and in the winter of 1687 almost 3,000 Waldensians began a march across the Alps. About 200 froze to death.

The Monument at Sibaud.
The Monument at Sibaud. | Source

The Monument at Sibaud.

One thing thing in clear evidence throughout the near-millennium long history of the Waldensians is their unconquerable spirit. Less than two years after their near-extinction and exile, they fought their way back to regain their homeland. 900 resolute Waldensians successfully routed 2500 French troops led by the Duke of Savoy. The French suffered casualties 20 times that of the Waldensians in a battle that Napoleon called "the greatest military exploit of the 17th century." The Monument at Sibaud is engraved with the names of every church that was recaptured.

Portrait of Charles Beckwith in the Beckwith School at the Trail of Faith.
Portrait of Charles Beckwith in the Beckwith School at the Trail of Faith. | Source
Interior of the Beckwith school.
Interior of the Beckwith school. | Source
Valdese schoolchildren and teacher, inside the Beckwith School.
Valdese schoolchildren and teacher, inside the Beckwith School. | Source

The Beckwith School.

This school is an exact replica of one of 165 that was built with the help of Canadian Charles Beckwith. Beckwith was a veteran of the Napoleonic wars who learned about the Waldensians in the early 1800s. He came to visit and was inspired enough to live with them in the Piedmont for 30 years building schools.

Memorial Fountain at Torre Pellice.
Memorial Fountain at Torre Pellice. | Source

Memorial Fountain at Torre Pellice.

In 1844, King Charles of Sardinia made a trip to meet with the Waldensians at Torre Pellice and he too, was impressed. Charles became sympathetic to the Waldensian cause and four years after his visit, he signed the Edict of Emancipation finally granting them the right to practice their religion. King Charles had the fountain erected as a gift to the Waldensians for their hospitality during his visit.

The Tron House

The Tron House at the Trail of Faith Exhibit in Valdese, NC.
The Tron House at the Trail of Faith Exhibit in Valdese, NC. | Source
Interior of the Tron House.
Interior of the Tron House. | Source
The Tron House.
The Tron House. | Source
Table in the Tron House.
Table in the Tron House. | Source

The Tron House.

At the Tron house, the Trail of Faith enters the new world of Valdese, NC. The house was built by Pierre and Louise Tron as part of the initial settlement. It is not a replica, but is the actual house; one of the first buildings built by the first party to arrive in Valdese. It was originally 15 x 15 feet -- one half of its current size, due to the shortage of wood available as the first 29 settlers scrambled to provide living space for the 200 that were on the way that year.

The Sawmill with Big Waldo

Replica of the sawmill at the Waldensian Trail of Faith.
Replica of the sawmill at the Waldensian Trail of Faith. | Source
"Big Waldo."
"Big Waldo." | Source

The Sawmill & Big Waldo.

The land in Burke county was originally mortgaged to the Waldensians as a sort of trade agreement. A sawmill was given to the settlers, and they agreed to sell surplus lumber to pay for the land. Unfortunately, this arrangement did not work out. The Waldensians were unfamiliar with the mill's operation, and they were unable to make a surplus of wood. "Plan B" was instituted, and the land deal was rescinded, with the Waldensians buying back the land in farm-sized parcels. The mill is a replica built around the original gasoline engine: "Old Waldo."

The Community Oven

Community oven in the style of a Piedmont, Alpine village.
Community oven in the style of a Piedmont, Alpine village. | Source

The Community Oven.

One of the first buildings to go up in the settlement was a community oven. In Italy, the Waldensian families took turns baking bread in ovens like these in every village. The settlement's women raised money for the masonry to be built by visiting local churches and singing French hymns.

The Refour House at the Trail of Faith Exhibit, Valdese, NC.
The Refour House at the Trail of Faith Exhibit, Valdese, NC. | Source
Interior of the Refour House.
Interior of the Refour House. | Source
Living area in the Refour House.
Living area in the Refour House. | Source
Fireplace and mantel in the Refour House.
Fireplace and mantel in the Refour House. | Source

The Refour House

The Refour House is an Italian-style farmhouse that was typical of the permanent homes of the Valdese settlers. Typically, a bare bones wooden structure like the Tron house would be augmented with fieldstone and expanded into a three-story house. The Refour house is built in the style of the Waldensians in the Piedmont Alps, and indeed could exist there. One typical feature is the bottom story that acts as a stable for the farm animals, thereby providing auxiliary heat for the upper floors.

Photos of the Waldensians over the mantel inside  the Refour House at the Trail of Faith in Valdese, NC.
Photos of the Waldensians over the mantel inside the Refour House at the Trail of Faith in Valdese, NC. | Source
The Waldensian War Memorial.
The Waldensian War Memorial. | Source
The Pentagon Memorial at the Trail of Faith, Valdese, NC.
The Pentagon Memorial at the Trail of Faith, Valdese, NC. | Source

The Waldensian War Memorial and Pentagon Memorial.

The Trail of Faith comes abruptly into the modern age with two memorials that commemorate their commitment to their new home in the U.S. The War Memorial lists the name of every Waldensian who has served in a U.S. armed conflict, including many who were lost.

The Pentagon Memorial honors Lieutenant Eric Allen Cranford, who died in the September 2001 attacks. The memorial contains a piece of the rubble from the destroyed section of the Pentagon.

More to see.

There is more to the exhibit, including a bocci ball court complete with stands, and an outdoor amphitheater exclusively for performances of "From This Day Forward," a drama that recounts the Waldensian story, written by Valdese native Fred Cranford. It has been running for 30 years.


The museum is open year round, and guided tours are available, or you are free to wander around by yourself as I did. More information is available at their website: waldensiantrailoffaith.org.

Interior setting of the Tron House at the Trail of Faith exhibit in Valdese, NC.
Interior setting of the Tron House at the Trail of Faith exhibit in Valdese, NC. | Source

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