July 5, 2024

Exploring religion in historic central Italy an immersive academic experience

Second successful year running for UCalgary students
A mountaintop view of a village in Itay
A view of the Valle Peligna, the home base for the RELS Italy GSP, taken from Pacentro, Abruzzo, Italy. Harrison French

Twenty-one UCalgary students embarked on an enriching academic journey through the picturesque and historically rich region of Abruzzo, Italy, as part of the Religion in Central Italy Group Study Program. Led by professor George Ferzoco with Dr. Carolyn Muessig, PhD, from the Faculty of Arts, this immersive program offered students the rare opportunity to delve into the historical and contemporary dimensions of religious ideas and practices, spanning from pre-Roman times to the present day.

“This group study program, inspired by the synergies of research and teaching within the Department of Classics and Religion, relates clearly to our three degree programs: Ancient and Medieval History, Greek and Roman Studies, and Religious Studies. This interdisciplinary approach emphasizes two central themes: commemoration and transformation. These themes were explored through the rich historical tapestry of Abruzzo, a region teeming with sites that perfectly exemplify these concepts,” says Ferzoco.

“The central Italian region of Abruzzo — immediately east of Lazio, where Rome and Vatican City are located — is ideally suited as a base for such a program for several reasons. Abruzzo abounds in sites that exemplify these themes throughout history, from pre-Roman Italic temples to contemporary monuments and churches. 

“Ovid, one of the Western tradition’s most outstanding poets dealing with both our main themes, was born in Abruzzo’s bustling market town of Sulmona and wrote the consistently studied and beloved Metamorphoses, an inspiration to poets and artists for two millennia.”

A group of people sit around a table enjoying food and drink

Students praised their hotel, Hotel Santacroce Meeting, for its comfort, food and staff.

Tori Wells

The program included weekly day trips to Rome, where students visited iconic sites such as ancient forums and significant basilicas and cathedrals. One highlight was the visit to San Clemente, a basilica showcasing Rome's layered history. Descending from the 12th-century church to the first-century room dedicated to the mysterious figure of Mithras, students experienced first-hand the historical strata of religious practices and beliefs.

However, the program's success is largely attributed to the diverse local experiences available in Abruzzo. Students participated in a pilgrimage from Sulmona to Pratola Peligna, joining locals in the annual feast of the Madonna della Libera, commemorating a miraculous plague liberation in the 16th century. 

This first-hand experience of living traditions allowed students to witness the transformation of historical events into contemporary religious practices. Students also explored the ancient town of Corfinio, with its Roman mausoleums and the cathedral of San Pelino, and the medieval hermitage in Raiano.

Katie Powell, one of the participating students, shared her thoughts on the program: “Every site we visited was absolutely incredible, I really loved visiting the hermitages. I’d never really learned much about early Christian hermits and monks before. 

“We had many local guides and academics take us to different sites. It was amazing seeing the perspective of the people who actually live amongst the history and, as a bonus, getting an introduction to modern Italian culture as well. 

“After this experience, I’m looking into doing a master's degree much more seriously. I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much in a three-week span. No matter what I end up doing in my academic career from here on, this will always be an experience I am so grateful for.”

Harrison French, another participant said, “The time I spent in Sulmona and in sites across Central Italy with George, Carolyn, and the entire GSP Central Italy crew was an unforgettable three weeks. More than just learning about the sites that we visited, George and Carolyn immersed all of us students in what life was like for Pagans and early Christians in the Apennine Mountains of Abruzzo. 

“Their breadth of knowledge in the realm of medieval and religious studies strengthened every site we visited, as they were able to present key elements to understanding the who, what, where, why, and how of the place where we actually stood. Leaving this trip, and reflecting on my time as a student, a traveller, and a part of the Religious Studies in Central Italy GSP, I cannot encourage other students enough to consider this trip as part of their university program. 

“Even coming from any discipline at our school, George and Carolyn’s expertise and passion for not only the subject, but also for teaching and being in the field with students, ensures that one does not leave Italy without a deep and fascinating understanding of the country’s religious life and culture throughout the ages.”

Suloma mayor Gianfranco Di Piero, right, greeted students and prof George Piero Ferzoco in the town’s council chamber.

Sulmona mayor Gianfranco Di Piero, right, greeted students and prof George Piero Ferzoco in the town’s council chamber.

Micah Ferguson

Despite the intense schedule, with visits to multiple sites daily, the program ensured students had time to reflect and absorb their experiences. It integrated local culture seamlessly, exposing students to the diverse dialects and regional pride of Abruzzo. Personal greetings from council members and mayors highlighted the unique significance of each community visited. Students engaged in informal discussions comparing Italian cultures with Indigenous ways of knowing, broadening their perspectives on cultural diversity.

This transformative journey through central Italy not only deepened students' academic understanding but also enriched their appreciation of the complex interplay between history, culture, and religion. As the program concluded, the students returned to Calgary with a wealth of knowledge and unforgettable memories, ready to apply their insights to their future academic and personal endeavors.

The 2024 Religious Studies in Central Italy is part of this year's Group Study Programs, which provide annual faculty-led experiential learning for UCalgary students globally. This year 260 students travelled on 18 different programs to 18 countries worldwide, organized by UCalgary instructors and UCalgary International, to complete course credits and gain hands-on experience. 

Group Study Programs allow students to develop new global connections and a stronger understanding of their future careers. Instructors also have the opportunity to tailor program courses to existing research and teaching connections. For instructors who are looking to develop Group Study Programming within their courses, please connect with the Global Learning team at group.study@ucalgary.ca. 

The 2025 Group Study Programs will open for student applications on Oct. 1, 2024. Learn more

Study group participants included Nadia Ghannouchi, Emily Hills, Aleena Matharu, Clare Young, Micah Ferguson, George Ferzoco, Vanessa Fleischer, Idalia Galindo Flores, Asha Nenshi Nathoo, Harrison French, Vama Saini, Caitlin Milne, Charlotte Dover, Zara Jairath, Emily Alexandria, Carolyn Muessig, Katie Powell, Tori Wells, Annie Sullivan, Reid Williamson, Prabh Waraich, Arieus Carifelle, and Alan Dunlop.