The Roseto Effect

Last November, preaching on the topic of “communal resilience,” I told the story of Roseto, Pennsylvania and what is now referred to among sociologists and medical doctors as “the Roseto Effect.”

In the late 1880s, the town of Roseto Valfortore, Italy, was going through a period of poverty. Several young men moved to the United States, settling in a small town in Pennsylvania. In time, hundreds of others from Roseto Valfortore joined them in Pennsylvania, and they named the area they settled in “Roseto” after their hometown in Italy.

In Pennsylvania, they maintained the old ways of their homeland. It was a close-knit community of multiple generations. They often ate meals together, they took walks after dinner, chatting with their neighbors. They took care of each other when someone got sick.

In 1961, Dr. Stewart Wolf was vacationing in the area, and a couple of his physician colleagues got to chatting about the curious case of Roseto. Virtually no one died of heart disease there. Compared to nearby towns, the citizens of Roseto lived far longer, healthier lives.

Dr. Wolf set to work researching this. Better diet? Perhaps they didn’t smoke or drink? But this was not the case. They ate heavy diets, and relied on the inexpensive products of the area – not olive oil, but lard. They smoke, they drank copious amounts of wine. It just didn’t make sense. So Wolf brought in a friend, a sociologist, John Bruhn. They set up an office in Roseto, and went to work observing, questioning, and getting to know the day-to-day activities of the town.

Their conclusion? It was the relationships, the community, that made the crucial difference.

Our country is in an epidemic of loneliness. Last May, the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a new Surgeon General advisory, saying:

“Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight – one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives. Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders. Together, we can build a country that’s healthier, more resilient, less lonely, and more connected.”

What we do in our congregation to build community is no little thing. It can literally be lifesaving. It’s too important to leave it to mere chance. We are, here, creating our own intentional, intergenerational village. We are bringing our lives together, sharing our joys and sorrows, caring for each other.

This week, I was the recipient of some of that care, as the news got out that my sister Becca had died. Thank you to everyone who reached out to let me know you were sorry for our loss. It really touched me, and reminded me that I am not alone. I’m not alone … I am part of a village of people with similar values, and a similar commitment to our community, and the parish around us.