Do you have a Caetani Story?

The Caetani Family has been iconic in the Greater Vernon community for many years. The heartbreaking and inspiring story of their young daughter, and our benefactor, Sveva Caetani, is one that resonates throughout the community and beyond, garnering national and even international attention. 2017 marks the 100th birthday of Sveva Caetani, and you are invited to take part in this community endeavour to record these stories.

Contribute directly to this blog using the Contact Us form, or contact playwright Janet Munsil, the 2017 Kalamalka Press/OK College writer in residence at the Caetani Centre, who is currently working on a play based on community stories, legends and encounters.

Thank you to Heidi Thompson for use of the photograph of Sveva Caetani.

Hands down my favorite teacher. I can still hear her voice in my head as she guided me through my art projects. She inspired so many young people who have grown into accomplished artists today. Even in later years coming to our weddings and meeting our children she always looked for opportunities to inspire and encourage the love of the arts in all she met. A lovely lady who was wise and never minced words ~ Della Vanderburg-Morrison, posted on Facebook, December 2016 

Memories of life in the Caetani House – contributed 2014
~ Uta Von Ziffle

In 1971 my family was looking for a new home. Not just any place would do. We were a family of seven and had a lot of very large furniture that my parents had brought with them from Germany fifteen years before. It was then that my parents heard of a large house on an acre and a half in the middle of Vernon that belonged to a lady who had practically been held captive there by her mother for many years. When the mother had died all the family money had been left to the church, but the house had been left to this Italian lady named Sveva Caetani. So in her forties she went from captivity to university to get her teaching degree. The story and the name intrigued me.

We moved into the stately house in the spring of 1971, but it was four years before I would actually meet this imposing lady.   At this time in her life, the memories of her captivity were too painful for Sveva to even drive by her old home. She had decided she would sell the place, which suited us perfectly. My parents rented it with an option to buy. There were a few times in those first four years that they tried to exercise the option, but Sveva was obviously struggling with emotions. Each time she would up the price or put some condition on the sale that would make it impossible for my parents to buy.

In the meantime we enjoyed full use of the house and property except for one shed that stored many of Sveva’s things. My father had found out about a continuing use clause in the city’s bylaws, so chickens, ducks and rabbits occupied the chicken coops. The neighbours weren’t too keen on having a rooster in the middle of town (he didn’t stay), but they were thrilled at having the fresh eggs that I would deliver once a week.

Our Great Danes made good use of the beautiful dog kennels and every now and again I would ride my horse from the B.X. ranch to the house where he would graze in the bottom part of the yard. We thoroughly enjoyed the house and the gardens which were a wonderful mixture of cultivated and wild. My father set up a swing in the branches of a huge weeping willow tree which would almost totally hide you. There were great “thinking places” whether it was the roof of the shed, or in the huge attic of the house where some of the Caetani’s belongings had been left behind. It was not hard to imagine a life behind those walls in years gone by. My mother told me that Sveva had been forbidden by her mother to practise her art. Apparently her mother was afraid of losing her if she became well known. Yet her creativity was evident everywhere from the terraced gardens to the filigree woodwork between the living room and dining room.  

I was between the ages of 12 and 17 when we lived there, so grew from the stage of racing up the ‘servants’ stairs and sliding down the banister of the majestic stairs at the front entrance, to learning how to walk like a young lady fitting of her surroundings. My first kiss was experienced in that house. We filled the house with the joy and laughter of our family and many people, young and old who would come and visit.

In the fifth year, however, Sveva decided she wanted to see her old home. That was quite a startling announcement. We had enjoyed the house as our own with the hopes of always being able to live there. The one thing I remember that caused my parents concern was the scratch marks on the wooden doors from dogs telling us they wanted to come in – so those were sanded down and repainted. This was quite an imposing lady we were expecting.

When I finally met her she was as striking as I had imagined her. Standing six feet tall, she freely expressed her opinions (my sister’s new short haircut, for example, made her look too old, she said). Fortunately she was very pleased with how we had kept the place and kept commenting on how good everything looked. I’m sure memories were flooding back for her (as they were for my sisters and I when we visited the Caetani home in 2014.) That was the beginning of the end, so to speak. Some time after that visit, Sveva made the decision that she wanted to move back into her house and we were on the look out for a new home. We moved out in June 1976 after five very enjoyable, memorable years in that historic place.