San Ambrosio Church is tucked away in the green heart of the Knysna forest.   It is not glamorous or architecturally impressive, but rather tells the story of 32 pioneering Italian families that were brought to the forest to start up a silk farming industry, but then suffered unexpected hardships.


In May 1881 the Italians were brought to Gouna with the intention and under the impression that there were an abundance of mulberry trees in the forest.  They were to start up a silk industry on the African continent.  It turned out that the mulberry trees that the woodcutters referred to were not related by any means to the real mulberry at all.

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After the project failed the families were abandoned by the government and had to make a living out of agriculture, cattle farming and some also became woodcutters.   Thus in 1891 the small San Ambrosio Church was built to render sort of a connection to their lives back home in far away Italy.

Today you will still find Italian surnames not only in and around Knysna but their decedents are scattered all over South Africa.


The church is open daily for visits and a little museum tells the captivating history of the forgotten Italians of the forest.  To find the church, take the road up the hill past Simola, turn left at the Gouna turn off and carry on with the gravel road until you find a sign on the left leading to the church.

This story is also told in the well known book Mulberry Forest (Moerbeibos) of Dalene Matthee.  I have just decided that with my new found knowledge it is time to read the book once again with a new perspective and empathy.

Comments (6)

  1. furtdso linopv

    I’m really impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it is rare to see a great blog like this one these days..

  2. TravelBucket (Post author)

    Hi Reggie, you can also follow Travelbucket on Facebook.

  3. Richard and Petra Zanner

    Hi, we are SA, living in Australia, and are presently researching our family tree. We are directly related to the Italian silk merchant family of Grassi(e), Mangiagalli, Canovi. Would love to get a copy of the Mulberry Tree by Darlene Mathee. Also would be interested in info documentation that you may have on file with stories or photos of these families. Monica Genevieve Grassi,married Giacomo Canovi A child born of this union married an Auditore which is our grandparent .She is our great grandmother. Thanking you in advance for any time you take to assist.
    Kind Regards Richard and Petra Zanner. Sydney Australia.

    1. TravelBucket (Post author)

      Mulberry Tree Forest is available as an e-book from Takealot and Amazon. Follow the link for more information on the author and her stories:

  4. Christi

    It’s difficult to find knowledgeable people for this topic, but
    you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

  5. Nicky

    Thank you for this interesting and well informed article. My wife is a direct descendant from the Canovi, Ambrosio branch and this will be tucked away with our family history.


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