Breathing New Life into Vancouver’s Italian Cultural Centre

It’s a few minutes past six on a warm Vancouver evening in May outside Vancouver’s Italian Cultural Centre. Joe Finamore, President of Vancouver’s Italian Cultural Centre Society, introduces Father Louis Piran, pastor of St. Helen’s Parish. Under clear blue skies the Scalabrinian prete, resplendent in his official garments, steps forward amidst an ambience of Italian pride to deliver his invocation. An estimated six hundred guests, including some of the Italian Cultural Centre’s aging founding members, stand in reverence in the Piazza Giovanni Caboto.

Father Piran’s benediction substantiates the close connection that exists between the Catholic Church and the Italian community. He confers his blessings upon the crowd and building, sprinkling consecrated water through an aspergillum. He invokes God’s grace: “We remember the founding fathers and mothers of this Centre who are no longer among us. Give them the reward of their generosity. Let the thankful joy that is in the hearts of those who are gathered tonight, continue to shine on those who will continue to gather in this place to build communities of love and peace. Bless it, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.”

A ribbon with five tricolore rosettes is affixed across the exterior width of the double door entrance. Five official guests, flanked by two carabinieri, are each handed a pair of scissors. The crowd is expectant. Tension is building as the guests inch forward to witness the ribbon-cutting ceremony that will give legend to the grand re-opening festivities.

Joe Finamore, British Columbia Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Multiculturalism Wally Oppal, MLA Adrian Dix, Italian Consul General Uberto Vanni d’Archirafi and Vancouver Councillor Kim Capri clip away. The ribbon succumbs to the shearing and flutters gracefully to the granite floor. A solitary saxophonist emerges to provide a brief musical interlude. Responding to this impromptu reveille, the guests march past the officials and into the main hall.

Once inside the expansive and beautifully refurbished main hall, master of ceremonies Ashli Komaryk-De Lucio calls for attention by introducing Romana Barillaro who will sing the national anthems of Canada and Italy. Her voice, the first melodic expression to resonate in the acoustically sensitive hall, inspires those with hands over their hearts to join in the singing with patriotic fervour.

The guests mingle and congratulate one another; they talk and scrutinize the beauty and ambiance of the new surroundings, as the transformation of the grand hall becomes evident. A high level of excitement permeates the hall, which is reminiscent of the original opening of the Centre almost 29 years ago. Many of the guests talk of that earlier event preening with patriotic pride.

Six video screens, including a retractable one, suspended from the stage ceiling soon transmit visual images of the celebration. The high-tech electronic wizardry of the upgraded facility is designed to impress – and it does. The objective: a growing list of corporate clients seeking a distinctively modern venue for their conferences. The exercise was dubbed an investment, as projected increases in rental revenues will help pay down the debt. Moreover, this new-found money will provide funding for a new generation of programmes and activities.

There is an air of anticipation and transition within the ICCS membership these days. Change is imminent and predictable. A lot of it has been caused by a virtual cessation of immigration from Italy. As a consequence, there is little or no prospect for natural membership renewal on the horizon. Therefore, the raison d’être of the Centre – that of being a cultural home for Italian immigrant families – appears to be in jeopardy. The situation is further complicated by the fact that a majority of second and third generation Canadians of Italian heritage lack their parents’ passion for practising the culture of Italy. Moreover, they appear reluctant to pick up the cudgels tossed to them by their aging parents and grandparents. Therefore, what are the options for the Italian Cultural Centre as the phenomenon of Italian-born members passing into history accelerates?

The ICCS Board of Directors knows well the challenges it faces. It’s a bit of a gamble, but they are looking to market to a modified demographic. They’re going to seek out those who are enamoured or passionate about things Italian, regardless of their ethnic persuasion. Among the future users will be those planning to travel to Italy. It is hoped that they will want to visit the Centre for language and cultural instruction before beginning their sojourn. The youth, especially soccer players, are another major target group. It is anticipated that they will be attracted in larger numbers to the Centre by the prospect of a new gymnasium. And connoisseurs of Italian food, students of the arts and history buffs will be sure to present themselves at the consumer friendly jewel in the crown of Vancouver’s Italian community.

To some extent the present administration is banking on building its way out of the dilemma. If the climate is right they will want to add a new gym, theatre, mini-reception hall, museum and a refurbished library. There could also be an interest in developing an assisted-living facility for seniors. All of this will cost millions of dollars. Without some six figure donations from philanthropists representing the Italian corporate elite, this dream may never materialize – certainly not in the short term.

Excerpt from Vancouver’s Society of Italians, Volume III by Ray Culos.

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