Mythopoeia, or myth making, are narratives that create reliable explanations for ontic stability. They are stories that interplay archetypes and stereotypes, roam between past and present experience, facilitate socialization, actualizes spiritual or non-secular belief systems that, when held by a group of adherents, express traditions that explain man’s place in the universe and relationship with the infinite.
The adherence to religious beliefs consolidated, beyond the daily labour, the immigrant dream of success, and notions of individual identity within the group. By guiding the immigrant to accept his place in the universe, the Church allowed him to better understand his situation within the throes of modern society churning around him. Religion also served as a filter for examining issues in society and other components of the new culture. It became the expression of social cohesion.
In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Emile Durkheim contended that religion is the celebration, if not self-worship of human society. He proposed that religion has three major functions: it initiates social cohesion by fostering solidarity through shared rituals and beliefs; it maintains social control by enforcing religious-based morals and norms that shape conformity and control; finally, it offers meaning and purpose to existential questions.
While the traditional social institutions play an important role in community dynamics, it is essential not to overlook the singular importance of the institution of religion as an icon for the arriving immigrant. The influx of relatively poor foreign migrants poses problems to any host country. Bureaucratic and social services need to be invented to resolve basic, though vital, issues. Where and how will these new arrivals live? How will the skilled and unskilled find employment? Who will provide for the sick, for the education of youth? What of language training?
Given the general post-war climate in Canada, these potentially explosive problems were easily ignored, if not dismissed, by local governments for a variety of reasons. The process of moving through Pier 21 in Halifax, though daunting and always frightening, was mitigated by a Canadian cultural climate that accepted immigration as a necessary and welcome asset for national economic prosperity.
The dependence of arriving Italians on their own kinship network for social support, the relative ease of finding some sort of temporary employment, and the location of Italians in tight-knit enclaves of people from the same region or village softened the struggle immigrant counterparts had suffered in the United States. Furthermore, Italians arriving in Canada seemed self-sufficient, politically innocuous, socially untroubled and willing to sacrifice personal dignity for economic survival.
Reassured that these immigrants would not fundamentally change the social landscape and that they were of good character and could be easily absorbed, public opinion remained generally undaunted and indifferent. In an age where social difference was not ethnic but primarily economic, migrants settled in overpopulated immigrant quarters reminiscent of the colonies of Europe’s rural towns. As a lower class, they lived in conditions different from the more affluent citizens.
In Ottawa, the English and French politicos considered their immigrant ghettos relatively safe. The networks (migratory, economic, social, and political) were not really Italian but specific to each individual’s paese, and therefore not threatening. Most importantly, their acculturation to their Anglo-French surroundings was quick, deliberate, and accommodating. In short, Italian immigrants were just plain folks ready to adapt to the exigencies of survival in the New World.
If we understand the identity of these clusters of colonies throughout North America in local terms rather than as a national Italian identity, it is possible to comprehend each individual community’s struggle with the rising levels of expectations, and other social disruptions pressing down daily as a capacity to comply to local power while forging a new way of life.
The age of the ethno-cultural ghetto had begun; it seemed, for all practical purposes, that migration had infused a vigour of adaptability into the immigrant. If it were true that natural laws of selectivity demanded that only the strong sought adventure in the new world, it was also quite evident that while the stagnant and lethargic had remained behind in their homeland, the paesani who arrived, once given a modicum of possibility for success, quickly nurtured those customs and traditions that gave meaning to their lives.
The adaptability of the Italian to extreme conditions not only eased social tensions but created a space for the growth of those institutions that provided for the material welfare of the growing number of Italians in Ottawa. By enforcing an immigrant ambience, government also inadvertently reinforced the role of those same institutions that usually helped wayward and troubled souls in the immigrant’s native villages. Primary among these was the Roman Catholic Church.
The Italian-Canadian community of Ottawa is Roman Catholic by tradition. In the historical development of the community, the Church of St Anthony of Padua helped restore meaning and gave stability to the uprooted lives of the growing immigrant population. The Church not only reinforced religions faith but also consolidated an evolving cultural identity. In the absence of physicians and lawyers who were at least competent in the immigrant’s language, the role of the local priests was infinitely much wider than today and embraced many professions. How Italians regarded one another, how they were treated in their everyday lives, often stemmed from the sense of solidarity that was given them via the Church.
Sunday mass thus became a community focal point, providing space not only for worship and religious services, but also secured the secular, material, and social well-being of parishioners. Religious processions, the veneration of saints, parades in honour of important Italians began and ended at the church building.
Religion was used as a mechanism that facilitated greater involvement in community causes, and it was a decisive instrument for the development of a cohesive immigrant community. The church became the collective unconscious and served to define both the location and the limits of the Italian community.
The first mass for the newly arrived Italians in Ottawa was celebrated in April 1908 in the Capuchin Church of Saint Francis by the Reverend Father Fortunato Mizzi da Valletta of the Capuchin Order. A pioneer preacher of sorts in the early days of Ottawa, Father Fortunato took it upon himself to nurture and grow his small flock and, with the help of devoted parishioner Domenico Nasso, rented a small chapel on Murray Street near Dalhousie Street, from May 1908 to October 1913, for religious services and celebration of the sacraments. The location was close to the small Italian immigrant community assembling in the Preston Street area.
By 1913, the original group of 150 worshipers had grown to include most of the burgeoning community. The small Murray Street chapel could no longer sustain the increasing number of parishioners. It was time to build a larger church.
Father Fortunato received permission from the Archbishop of Ottawa, Monsignor Carlo Ugo Gauthier, to found a new mission, or parish, close to the Italian immigrant population of Dalhousie Street. The cornerstone of the church was laid by the monsignor on the bright and sunny spring day of May 18, 1913.
No sooner had construction begun when the house immediately adjacent to the church was put on sale. Father Fortunato promptly set about to find the necessary money to purchase the property as he felt it was the perfect location for a future monastery. The Capuchin Order was unwilling to assume the debt for acquiring the building nor, he was told, were they willing to assume responsibility for maintaining the new church once it was completed.
What to do? Never one to accept defeat, the good father spoke to Brother Tommaso Ciofini, OSM, and convinced him to speak to his confraternity in Montreal regarding both the purchase of the nearby property and the future funding of the church. Shortly thereafter, the Order of the Servants of Mary agreed to purchase the property that was for sale. On July 31, 1913, the land became a church holding. The future of St Anthony’s was also secured as the Servants of Mary officially assumed responsibility for its financial well-being.
Construction of the rather unsophisticated building was rapid. It was not very large, measuring only 19 by 12 meters. “Quattro muri per non dire tre,” Father A. M. Prosperi, OSM, and first pastor of St Anthony’s would often say. Indeed, the church was small. Three of its walls were out of brick; the wall behind the altar was constructed out of wood to facilitate future expansion. A typically Canadian sloping roof and two large but simple windows graced the plain brick facade. A large basement ensured space for parochial events and social gatherings, and provided a meeting place for the nascent community associations. The building’s most striking feature was a long steep wooden stair case leading up to the chapel.
Monsignor Pellegrino M. Stagni, Apostolic Delegate to Ottawa, blessed the church on November 2, 1913. The congregation was officially placed in the hands of the Servite Order, as Father Aurelio M. Prosperi was named pastor on March 16, 1914. Father Fortunato presented the new pastor to his congregation in a moving and heartfelt homily on Sunday, March 22. Father Prosperi guided the parish for the next sixteen years.
That same month, construction of the monastery began. The building was completed and blessed by the Apostolic Delegate His Excellency Monsignor Stagni on November 22, 1914. The first prior of the new house was the Reverend Prospero M. Bernardi. Other priests followed to fill the ranks of St Anthony’s, among these Reverend Stefano M. Cheli, and Father Giovannangelo M. Bertsche.
The church stood at the corner of Division and Pine Streets, current day Booth Street and Gladstone Avenue. This site was chosen, after much discussion, because of its proximity to the flourishing Italian immigrant population. However, the French and English neighbours also enjoyed the generous hospitality of the Servite fathers.
On 26 March 1917, four years after its construction, the church fell victim to a ruinous fire, probably from candles on the main altar. The flames completely engulfed the rear wooden wall and spread so quickly that little of the structure remained standing. A painting by the Montreal-based artist and architect Guido Nincheri, representing the Sacred Heart of Jesus with St Giuliana Falconieri and St Margherita Maria Alacoque, was lost to the flames. Nevertheless, despite the obvious confusion, inconvenience, and general dismay, the customary Passion Week devotions were carried out just the same on the night of the fire.
Not prone to despair, the community set about to reconstruct the church, this time under the guidance and supervision of Guido Nincheri. The new building was inaugurated in November 1925 with a solemn mass celebrated by the Apostolic Delegate Monsignor Pietro di Maria. The new church was heavily influenced by Nincheri’s artistic vision. The high vaulted ceiling, lateral chapels, tall stained glass, imposing belfry, and long and imposing exterior staircase, are from this period.
Yet, fate once again intervened in the storied history of St Anthony’s. On 21 April 1929, another disastrous fire raged through the building, just four fateful years after its reconstruction, gutting its interior and rising as high as the belfry. The cause of the fire remains a mystery, but the blaze spread with such rapidity that the assembled crowd outside feared the building was doomed. However, once again the church, like its parishioners, survived. In June 1930, Father Prosperi was succeeded by Father Cheli. He too remained a shepherd of his flock for sixteen years, leaving in 1946.
Reconstruction began immediately, this time with less wood, more steel and mortar, again under the guidance of Nincheri. The belfry, turrets, and roof were completely replaced, the interior gutted. Appropriately, the church ceiling and walls were finished in stucco, the floor in terrazzo tile, and galleries were constructed to support a choir loft for the organ. In May 1938, the church was consecrated as an Italian-English parish by order of the archbishop.
In 1946, Father Girolamo M. Ferraro, born in Montreal and completely fluent in Italian, became pastor at age 27. His association with St Anthony’s had begun much earlier, and he remained attached to the church for 40 years. He retired as pastor in 1972. Devoted, caring, and dedicated to the community, Father Ferraro was an indefatigable servant of his flock. Stories regarding his kindness, his humour, his formidable character, his strength and resolve abound.
The 1950s witnessed a surge of Italian immigration to Ottawa; under his supervision the church became a clearinghouse for social woes. No problem was too great, no issue too small. A new arrival needed a job, talk to Father Ferraro; problems with a child at school, talk to Father Ferraro; relatives abroad needed a local sponsor for immigration, again, see Father Ferraro. During his tenure as pastor the Italian population of the parish ward swelled and prospered. When he died in 1972 at age 55, the parish lost a heroic servant of God; “The soul,” as is commemorated on the bust dedicated to him near the church, “of the Italian community.”
St Anthony’s has been ably served by a string of pastors to the present day. Among them: the Reverend Gaston Venne, who immediately succeeded Father Ferraro, Reverend Andrew Carrier, Reverend Marcel Brodeur and the smiling Irishman, Reverend Paul McKeown.
The church and its ministry have been the focal point of the Italian community of Ottawa for over 100 years, and it is still very much part of life in the community. The church’s importance to the Preston Street neighbourhood in the 20th century was and remains immeasurable as it not only met residents’ spiritual needs, but it also served political, civic, social, and educational functions.
St Anthony’s was also instrumental in establishing the first school located in the Italian community that was built by the Separate School Board after protracted solicitation by Father Prosperi. The pioneering priest felt that a proper parish school was an absolute necessity towards preserving both the language and culture of the Italian immigrant community. Adjacent to St Anthony’s Church on Booth Street, the school was completed in May of 1925. It was officially christened Accademia Dante and blessed on June 7, feast day of the Holy Trinity, by Monsignor P. A. Campeau. That same day a monument to Dante Alighieri was dedicated next to the school.
For any community to truly flourish and prosper, there must be top-quality education. Students develop life-long relationships through their neighbourhood schools; the relationships developed in school create family ties within the neighbourhood, ultimately leading to an environment of communal cohesion and trust.
Documented facts surrounding the Accademia Dante, or Dante Academy, are scarce. It seems that unfortunate archival problems occurred during the city mergers of the late 1980s causing havoc with school board records. Nevertheless, St Anthony’s School, whatever its name, was both a haven for the wayward and a centre for community learning since it opened its doors. It provided the common unity for the Italian-Canadian community, a true anchor institution providing quality education for its children and, eventually, opportunities for students of all economic and cultural backgrounds and walks of life. Today, the school teaches over 200 students per year and is a cultural microcosm of the larger Ottawa community, a true blessing in the mosaic of cultures that now inhabit the Preston Street area.
In addition to the Order of Servants of Mary, the Servite Sisters of the Addolorata, the vital chapters of the Ladies Auxiliary and Knights of Columbus, and St Anthony’s School, the church was also home base to Italian-Canadian associations, sports teams, and social groups young and old. The many social clubs, each dedicated to a village, city, region, or activity, have supported the church with donations of work, time, and love. They also contributed to the cultural wealth of the parish with their own celebrations of local saints and feast days.
As immigrants transplanted their local religious traditions to the Canadian capital, they brought their patron saints, home altars, folk art and annual street processions to fill the yearly calendar of St Anthony’s Church. Just as village feasts marked the rituality of life for Italians in Italy, recurring celebrations of saints and patrons lent a sense of continuity to immigrant life that perseveres to this day.
St Anthony’s Church has thus both dutifully enriched and has graciously benefited from the local mutual benefit societies that have collected funds to purchase and house statues in their local parish while devotees engaged in socializing have fostered a rich mixture of the sacred and the secular.
Over the years, many of the early religious feasts have disappeared, others have been replaced by secular festivities that invite suburban residents to feast on Preston Street as they sample sausage and peppers. Attitudes toward ethnic celebrations have become more commercial, attracting larger crowds, overshadowing the penitential practices of the original feasts, while summer picnics and winter dinners promote the social over the religious.
Nevertheless, the establishment of St Anthony’s Church, the lasting heritage of its school, the many social clubs that create a rosary of annual social and religious events, are testament that religion as a formal institution still provides the Italian-Canadian population with a sense of community. The church is not merely a centre of religious services but undoubtedly it embraces the larger role of secular and material benefactor for the well-being of its congregation. While the Church of Rome may struggle with ecclesiastical and political issues that bear international implications, the daily lived and heartfelt religion of the local faithful remains a locus of Mediterranean piety and the backbone of the Italian-Canadian community.
For a more detailed history of the Church of St Anthony of Padua, see the wonderfully informative coffee table book, A Journey of Faith – A History of St Anthony of Padua Church, 1913-2013 (Montreal: Cusmano Books, 2015). The work commemorates the church’s centennial year and is replete with detailed histories of events, people, anecdotes, and photographs chronicling St Anthony’s ministry and role in the community.
Franco Ricci is Professor of Italian Studies at the University of Ottawa. Author of numerous books, collections of essays, and scholarly articles, his The Sopranos: Born Under a Bad Sign received considerable acclaim. This article is an excerpt from his forthcoming Preston Street/Corso Italia: An Informal History of Italians in Ottawa (Bordighera Press).