ESTABLISHING OUR ROOTS
By the middle of the 19th century, Montreal possessed the highest number of Italian immigrants of any city in Canada. Its Italian population was large enough to attract officials from the Kingdom of Sardinia who decided to open a Consulate General in 1861.
A brief history of the Casa d’Italia
By the end of the 19th century, Montreal was home to Canada’s largest Italian community. During the first decades of the 20th century, the demand for unskilled labour and seasonal work in railway construction or in natural resource extraction was increasing. In 1910, Montreal was undergoing a major phase of expansion, which included work such as paving streets, building canals and tunnels, adding sewer and tramway lines and erecting buildings. The call was answered by 58,104 Italians arriving in Canada, many of them settling in Montreal.
Thousands of Italian workers, originally settled in downtown Montreal, slowly began moving northward to the Mile End district. Then known as the outskirt of Montreal, they enjoyed living where the air was fresh and where they had access to a plot of ground on
which to plant gardens. This area now harbours Little Italy.
Realizing a dream
In the 1930’s, with the influx of Italian immigrants, the community leaders sought to raise money to erect a building where Italians could congregate and feel at home. Consul General Giuseppe Brigidi, with A. Sebastiani, Carlo O. Catelli, S. Biffi, M. Paparelli and E. Pasquale promoted the project and encouraged the members of the Italian community to financially support the dream of their Casa d’Italia.
In 1934, while mayor Camillien Houde was in office, the City of Montreal, donated to the Italian community a parcel of land located at the corner of Berri and Jean-Talon streets. This is the land on which the Casa d’Italia was erected in 1936. Over 4,200 individuals and local Italian mutual-aid societies contributed to the building Fund.
November 1, 1936: The inauguration of a cultural institution
The project was awarded to architect Patsy (Pasquale) Colangelo (1907-1984) and on November 1st, 1936, Casa d’Italia opened its doors to the historic rendezvous between Italians and their French-Canadian friends. Casa d’Italia, the elegant “Art Deco” building graced the neighbourhood and was now the heart and soul of Italian community life.
1940-1945: National shame
Everything came to a halt when Benito Mussolini declared war on Great Britain and the Allied Powers. By authority of the War Measures Act, on June 10th, 1940, the state seized all documents in Casa d’Italia and ordered the building closed and sequestered. Between 1940 and 1946, the Casa d’Italia was occupied by the Canadian Army and suffered great physical damage.
1946-1947: Post-War healing and the reopening of the Casa d’Italia
The government arrested and interned in military camps over 200 Italians from Montreal, labelling them as “enemy aliens”. Other members of the community became victims of widespread prejudice, as many lost their jobs or had their shops vandalized.
1950’s and 1960’s: Serving Italian immigrants
After the war, as part of the healing process, the Italian community requested the return of Casa d’Italia. In 1946, Mayor Camillien Houde presented Private Bill No. 174 in Quebec’s Legislative Assembly and on January 1, 1947, Casa d’Italia was returned to the community. Once again, the Italians of Montreal proudly revitalized the Casa d’Italia.
Once the designation of “enemy alien” was officially removed, Canada became an attractive destination and the floodgate of Italian immigration was opened in 1949. The large numbers of southern Italian immigrants settling in the Villeray village and Jean-Talon Market area created new challenges for the Casa d’Italia. The latter maintained an important role within the community, hosting social activities that included weddings; professional and cultural events and helping Italians integrate and find work.
The next 20 years were marked by community organizational growth, as new and important organizations anchored themselves within Casa d’Italia.
Did you know?
The Casa d’Italia has had 20 presidents. Its two longest serving are Sam Capozzi (1979-1992) and Gaby Mancini (1997-2010).
1979-1999 : Sam Capozzi’s battle and twenty years of community growth
Seventy years later, in 2006, the Casa d’Italia and Canadian Italian Community Foundation launched a joint fundraising campaign to raise funds for the renovation and expansion project of the Casa d’Italia. In 2011, the Casa d’Italia reopens its doors after 16 months of construction and celebrates its 75th anniversary in the newly renovated and expanded building.
Redefining Casa d’Italia: The cradle of our collective cultural conscience
Since its renovation, the Casa d’Italia has been awarded OPAM (Operation Patrimoine Architectural à Montréal) prize for architectural integration, and is catalogued in the International Coalition of Art Deco Societies for architectural designation in Montreal.
The permanent preservation of the Canadian Italian patrimony pays homage to our past and is a foundation for the future.