By Sam Federico
There is evidence that Italian migrants were in Thunder Bay since the 1880s. There are graves in St. Andrew ‘s Cemetery that attest to this fact. They were brave, many, of course transient workers. They were strange to the language, the culture, and our cold climate.
In the early 1900’s, they hey were being ministered by Father L. Crociata, a Sicilian priest, who founded St. Anthony’s Church at Banning and Dufferin in Port Arthur as well as St. Domenic’s Church in the East End of Fort William in 1912. In 1914 Father Crociata was replaced by Father, later Monsignor Domenic Tomaselli, who served St. Anthony’s until his death in 1940.
By 1921, there were about 2,000 Italians in the Lakehead, about 700 in Port Arthur and 1,400 in Fort William. They lived mainly, but not exclusively, in the area from Pearl Street to Bay Street, from Machar Avenue to Crown Street. This later came to be known as Little Italy. In Port Arthur, most came from Southern Italy; in Fort William, from Northern Italy.
By 1928, the community developed good spirt, and a few men agreed to organize a picnic at the farm of Giovanni Veltri in Pearl. It would bring Italians socially together. That event was so successful that a few thoughts it would serve the community well if an Italian Society were formed, after all Italians of Fort William already had a society in the east end since 1908. It would provide them with opportunities to meet and gather socially and provide an uplift within the larger community. Following many unofficial meetings, the first recorded gathering took place in March 1929, and then again monthly.
In 1932 since there were no professional people those days, it requested Italian organizations in Toronto for assistance in enlisting an Italian doctor in this area.
The first President was Gelindo Delpino. Immediately, in the first year the executive developed its first Constitution, which was granted by the Provincial Secretary in December. In 1930, at the invitation of Monsignor Domenic Tomaselli, meetings were held in the church hall at Banning and Dufferin Streets. The members leaned in addition to being a fraternal, social group, to being of assistance to the members and their families. And so the society was chartered as the “Italian Mutual Benefit Society of Port Arthur” As such, under the Corporations Act of Ontario, it would provide funeral benefits and sick benefits to the members.
The Society helped the Italians integrate into Canadian Society. The association intervened when members were wrongfully dismissed. It helped when members needed assistance in securing employment.
The First Hall (1939)
By 1934, the society identified the need to purchase property for the purpose of building a hall. A search committee was elected in 1935, and in 1936 a 63-ft lot was purchased at 132 S. Algoma Street. It was an ideal location, right in the midst of the Italian Community. The concept was well received by Italians and non-Italians. Following fundraising and the construction, the hall was opened February 20, 1939, with good commentary of the local newspaper. The Honourable C. D. Howe also made two significant donations
The society and the hall were a source of pride for the members and the community. They provided an element of dignity and self-respect. It gave the immigrants an added impetus with their integration and growth into the Canadian society. Members now had a place where they could meet, gossip, play cards, and play leadership roles inside and outside the membership.
In 1938 it had been recognized that membership dues would not go far in maintaining the centre, so an application was filed for the sale of beer. Eventually, the facility was also rented for private events, like meetings and receptions.
Though the members loved their native land, they were proud of being in Canada, their adopted land. During the Second World War, when Italy and Canada were on opposite sides, the Society unanimously passed a resolution promising loyalty to the British Empire, to abide by the laws of Canada, and pledging to be loyal British subjects. The resolution was sent to the Prime Minister, the Premier of Ontario, the Member of Parliament, the Mayor and Council and the Chief of Police of the City of Port Arthur. This was a time was when the Government of Canada was nervous of all Italians in Canada because Mussolini in Italy allied with Germany. The Government and the RCMP looked at leaders and members, especially those in organized groups, with suspicion. Many in Canada were arrested and were interred for years by the RCMP, including some that had become naturalized Canadians. We are not aware that anyone locally was arrested, or that anyone anywhere was charged.
During the war years, the Society demonstrated its sense of dedication to Canada by entering a float in the Victory Loan Parade , the hall was made available to organizations of the Canadian Legion, the Finnish Auxiliary Society, the Princes Beatrice IODE, and the Rebecca Lodge Society to raise funds for the Red Cross for the war effort. In 1941 and 1942, it bought a number of Canadian Victory Bonds.
The Society earned the trust and respect of the population at large, including civic and political leaders of all stripes. Having survived the depression years and the war, it continued its role of promoting Italian culture within the Canadian context. It promoted at different times the formation of youth organizations. In the 1950s and 1960s the membership grew exponentially. Beside its special relation with St. Anthony’s Parish, it has a long history of supporting charitable causes and organizations, a fact that continues today with its long-standing spaghetti suppers. I remember attending a supper for the benefit of the Springfield Mine Disaster in Nova Scotia in 1958. As one can imagine, the list is very long, and it includes major donations to St. Joseph’s Heritage, St. Joseph’s Hospital, Thunder Bay Regional Science Centre, The Bear Cats Hockey Team, The Victorian Order of Nurses, Lakehead University, through its Institute of Italian Studies, the Italia Juventus soccer team, among many, many others, of course. For many years, the society held an annual lunch for physically challenged young people, and a supper at Christmas for the poor.
The Second Hall (1967)
In the 60’s, with continued growth and success, it was decided to tear down the 1939 hall and build a new one, significantly with loans from the members. The new hall opened October 7, 1967. It was tied to Canada’s centennial; not coincidentally, it was named “Italian Centennial Hall”. Now the members and the community had a better venue for their personal and business events and celebrations.
The society has collaborated well, with all other Italian organizations, especially the Italian Benevolent Society Principe di Piemonte (Da Vinci Centre). The two organizations held joint picnics, and joined the Italian Cultural Committee in the 70’s and 80’s to celebrate Italian Week, joint “pioneer” suppers and other special events.
The Society over the years showed Italian movies, undertook the teaching of Italian, opened the facilities to the Stelle Alpine Dancers, the Alpini Choir, and took leading roles in the planning and holding St. Anthony’s Feast Day celebrations.
The annual picnic continued and members enjoyed many happy events throughout the year, always another reason to have fun and celebrate events like Italian Night, Primavera Banquet, Calabria Night, Mothers’ Day Banquet, the Annual Banquet, the New Year Banquet, after all being Italian is a state of mind and we as human beings are created to enjoy life and each other’s company.
The purpose of the society as stated in its constitution is to unite members in the promotion of culture and to promote good citizenship. Though the statute is silent, the organization has always avoided debating politics or promoting any political party. Political leaders and candidates, like all others, are welcome to the facility and events but the organization remains vehemently apolitical.
The Ladies of the Italian Society have their own organization and are very active. They participate in all events whether it be Multicultural Society Folklore Festival, Festa Italiana, etc. Their spring tea is a very worthy event, very well attended, in support of the Cancer Society.
Very proudly, the Society has hosted Prime Ministers, Premiers, Ministers, Mayors, as well as the President of the National Congress of Italian Canadians, keynote Italian entertainers and sport teams from Italy over the years. It has proudly flown the Union Jack, the Maple Leaf Flag, and the flag of Italy. A picture of Queen Elizabeth was also prominently displayed on the wall. It prepared a float in the Victory Loan Parade of 1941, the Port Arthur Centennial parade of 1957, Canada’s Centennial Parade of 1967, and many Thunder Bay Christmas parades over the years.
In 1984, John Potestio, a past president and history teacher undertook to write the history of the Italian Mutual Benefit Society to date. I am indebted to his book for much of the information contained in this article.
In the 70’s, and in 1987 and in 1989, with the co-ordination of the city-wide Italian Cultural Committee we held Italian Week. What a great event that was! The Chronicle Journal reported in its headline that the picnic at Chippewa Park hosted some 5,000 Italian Canadians in 1989.
During that time, we recognized the need to keep on growing. We purchased the former liquor store at Algoma and Dufferin, redeveloped it and called it the Garibaldi Hall. Subsequently, we purchased adjoining lands to facilitate future growth.
In 1988 we ceased being the Italian Mutual Benefit Society of Port Arthur, because this was an insurance corporation created to pay death and sick benefits to the members. Because the society was doing a lot more than was permitted, we changed our letters patent to become the Italian Society of Port Arthur, a fraternal organization. This afforded us among a lot of other matters the option to amend the Constitution as and when we deemed necessary. Since then, the constitution has been reviewed annually. Prior to this, amendments had to be approved by the Provincial Superintendent of Insurance and amendments were rare.
In the late 80’s we were invited, and we accepted to be a food supplier for the international winter Nordics event. We have participated with the food booth at the annual multicultural festival, as well.
In the late eighties, we applied to the Ontario Ministry of Housing to build a Home for Seniors, under the Liberal Government housing plan. This was a project similar to the Finnish Suomi Koti, the Ukrainian Millennium and Holy Shepherd senior homes; we toured those facilities and consulted with them as well. It took four years before we were awarded a project, however, by the NDP Government during the third year of their mandate. We were approved for thirty units. We established a separate corporation, the Non-Profit Housing Corporation of the Italian Society of Port Arthur and worked diligently to make the project happen. We were ready to start building, when there was another provincial election and Michael Harris was elected with the Progressive Conservatives. To our disappointment, the new government withdrew its support and the project had to be cancelled.
In 1991 we introduced Festa Italiana to the community. We wanted to share our culture especially with non members, after all because we have so much to celebrate. In Italy and in Toronto, festivals are numerous; in Thunder Bay, we had none. We asked other Italian groups to take part. We started with a one-day festival and it became a hit at once. Many booths initially finished their supplies after two hours of opening. People suggested we make it a two-day event and that we have it two, three times a year. The event continues today, without an admission fee, this year being the 29th, largely by volunteers who actually toil for four days. Some foods are prepared over a longer period. Too much work for holding it “two or three time a year”!
Current building (2000)
During the 90’s, we recognized that the 1967 facility no longer served us well. We considered expanding it to make it beneficial to more and younger members. We also considered the possibility of building a parking garage because we did not have sufficient land. In the end it was determined that the best option was to replace the old facility with a new one, on one floor, fully accessible to all. The new hall was opened during the year 2000 and underwent some alterations and an addition in the last three years.
What is in store for the future of the Society? We do have a future. We enjoy the trust and respect of the community and we are honoured by their patronage. We love our community both inside and outside our membership. We continue to co-operate with other organizations. We also have the volunteer support to carry on the mission of our organization. Our membership now includes all types of members including professionals and elected officials. Our members have included members of parliament, mayors, city councillors, school trustees, and clergy.