This Week in History
In Defence of Montréal’s Italian Spirit
|For the week of Monday November 28, 2011
On November 30, 2002, Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense, the mother church of Montréal’s Italian congregations and the oldest identified surviving church built expressly for an Italian parish in Canada, was commemorated as a National Historic Site.
To serve this burgeoning population, the Diocese of Montréal in 1910 created the parish of Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense, just north of the then-rural Mile End District. The parish was named after La Difesa (protection), a sacred site in Italy’s Campobasso region, the paese or homeland of many parishioners. Located at the end of an existing railway line, the area was perfect for an Italian community with an agricultural heritage. Here, families could re-establish their market gardens, while the many Italians working as railway labourers could still easily reach their place of work. The present church was designed and constructed in 1919-23 by the prolific Italian Canadian artist Guido Nincheri (1885-1973) and it soon became the anchor of this ‘Italian Colony’ now known as ‘Little Italy.’
The exterior Romanesque architecture is characterized by massive walls, round arches and relatively simple ornamentation, in stark contrast to the church’s expansive Renaissance interior, containing Nincheri’s translucent stained-glass windows and 1200 square metres of true fresco. The magnificent apse fresco is memorable for its portraits of contemporary historical figures including Pope Pius XI, Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio, and members of the Quebec clergy such as Cardinal Villeneuve, Archbishop of Quebec. Perhaps in a flight of whimsy, Nincheri artfully inserted portraits of himself and his sons Gabriel and Georges. The entire fresco celebrates the 1929 Lateran Accord that created the independent Vatican City state.
Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense still serves Montréal’s vibrant Italian-Canadian community. Through its use of Italian Renaissance-styled murals, true fresco and iconography adapted to a Canadian context, it remains a remarkable and rare expression of that cultural community. For these reasons, Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense is commemorated as a National Historic Site.
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