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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.

Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense church as viewed from Dante Park
© Le Québec en images, CCDMD. Photo by Denis Chabot.
Montréal, the ‘cradle of Canada’s Italian community,’ claimed to have 50 Italian families in 1868. These first immigrants, from northern Italy, included professionals, entrepreneurs (like Carlo Catelli, Catelli Pasta Company founder), sculptors, painters, and musicians. Later Italian immigrants to Montréal were usually sojourners, young male Italians workers planning to return to Italy. However, by 1900 migration patterns changed again as families from the impoverished agricultural regions of south-central Italy immigrated and settled in Canada. From 1890-98, Montréal averaged 400 new Italian settlers per year. By 1905 this had risen to 6000 immigrants annually.

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.’ 

Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense's apse fresco
© Parks Canada / 2001.

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.

For more information on Guido Nincheri, please see the This Week in History story A Renaissance Man or the Government of Canada’s Digital Collection.  

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