Around 1910, the suburbs of Montréal did not extend very far. Italian immigrants who left downtown settled North near the present Jean-Talon street. In those days, this was still the countryside dotted with fields, popular with people who loved to grow their own produce. Houses also sprouted in the area, soon followed by small businesses (grocery stores and cafes) around which a devout Catholic community organized. Bishop Bruchési established the parish and a church was built in what is now called Little Italy. But the building was neither equal nor sufficient to the pride of the pious community, many of whom immigrated from the province of Campobasso in the Molise region. Together in 1918, they provided all manner of assistance and support to build a new Romanesque church at the corner of Dante and Henri-Julien: the Chiesa della Madonna della Difesa. The church was dedicated to the Madonna – reported to have made a miraculous appearance in an area of Campobasso in 1898 – to afford protection over Italian nationals on Canadian soil. This church, the oldest of the Italian community, is a veritable institution. Its importance to the Italian community was formally recognized in 2002 with the Canadian government designation of Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense as a national historic site. The baptisms, first communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals that mark the lives of Italians have taken place within its walls for over a century.
In addition to the altar and balustrade in Carrara marble and Renaissance-style decoration, the heritage building houses many works of art by artists such as Guido Nincheri, a famous painter and glass worker who decorated numerous places of worship in Québec. His spectacular mural adorning the dome also caused controversy: he was detained by Canadian authorities in 1930 in this tense period before the war for depicting a suspicious character, then fascist leader Benito Mussolini, painted-in at the express request of the priest. Nincheri acquiesced for fear that his commission would be cancelled.
All Quebecers know this place, perhaps without knowing it, for who hasn’t seen the TV series ‘Omertà’, the film, ‘Mambo Italiano’ or the funeral of the infamous Nicolo Rizzuto or of world boxing champion Arturo Gatti on the television news? Although the church appears in tourist guidebooks, it is not just a museum stop. It continues to celebrate Mass… in Italiano.
The frescoes in the apse, the sidewalls, and the dome of the church were painted between 1927 and 1950 by Guido Nincheri and colleagues. These 1200 square meters of work were refreshed a decade ago by renowned Montréal restorer Pierlucio Pellissier and his team.
Photo: yves lefebvre