This evening (May 28, 2016), a few hundred guests will gather in the grand Hall of Celebration inside Montreal’s Casa d’Italia to celebrate the community centre’s 80th anniversary.
The annual gala is traditionally held at a reception hall. This year, Angela Minicucci, President of the Casa, decided to change things up.
“Some of our supporters who come to the Gala every year have never been inside the Casa,” Minicucci explains.
“There is a vibe and an energy here. The celebration is really about celebrating within the walls of the Casa. After all, it’s the only one in the world still left standing,” she continues.
The Casa d’Italia officially opened its doors on November 1, 1936. For the next few years, the Casa was the heart and soul of the local Italian community. Newly arrived immigrants came to the Casa to meet with staff from community groups who was there to assist their resettlement. Weddings and grand festivities were celebrated inside the great hall – there were no Italian reception halls to speak of at the time.
Everything came to a halt when Benito Mussolini declared war on Great Britain and the Allies. On June 10th, 1940 – by authority of the War Measures Act – officials seized all documents in the Casa d’Italia and ordered the building sequestered. Between 1940 and 1946, the Casa was occupied by the Canadian Army, until it was finally returned to the community.
As the building began to show it wear and tear in the 1980s and 1990s, its popularity as a meeting place diminished. Its Board realized that only a major facelift could bring the Casa back to life, and so began years of renovation plans and fundraising efforts.
In 2011, the Casa d’Italia, now officially called the Centre culturel de la Petite Italie — Casa d’Italia, reopened its doors after two years of renovations.
This year’s gala will play homage and give recognition to the donors who have contributed to the Casa’s Capital Campaign. The gala will also mark the official unveiling of the Wall of Memories.
Running all along the Casa’s main lobby (just outside the Hall of Celebrations), the Wall will eventually feature a total 2800 plaques of varying sizes with the names of Italians and Italian-Canadians who have made Montreal and Canada home.
“Once it will be up, it won’t just be a wall, it’ll be a monument,” Minicucci explains.
“The Casa d’Italia is not about nostalgia, it’s about recognizing and acknowledging the past and to make sure that we safeguard that memory,” she continues.
Oral historian Joyce Pillarella has been busy researching and writing a commemorative book to mark the Casa’s anniversary. A limited edition abridged version of The Casa d’Italia: A Story of Belonging will be launched during the gala. The full version will be ready in November.
10,000 copies of the book will be distributed free of charge at the Casa d’Italia, and to schools and libraries across Canada. A sponsorship campaign is presently underway to raise the funds to cover the costs of the book’s printing and distribution.
“I didn’t want to start the story with the building of the Casa. Instead, the story starts in the 1900s. You have to understand what these people loved and cherished during the time leading up to building of the Casa,” Pillarella explains.
“For me, it’s important that the story gets out there and people understand and appreciate what our ancestors did for us,” she continues.
On June 10, the Casa will hold a special tree planting ceremony to commemorate the internment of Italian-Canadians during the Second World War. The Casa’s Cucina della nonna cooking series continues on June 5. For more details on these and other events, please visit casaditalia.org.