Una Presenza Storica: Italian Immigration and St. Patrick's Ward

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Una Presenza Storica: Italian Immigration and St. Patrick's Ward

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Introduction: The First Immigrants

One could say that Guelph is suited to an Italian presence as even the name "Guelph" has ties to Italy. The city of Guelph itself was named after the Hanoverian Welfs, or Guelfs as Italians called them, who controlled the dynasties of Northern Italy in the Medieval period. This name was given to the City of Guelph by John Galt due to the fact that King George I himself was a Guelf and an Elector of Hanover. St. Patrick's Ward has, for over a century, been the centre of Guelph's Italian population. In the early 20th century, the Ward became a popular destination for immigrants from France, Poland, and Italy. Interestingly, in 1901, only two residents in the entire city of Guelph were Italian. This changed dramatically through the decade as, by 1911, 358 Italians resided in Guelph and by 1921, 600 residents. 1896 - 1914 is typically identified as the beginning of Italian immigration as well as its heaviest stage. Most Italian immigrants came from Treviso near Venice and Calabria, but more specifically San Giorgio. This trend occurred simultaneously with the industrialization of the Ward initiated by James Walter Lyon. It was often the case that Italian men would arrive in the Ward and live together in inexpensive housing while working in nearby factories. This was in order to save money which was often used to cover the expenses of their wives still living in Italy. As opposed to factories, many Italians also tended to the arduous work of laying rail and constructing the street car network. Previous to the Second World War, Italians faced some discrimination, some of which spawned from widespread defiance of prohibition in the Ward. More serious forms of discrimination had yet to come.

Troubled Times: The Second World War

During the Second World War, Italians faced discrimination and isolation within the Ward. Many had to register as enemy aliens and frequently report to the police. Members of the group the Sons of Italy faced even harsher treatment as they were often shunned, denied jobs, and interned.

A Fresh Start

Following the Second World War the Ward swelled with immigrants from Poland, Italy, and Holland fleeing the devastation of Europe and seeking a new start. For Italians, this process was made far easier and the Ward far more attractive as a destination since its Italian community was well developed by this point. In fact, one Ward resident and founding member of the Italian Canadian Club Monte Cirotto claimed that Guelph's largest influx of Italian immigrants was from 1951-1957.

The Italian Canadian Club

The Italian Canadian Club which Cirotto helped to found became an important institution in Guelph. The club itself was formed in 1953 on Ferguson Street. as the successor group to the Sons of Italy. Its establishment was followed by the establishment of an Italian Community Centre for which land was purchased in 1958. This community centre became a focal point for speakers, weddings, concerts, and political meetings. In fact, during the post-war period, the Italian Canadian Club became an important institution, politically speaking. Locally, many politicians attended important Italian Canadian Club events. For example, when the Italian Canadian Club underwent an expansion in 1976, Wellington South MPP Harry Warton, Wellington MP Frank Maine, and Mayor Norm Jarry all attended the ceremonial sod turning. In 1977, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau visited the Italian Canadian Club in Guelph during the 150th birthday of the city.

Boxing Heritage

In addition to hosting important political events, the Italian community of the Ward also experienced considerable athletic success. Boxing was particularly popular and many Italian youths found their start in the basement of Sacred Heart School on the corner of Huron Street and Alice Street. In fact, the Ward produced an Ontario Heavyweight Champion in the form of Cosmo "Cutts" Carere in the 1920s.

The End of an Era?

By the beginning of the 21st century, some claimed that up to 1/3 of Guelph's population can trace back to Italian ancestry. Currently, Guelph's Italian population has dispersed throughout the city, diversified in terms of work and class, and have, comparatively speaking, experienced a decline in the use of the Italian language. With that being said, the Italian presence in the Ward continues to this day and is visible throughout the Ward.

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Items in the Una Presenza Storica: Italian Immigration and St. Patrick's Ward Collection

Mural on the side of City Vac at 93 Elizabeth Street in Guelph
A mural on the side of the City Vac shop at 93 Elizabeth Street. This mural demonstrates the continuing presence of the Italian community in Guelph.

Multicultural Festival at Memorial Gardens
An Italian flag flies alongside a Canadian flag at Memorial Gardens during the Multicultural Festival (Italian Day) in 1981.

Sacred Heart School Boxing Club
The Sacred Heart School Boxing Club was composed, predominantly, of Italian youth. This photo is from 1945.

Sartorio’s Sons of Italy Band
A 1927 photograph of the Sons of Italy in Guelph previous to the discrimination and isolation of the Second World War. Visible in the photo are both the Union Jack and the flag of the Kingdom of Italy in the background. Italy was, at the time,…

Rick Ferraro Button
Rick Ferraro is a Guelph born politician who was the first Italian-Canadian Member of Provincial Parliament. Ferraro represented Wellington South from 1985 to 1990. Ferraro advocated St. Joseph's hospital becomming an acute care facility but lost in…