Western Sicily is a particularly interesting part of Sicily, especially as it relates to Montreal. The town of Cattolica Eraclea specifically counts about 18,000 Montrealers as either native sons or daughters, or as descendants of those early immigrants.
Located in the province of Agrigento, Cattolica Eraclea is nestled on a hilltop 200 metres above sea level. Prince Francesco Isfar of Siculiana founded the town as a feudal colony in 1610. It was originally named Cattolica, in honour of King Philip III of Spain, who was also known as sua maestà cattolica (His Catholic Majesty), a title bestowed upon Spanish kings by the pope. In 1874, three years after the unification of Italy, the appositive Eraclea was added to the town’s name to honour the nearby ancient Greek site of Heraclea Minoa.
Thanks to those numerous ancient settlers, Cattolica Eraclea and its surrounding areas also boast wonderful archaeological sites and historic ruins. Local monuments consist of the Chiesa Madre and the Chiesa della Mercede, which honour the local Madonna della Mercede and also includes the multi-coloured marble sarcophagus of Prince Francesco Isfar.
Cattolica Eraclea was nearly decimated by emigration in the second half of the 20th century, with half of its inhabitants departing for better opportunities elsewhere and leaving a current population of just over 5,000. Its local economy is based on agriculture and farming, including the production of grapes, olives, almonds, pistachios, honey and citrus plants. “In Montreal, you associate Sicilian with Cattolica Eraclea,” says Lorenzo Marchetta, president of the Associazione Cattolica Eraclea in St-Leonard.
“Cattolica Eraclea was nearly decimated by emigration in the second half of the 20th century, with half of its inhabitants departing for better opportunities elsewhere and leaving a current population of just over 5,000”
The association provides a link to the local Cattolicesi community thanks to activities such as an annual fundraising gala in the fall and a summer picnic honouring the Madonna della Mercede. “It’s important to stay connected to the community, especially as the older generation ages,” he says. “I’m the first president of the association to actually be born in Canada and we do lots of work to make sure other first and second-generation Cattolicesi stay connected to their roots.”
One of those first generation Montrealers is 36-year-old Nick Messina. The social media personality’s parents came from Cattolica Eraclea, and his Instagram page (sicilianudimontreal) is a celebration of his Sicilian heritage. “There are more Cattolicesi in Montreal than in Cattolica Eraclea,” he says. “It’s sad that the town is in decline, but I do what I can to keep the Sicilian traditions alive. I speak the old dialect, which I learned from my grandparents, and I know lots of Montrealers in their late 20s and 30s who still speak Sicilian dialect better than people in Sicily. It’s humbling to me because it reminds me of who I am and how I was raised.”
Like most local Italian-Canadian communities, the Cattolica Eraclea community in Montreal is very close-knit, with the early immigrants settling primarily in east end neighbourhoods like Villeray and St-Michel. “Everyone helped each other out when they first arrived in Montreal,” says Marchetta. “When my mother arrived in 1960, she stayed with her cousins and a few other families in a three-bedroom apartment. That’s just how it was.” To make ends meet, immigrants gravitated towards entrepreneurship, with many opening successful businesses in the retail and construction industries.
And while the vast majority of the community earned an honest living for their families, some Cattolicesi in the city began making a name for themselves in the 1970s and onward for all the wrong reasons. With heavy media coverage over the decades repeatedly linking the town to a handful of individuals with underworld ties, a certain stigma developed. “I remember my grandmother being very open about the town’s reputation,” says Messina. “We understood that it was a way of life back then, that started out of necessity and that turned into something else over the years. It’s personally sensitive to me because growing up, when people would find out where my family was from, I would instantly get branded even though I wasn’t a part of that world.”
But stereotypes aside, Italian Montrealers have largely been able to recognize the positive contributions of the thousands of upstanding Cattolicesi in the city, many of whom are among Montreal’s most successful entrepreneurs and generous philanthropists. As Marchetta puts it: “I am very proud to be Cattolicese, and I know many of my compatriots are proud too.”