Madonna Della Difesa Celebrates 100 Years

by Vittoria Zorfini

by SARA GERMANOTTA

For the past century, Madonna della Difesa church has been an anchor for Montreal’s Italian community. We’ve sat in its pews to celebrate baptisms and weddings, or said a final farewell to loved ones. “I don’t think there are many Italians in Montreal that don’t have a link to this parish,” says City Councillor Francesco Miele, who sits on the church’s board of directors. “A lot of us can trace our roots back to this church. Speak to your grandparents, if you still have the opportunity, ask if they have a story about this church. Odds are, they do.”

Miele, 38, has been a regular at Sunday Mass at La Difesa since he was a young boy. His parents were married here in 1971, and he started volunteering and teaching catechism at the church when he was a teenager. He’s witnessed the emotional highs and lows felt by parishioners celebrating momentous life events, given countless tours of the church’s famous Mussolini fresco and watched as hundreds of mourners, onlookers and media crammed into the church to attend high-profile funerals. But it’s the stories he hears from regular folks that touch him the most. “There was an 85-year-old lady who walked in and looked at the altar and remembered being taken to this church as a 16-year-old, three days after she arrived from Italy, to be married. We’re lucky that we’re still able to speak to those parishioners and hear their stories. In our Italian diaspora, we don’t realize how much of an influence this church has had on our community here in Canada.”

The parish of Madonna della Difesa was founded in 1910 by Italian immigrants—many of whom came from the town of Casacalenda in Molise. The name of the church commemorates an apparition of the Virgin Mary that is said to have appeared in an area of Casacalenda known as La Difesa. “The Italian community was really growing at the time,” explains Miele. “They had been worshipping at the nearby French parish of Saint-Édouard, but now they felt the need to build a church of their own.”

The original church was located at the corner of Henri-Julien and Dante, just across from where Madonna della Difesa stands today. Before long, the quickly-expanding community outgrew that building and needed a bigger space. “The religious order that founded the church—the Servi di Maria— approached Pope Pius X and asked for help,” continues Miele. “The Pope gave them $4,000—which was quite a considerable amount of money at the time—to begin the project of building the church as we know it today.” 

The crown jewel of La Difesa is the fresco that adorns the apse of the church. Painted by Guido Nincheri, known as the Michelangelo of Montreal, the fresco features Italian dictator Benito Mussolini on horseback and commemorates the signing of the Lateran Treaty in 1929. The treaty recognized the sovereignty of the Vatican City State and the independence of the Pope. This work is widely regarded as one of Nincheri’s masterpieces, but also earned him a stay at the Petawawa internment camp in 1940. “Italians were perceived as fascists at the time. So Guido Nincheri, along with some priests and parishioners, were taken as prisoners of war and interned in detainment camps,” explains Miele. “The fresco of Mussolini was actually covered for most of the duration of the war and even afterwards because there was a feeling of shame. It wasn’t an easy time for Italians.”

Miele admits that although church attendance has been in decline in recent years, the fresco continues to draw people from all walks of life. He says this church stands for the struggles and successes of our community. “It’s not a historical site only; it was a home for thousands and thousands of Italians that suffered. For the first settlers, this place represented a piece of what they left in Italy,” says he. “La Difesa is the mother of Italian churches in Canada.”