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St. Anthony's Church







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Founding a Community: The History of St. Anthony's Church

By Fiona Story

The stained-glass windows gleam in the soft light of the hanging lanterns that overlook four long rows of shiny wooden pews. It creates a solemn atmosphere of a village and its history.

Overlooking Piazza Dante, St. Anthony's Church silently watches the community it has shepherded for close to a century.

Between 1908 and 1913, the Italian community attended services in a church on Murray Street before building St. Anthony's on the corner of Booth, originally Division Street, and Gladstone, known then as Pine Street.

"Saint Anthony of Padua is very popular with Italians and highly respected," said Father Marcel Brodeur, who has been with the church for 12 years. He speaks of the church's namesake, known as "the saint of miracles."


Named after the Italian city he died in, and where his relics remain to this day in the magnificent basilica Padua, St. Anthony was actually born to an aristocratic family in Lisbon, Portugal. This 13th century Franciscan monk was a gifted orator, who could deliver his eloquent and fiery sermons in multiple languages, and often attracted large crowds as he traveled around Italy. Of his 56 accepted miracles only a few are believed to have happened during his lifetime. One such miracle occurred when he was offered poisoned food by some heretics, which he made harmless by the sign of the cross.

Due to the limited financial resources, Reverend Father Fortunatus, the church's founder, could not construct a very large church with the usual amount of art. As a result, the original version of the church was three walls of brick and one wall of wood. It had steep wooden stairs and a large basement used for gatherings.

St. Anthony's, a "mother" watching over her community.

Only four years after its construction, the church fell victim to a fire that caused around $3,000 worth of damages and the loss of a Sacred Heart painting valued at $800. The fire is thought to have started with lit candles at the altar. Flames had already spread up the wall and were reaching towards the ceiling before anything was noticed.


The steady rise in the number of parishioners demanded an enlargement of the church following the fire. Under the guidance of Guido Nincheri, the renowned Italo-Canadian artist, the church was remodeled. Nincheri's first suggestion was an excavation of the basement. Following this, the wooden staircase was replaced by a stone one. Nincheri went on to create vibrant stained-glass windows and breathtaking frescoes for the church. 

The new church was inaugurated in November 1925.

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However, nearly four years later just after the celebration of the Birth of Rome in April, a second fire broke out. It originated in the vestibule and spread quickly up the tower and into the belfry. Thousands gathered in the streets that night, thinking the entire church was doomed but praying they were wrong. It survived but the damages amounted to over $10,000.

"The church is like foccolare, where people gather," said Father Brodeur. "I always say to children that they have three homes. One is with your family, the other with the school and the last with the church."


Reconstruction began immediately and every wooden part of the structure was removed. The entire interior was replaced with reinforced steel and cement. The ceiling and walls were finished in stucco and the floor in terrazzo. Two galleries were constructed: one for the choir and the organ and one for the congregation. Both were made fireproof.

Considering that the church already had a $45,000 debt, this level of reconstruction inevitably added to that burden.

According to Father Brodeur, the church has since gotten rid of its debt load. Most was eliminated in the 1930's and 1940's under Father Stefano Cheli.


Now, standing firm for at least six decades, St. Anthony's is hailed as the centre of the community it overlooks.

"As far back as I can remember the church has been like a mother," said Mary Ierullo, a longtime resident of the Italian community. "If we had any problems, we always went to St. Anthony's."

The church plays a role in all major stages of a Catholic's life: baptism, confirmation and communion, marriage and inevitably, death. It is a place of worship and a focal point of activity.

"The church is like foccolare, where people gather," said Father Brodeur. "I always say to children that they have three homes. One is with your family, the other with the school and the last with the church."

St. Anthony's overlooks Piazza Dante.


St. Anthony's most active and arguably distressing period was in the 1950's and 1960's. It was a time of great upheaval in the community. There was a high level of immigration following the Second World War and Father Jerome Ferraro, then parish priest, was occupied helping immigrants find jobs and adapt to their new homes.

It was also during this time that the homes of many Italian families were expropriated. Properties in the Rochester/Gladstone areas were expropriated to make room for Commerce High School and the Rochester Housing Projects of the Ottawa Carleton Regional Housing Authority, a move that many believe was influenced by the politics of power.

"I remember the church had to work hard to help people in the community," said Ierullo, who's home was also expropriated. "There were a lot of losses and the church had to work hard to comfort people and help them."


Many Italians left the community but continue to return to the church regardless of where they live now.

"Italians have a strong family spirit," stated Father Brodeur. "Their faith is very strong."

St. Anthony's Church is also closely connected with St. Anthony's School. Both play a crucial role in the education and support of the children in the community.

Inside St. Anthony’s Church.

St. Anthony's is used not only for religious purposes but for social activities as well. It is the meeting place for many clubs and associations. The St. Anthony Italia Soccer Club and the Italo-Canadian Senior Citizens Group had their origins at the church. The church is also naturally the focal point of feasts and celebrations. The Feast of St. Anthony, every second Sunday in June, draws around 7,000 people with an additional 15,000 people gathered along the streets for the procession.

"We are a family," stated Ierullo. "We uphold each other and St. Anthony's has always been there."

It's likely it always will be.

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