St. Francis of Assisi church and the Italian community

(This is an excerpt from the recently published Vanishing Vancouver: The Last 25 Years [Whitecap Books]. The photographs are from The History of Saint Francis Parish, Vancouver, published in 1959)


The Franciscan Monastery, its front porch closed in, on Semlin at Napier in the 1950s


There are just a handful of places in Vancouver where the street grid is broken up with short blocks, large properties or other curiosities. One is the neighbourhood around the old Franciscan monastery in Grandview. Like in an Italian village, the ringing bell of St. Francis of Assisi Church on Napier Street carries through the quiet parish streets at midday, answered by the distant “O Canada” four-note horn atop Canada Place.


Nearby Commercial Drive was first identified in the newspapers as Little Italy about 1967, 20 years after Italian migrants from Strathcona and new immigrants began to flavour the old Anglo working-class Grandview area. Described as a city within a city, the area bounded by Campbell, Nanaimo, Hastings and Kingsway was home to about 30,000 Italians.


The pull to Grandview was probably the church, which began in the mid-1930s to hold services at the Franciscan monastery established in 1924 in the old William Miller mansion, Wilga, at Semlin and Napier. In earlier years, the Catholic parish ministering to the Italian population was Sacred Heart Church at 525 Campbell Avenue in Strathcona. The push from Strathcona was increased prosperity throughout society, which gave Italian-Canadians more opportunities than they had had when, mainly as labourers, they had crowded into the tenements and small houses along Union Street around the turn of the 20th century. The changing ethnic mix of Strathcona, especially the wave of Chinese immigrants settling there around 1950, undoubtedly helped.


The impetus for a Franciscan parish came in June, 1930, from a number of people living near the monastery. The group included the Italian consul, Mr. Masi, and the vice-president of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Frank Rita. Eventually 200 people signed a petition and in September, 1936, a new parish bounded by Hastings Street, 1st Avenue, Templeton Street and Commercial Drive was carved from three earlier ones. The church’s first rector, Reverend Father Boniface, noted in his 1959 history of the parish that even in the beginning there were a lot of immigrants in the area, a great diversity of nationalities and challenges in weaning families away from the downtown church. Only one of the 14 presidents of the altar society in the ’40s and ’50s had an Italian name; one had a Chinese name.


“For one year the parishioners had crowded into the small Monastery chapel for the three Masses on Sunday, but this could not keep on for any length of time,” Boniface wrote. “A church had to be built.”


Late in the fall of 1937 he submitted a sketch of a plan to George Aspell, “known as one of British Columbia’s best draftsmen,” to be worked out “in a Roman-Mission style with no pillars, a large sanctuary, a sacristy to the east of the main Altar, a choir for the religious community to the west with a corridor connecting it with the monastery, concealed or recessed confessionals, a baptistry [and] a glazed-off vestibule supporting the organ loft to the south.”


The plans were ready by the beginning of 1938 and contractor S.J. Grant of North Vancouver won over five other bidders; he began construction on February 20 and worked so quickly that the church was ready by the end of June. The pipe organ was installed in 1942 and the pulpit of fumed oak in 1953. A number of articles in the church had been used by priests in hiding at Berington Hall in England during the Penal Laws. The baptismal font of beaten brass “formerly served as a flower stand in the Czar’s garden, Petersburg.” Boniface noted that the alms box had been stolen from the church a number of times “but always found its way back intact” as it weighed 65 pounds and the thieves found it hard to carry very far.


During those years of church-building the Italian community was coming to terms with the reality of Mussolini’s Italy. On May 22, 1936, according to a news report, “150 loyal Italian wives of Vancouver” exchanged their gold wedding rings for steel ones at a ceremony on board the Italian ship MS Rialto in the harbour. The rings were donated to the Italian Red Cross, part of a fundraising campaign to support the Italian adventuring in Ethiopia.


That October, on Columbus Day, “cheers for Mussolini rang out through the Silver Slipper Hall . . . Glasses were raised and drained to the conqueror of Ethiopia.” Reports of subsequent events make no mention of him and the tone changed totally in June, 1940. “City Italian Colony Worried, Thinks Il Duce Won’t Fight,” one newspaper headline reported. Those who spoke for the community believed that the Catholic Church and lingering anti-German sentiment left over from the First World War would stay Mussolini’s hand.


Events changed suddenly when Mussolini allied Italy with Hitler’s Germany. An announcement on June 11 from Ottawa stated that no Italian funds could leave Canada and the following day the community started a self-registration process coordinated by the Canadian-Italian War Vigilance Committee. By that time, Angelo Branca had emerged as the community’s leader and chaired the committee.


As of June 20, all Italian nationals and anyone naturalized since September 1929 had to register with the RCMP. In addition, all such persons had to surrender firearms, dynamite, gunpowder and other potentially hostile materials. Branca predicted that, as most Italian immigrants had arrived between 1900 and 1914—the years before the start of the First World War, in which Italy was on the Allied side—there would be little disruption (he was proved right). Newspapers estimated 3,000 to 4,000 ethnic Italians in Vancouver at the time and another 15,000 in the rest of BC.


The postwar influx of new immigrants made an impact on St. Francis of Assisi church in the late 1940s. Of about 1,250 baptisms at the church in the ’40s and ’50s, 270 were children with Italian names. The church responded quickly—its parish school at Venables and Victoria across the street from the Grandview United Church turned sod on July 2, 1947.


In the 12 blocks around the church the numbers of households with Italian surnames in the city directory grew rapidly, from 5 in 1949 to 42 in 1958 and to 79 in 1968, before falling back to 59 in 1978. Asian migration also increased. In the past 20 years, the notable change has been the arrival of young families who are restoring the century-old houses and gentrifying the area.


Commercial Drive was at its most Italian in the late 1960s and 1970s, the successor to European/German Robsonstrasse and Chinatown as an exotic destination for shopping and dining in what was, still, a very British-Canadian city (Greek Kitsilano flourished during the same years). In the popular imagination, Italians were a kind of happy, picturesque folk, eager for a street party, a sea change from the restraint of traditional Vancouver, and of traditional Commercial Drive, too. Also arising at that time was an edgy counterculture, politically hard left, adding to The Drive’s burgeoning reputation as the centre for the city’s lesbian population.


As for the church and monastery, they settled comfortably into the changing neighbourhood. In 1947, the old house across Semlin from the monastery that had been run for many years as the Norman Apartments became a convent for the Order of Poor Ladies, usually known as the Poor Clares (for Clare of Assisi, their founder). The convent building is now used as a church and monastery by St. John of Shanghai Orthodox Church.


St. Clare’s Convent on Napier Street, across Semlin from the monastery, in the 1950s


St. Francis was in the news once, in 1963, for a bizarre murder that seems more in character with contemporary Vancouver than the quiet town of the early 1960s. As Sun reporter Moira Farrow wrote:


“Father Cuthbert Seward, 51, rector of St Francis church, was shot and killed as he opened the door of the adjacent monastery Friday night. Two hours after the shooting, police arrested a 29-year-old unemployed mechanic in his apartment six blocks away from the monastery. Police said the man has a history of mental illnesses and is believed to have threatened several times to shoot a priest . . . Two children playing a game of tag outside the monastery said they saw a man drive up to the door about 7 pm. They told police they saw the man leave the engine running and walk calmly up to the door carrying a rifle over his shoulder. A moment later they heard a shot then saw the man walk back to his car.”


The parish raised the funds in the early 1990s to restore the monastery to its original glory, as it was when completed for William Miller in 1908. The project, by Rhone & Iredale architect Charlotte Murray, won a Vancouver heritage award.


One thought on “St. Francis of Assisi church and the Italian community

  1. Pretty exact. Went to St. Francis School, Went to the funeral of Father Cuthbert Seward (open casket) and finally
    my mothers funeral held in same church in 2018.


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