To say that the Italians were discriminated against in the early years of our city would be a fair statement of an unfair fact.
It would appear that one of the first murders to occur in town, in March, 1899, was committed by Italians, which may have started things off on the wrong foot. A fight, carrying over from the nearby red light district, placed two Italians by the names of Felix Paste and Mike Messico (of which the spelling must be treated as suspect) near the CPR freight shed in the general area of the present day railway museum. In a case of mistaken identity the two men attacked a man they believed to be a recent adversary but who was, in fact, a young man by the name of Edward Ryan enjoying a late night on the town. He was fatally shot by Paste.
Still, that’s really neither here nor there, for it soon became evident that violent crime was most certainly not restricted to any one nationality. If you were Italian (or Japanese or Chinese or French or Polish or Indian or Negro or Scandinavian or sometimes German or a whole lot of things that weren’t white-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant) you were going to eat a pretty steady diet of discrimination from Cranbrook’s self-perceived elite. As with all the “foreigners” of the early days, the Italians took their lumps while carving themselves an integral place in the community.
Food has a way of bridging nationalities so perhaps July, 1913, was a small turning point in local race relations. On that particular evening local middleweight boxer Joe Uvanni knocked out challenger Jim Brannon in the sixth round of a match at the auditorium and then invited twenty or so of the “uninitiated” to the second story club room above the Provenzano Bros. store on the corner of Van Horne and Dewar (4th) Avenue. Mr. Uvanni, a cook by trade, proceeded to serve up what appears to be the first local public Italian spaghetti dinner. Many diners were enjoying the experience for the first time and failed to go the full ten rounds, but all agreed that it was a repast of the first order.
As with many of the racial minorities of the city, the Italian community tended to stick to themselves in the early days, settling the area between Kootenay and Victoria Street north of 2nd Avenue North, in what became known generally as “Little Italy.” The land thereabouts was among the best for growing gardens, an activity the Italians practiced with relentless pride. Both the Venezia (Sam Steele) and Italia (King Edward) Hotels were under Italian proprietorship and became the de facto social centres for the men.
The Italians weren’t the only ethnic group to define their residential territory. There was Chinatown opposite the CPR station, Slabtown to the southwest, home to many of Slavic and French descent, Scotchtown (later Slaterville) and of course Baker Hill — home to the white Anglo-Saxons of the day.
Cristoforo Colombo Lodge No. 14 came into existence on Jan. 16, 1927 (as reported by the Cranbrook Courier newspaper), when local members of the Alberta parent society “Ordine Indipendente Fior D’Italia” were granted a charter. Fifty or so members, comprising such names as Provenzano, Pascuzzo, Pighin, Fiorentino, Naso and Romano held the first of many Sunday afternoon meetings. Yearly dues were $12 per year, of which $8 went to the parent club. A membership drive in Kimberley advised that candidates must be males under the age of fifty with good conduct and in good physical health — demanding standards, indeed.
Aside from the social aspect of the club, members received financial aid when hospitalized or otherwise requiring assistance, including fund-raising at various times to aid those in Italy suffering from the effects of particularly devastating volcanoes.
The group lacked its own facilities and for many years either met privately in a room at the Venezia Hotel or conducted social activities at the Masonic Temple (now the Studio) or later, the Eagles Hall. As early as 1957, the group considered building their own facility but little progress was made until 1964, when they purchased 5.75 acres of land on a hill to the south of the city limits for $1,000. A rudimentary clubhouse and outdoor shelter was constructed along with three outdoor bocce “alleys.” By 1970 members, unhappy with the required financial patronage to the Fior D’Italia, voted to withdraw and continue on their own, retaining the Cristoforo Colombo Lodge No.14 title. In order to increase membership a new category of “Honourary Members” was established, allowing those of non-Italian heritage to join, albeit with limited rights.
In the early 1970s a new club constitution was drafted, a new road was laid from the end of 8th Avenue to the club grounds replacing the old wagon road, drilling for water undertaken and the clearing of the land for a new facility begun. Fund-raising began in earnest in 1975 through private donations and government grants. Construction carried on through 1976 while the women of the Italian community did their part by forming the Cristoforo Colombo Lodge Ladies Auxiliary in preparation for the banquets to come.
The grand opening of the hall took place on June 10, 1978. In the ensuing 35 years the building has become a regular meeting place for groups and nationalities of all types and a testament of the local Italian commitment to culture, community and cuisine.
With thanks to Renato Nicli