Winnipeg’s Holy Rosary Church Photo from Facebook

Italians at Holy Rosary’s heart for 100 years

  • October 14, 2023

Josephine “Jo” Dellapenta’s father Geremino hailed from Campobasso, the capital city of the Italian region of Molise. Her mother, Alfonsina Cordileone, lived her first 11 years in a town not far away.

They would both gaze upon the Statue of Liberty as they floated by Ellis Island, New York, during their separate voyages as children, in the company of their parents, in search of a new life in the early 1920s.

Both Alfonsina and Geremino’s families would ultimately venture north to Winnipeg to carve out a Canadian dream.

Decades later, in the 1950s, Angelo and Cristina Guffei set sail from the Italian commune of Castelpetroso. Like many of their countrymen following the Second World War, the Guffei’s took the brave step of departing their homeland in search of new opportunities in Canada or the United States. They ultimately established roots in Winnipeg and raised daughters Dolores, Maria (married to Robert Doerr) and Adriana.

The Cordileone and Guffei clans are among the innumerable families of Italian heritage who have animated Winnipeg’s Holy Rosary Church, which celebrated its 100th anniversary with a special gala on Oct. 14, over the past century. Maria Doerr’s voice swells with pride upon reflecting about attending Mass as a child alongside fellow Italian immigrant families with strikingly similar stories as her parents.

“I regularly attended Holy Rosary with my parents and grandparents as a child,” said Doerr. “We lived faith as family, as a parish and among friends. I was immersed in it. These (immigrant families) are a very significant reason why this 100th anniversary celebration is so special to me.”

Dellapenta said “it is emotional” for she and husband Henry to contemplate the centennial legacy of Holy Rosary, which has been their parish home for over eight decades.

“It’s wonderful. It has been our community where we have made many friends, many of whom have of course already passed on. It is hard for me to really express what I feel, except I can tell you that it is emotional for us.”

According to the historical record of Holy Rosary Church, the first Italians immigrated to the Manitoba capital in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. The small community originally attended the already-established Sacred Heart Church and St. Mary’s Cathedral. Italian missionaries took root in the city during the 1910s and soon began hosting community gatherings for local Italian Catholics. The community eventually gained the confidence and numbers to establish a parish to could call its own.

In 1923, the inaugural parish committee purchased the Lutheran house of worship situated at the corner of Sherbrook and Bannatyne. On Oct. 7 of that year, the building was consecrated as a Catholic church.

Over the first 14 years, the well-being of Holy Rosary was largely shepherded by the Oblate Fathers. From 1937 to 1995, a series of priests from the Order of Servants of Mary — the Servite Order — tended to the spiritual welfare of the parish.

In 1967, Holy Rosary moved to its current home at 510 River Ave., which is in the heart of the artistic Osborn Village neighbourhood. A 500-seat parish and administrative centre was developed at a cost of about $390,000. The former location was purchased by the Winnipeg Children’s Hospital, which sought to expand.

In 1995, the Servite Order had to end its work in Winnipeg because of a shortage of priests in its community. Holy Rosary would be served by diocesan priests. Diocesan leadership assigned Fr. Sam Argenziano as the new pastor. Argenziano remains the parish priest 28 years later.

Doerr, who considers spiritual nourishment the greatest gift she receives from Holy Rosary, praised Argenziano for helping her to nurture her faith.

“Fr. Sam, he reminds us of who we are as disciples. He teaches us how to treat others and how to be giving and loving. He has opened my eyes to the gift of the Beatitudes. He is very knowledgeable and consistent with his teaching.”

From Argenziano’s perspective, the anniversary “is certainly a milestone to remember, celebrate and honour all the parishioners who lived their faith in a community of love, fellowship and culture.”

For many generations who attended Holy Rosary, the parish was also the hub of their social life. The parish hosted spaghetti dinners, socials, plays, concerts and more. Many parishioners joined forces to play hockey, softball, basketball or soccer. And the parish was known to enter a creative float in local parades. Historically, Holy Rosary congregants looked back fondly on the gondola boat they developed for the City of Winnipeg’s 75th anniversary in 1948. They called it the Santa Lucia.

Argenziano expressed pride about the parish’s record of social justice, from helping all Italian immigrants find housing and work through the years to the work of currently sponsoring Ukrainian families who fled the war being waged upon their nation by Russia. His hope for the celebration at the Winnipeg Convention Centre, and during the liturgical services of Oct. 15 — one in Italian and three in English — is “to show Winnipeg that we are here to stay and be a vibrant part of our society.”

Though, like many parishes across Canada, Holy Rosary has not fully regained its congregational ranks from before the COVID-19 pandemic, there is optimism for what lies in store over the next 100 years. There are younger parishioners assuming key leadership roles, including 35-year-old Shawn Lanting, who joined the parish only a couple of years ago. He sings in the choir and teaches the tenets of Catholicism to young children during Sunday Catechism class.

“I am fortunate to have the opportunity to educate these remarkable young minds who eagerly absorb the theology presented to them,” wrote Lanting in an email.

“I take care to simplify the teachings, making sure it’s digestible without losing the depth and richness of our faith. It is a truly fulfilling experience to be a part of their spiritual journey.

“Reflecting on Holy Rosary Church’s 100th anniversary leaves me feeling humbled to think of all those who have sat in the pews before me, honoured to know that I get to have my small role in the church for a time, and assured knowing there will be others after me.”

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