words & photography: Nicholas Di Giovanni

Inside the Madonna Della Difesa church in Montreal’s Little Italy, it’s easy to notice the 100-year-old building’s magnificent interior. Laid out in a Greek cross plan, meaning the four arms are of equal length, the building’s white walls and elaborate decor resemble an Italian church from the Renaissance.

The church’s architect and fresco painter, Guido Nincheri, wanted to give exactly that impression, by replicating some of Italy’s most famous monuments. Saint-Peter’s Basilica and the Roman Colosseum were built out of travertine, a type of limestone, and, to the naked eye, it seems the Madonna della Difesa is built the same way.

“It would have been crazy to bring all that stone from Italy to build the whole church out of travertine,” said Pier Luigi Colleoni, a volunteer at the church. “Instead, [Nincheri] painted it to make it look like travertine.”

The church has stood on Dante Street between Alma Street and Henri-Julien Avenue since 1918, but its stunning architecture has remained unknown to many Montrealers.

A church for immigrants

When a wave of Italian immigrants arrived in Montreal in the early 20th century, they settled in the area near today’s Little Italy. There were two French churches that they attended at the time: Saint-Jean-de-la-Croix and Saint-Édouard.

These immigrants had heard about apparitions in Italy of the Madonna — a representation of the Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic religion — in an area called La Difesa just outside the small town of Casacalenda, in the Molise region. To honour the Madonna sighted in La Difesa (hence Madonna della Difesa), they sculpted a statue and placed it in the Saint-Jean-de-la-Croix church. They were eventually expelled from the church due to internal conflict, along with their statue.

The only real marble in the church is the carrara marble at the altar. The emblem of Servi di Maria, the order that ran the church until 2002, is seen here.

The Italian immigrants created a new parish in 1910, and the first Madonna della Difesa church was built on Henri-Julien Avenue. But the congregation continued to grow and it needed a new building. In 1918, Nincheri was commissioned to design the new church across the street from the original. The building from the first church today is still there, used for L’école de la Petite-Patrie, formerly known as Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense.

Nincheri was an Italian immigrant from Prato in the Tuscany region. He was inspired by Santa Maria della Carceri, a church in his hometown Prato for the design of this new building.

Designing the apse

Two of the most striking parts of the church are its apse behind the altar, and the church’s dome. Nincheri painted them using the fresco technique, the same way Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel.

“Nincheri was a little Michelangelo,” Colleoni said. Fresco “is the technique where you paint when the plaster is still fresh. The moment the plaster is laid, you go in with your brush and the colour enters it, so it remains there forever.”

The fresco on the apse has three different levels of characters. “Each level represents a particular world,” Colleoni said. “In the first level, there are people that were alive during the painting […] In the second level there are all saints, and on top the Virgin Mary with angels.”

There’s Pope Pius XI, several cardinals, priests and members of the clergy at the time, and there’s even Nincheri with his two sons in the painting. But one face that stands out the most is that of Benito Mussolini. The former fascist leader is there because in 1929 he signed the Lateran Treaty to officially recognize Vatican City as an independent state, freeing the Pope from Italian control.

The depiction of Benito Mussolini in the fresco.

“The Pope at the time said Mussolini is a [man of God] for finding this solution,” Colleoni said. “It’s not to say Mussolini was a holy man, as we know he was a man of many colours.”

The depiction of Mussolini became an embarrassing moment for the parish during the Second World War when Mussolini declared war on France and Britain (and Canada by extension).

“When Mussolini declared war, firemen came to the church with ladders and hammers to destroy the fresco of him,” Colleoni added. “The priests made a compromise with the firemen to not destroy it, but covered it instead.” It remained covered until the 1950s.

The Virgin Mary on the apse points towards the dome, where Nincheri painted the Holy Trinity, which consists of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. .

A pillar in the Italian community

The Madonna della Difesa church is at the heart of Montreal’s Italian community, and has helped people migrate to Canada. “When Italians arrived here, they heard from someone they knew about the church and many ended up here,” Colleoni said. “Many were poor but were never miserable because with the church they had something to do.”

A wedding in the 1960s. The depiction of Mussolini was uncovered by then. (Left photo courtesy of Madonna della Difesa)

A century into its existence, the congregation is getting smaller and older, but is trying to appeal to the younger generation through catechism and youth groups. “There are many people who come to the church because they like it and they have an affection to it,” Colleoni added. “They come for the sacraments, so for baptisms, confirmations, weddings, etc.”

Colleoni hopes the church will remain Italian as long as possible, but said he can’t predict the future. “For now, we’re Italian,” he said.