History

A Bit of History : St.Agnes, Toronto

The Salesians had the pastoral care of St.Agnes Parish in Toronto from 1924 to 1934. They had been preceded in the archdiocese by seven other religious Congregations of men. In 1898, Archbishop John Walsh had written to Don Rua, offering to the Salesians St.John’s Industrial School, a centre of rehabilitation for boys coming out of prison. He presupposed that Salesians were experts in that apostolate. One year before, the Salesians had opened their first foundation in the USA, more precisely in San Francisco. Most probably because of lack of personnel, Don Rua answered that the Salesians could not meet the needs.
Twenty-six years later, in 1924, the Rector Major, Don Philip Rinaldi, now Blessed, would respond favourably to Archbishop Neil McNeil’s request to accept an Italian parish. At that time, there were three Italian parishes in Toronto: Our Lady of Mount Carmel, St.Clement and St.Agnes, the last one founded in 1914 and cared for by the diocesan clergy, the first pastor being Fr. Giuseppe Bagnasco. The last diocesan pastor, Fr. Giuseppe Basso, did everything in his power to assure the transfer of the parish to the Salesians. It must be mentioned that there was no rush among the clergy for that parish, because it was very indebted, besides the fact that the Italian-speaking priests were very scarce in the diocese. 
The Salesians were solicited to come to St.Agnes also because of the fame of Don Bosco who had been beatified a few years earlier and was about to be declared a saint (Easter Sunday, 1935). There was a pressing need also for a better administration. St.Agnes was the most prominent parish of the Italian community of Toronto. In 1923, there were 110 baptisms. But it was poor. People still suffered from the great Depression.
It’s in that parish that in September 1924, Fr. Pietro Truffa arrived with his assistant, Fr. Giacomo Mellica. Don Paul Albera had sent him to the USA in 1914 to reinforce the Salesian presence there. A few months after being ordained, he is a member of the Salesian High School community in New Rochelle, N.Y. 
The written documentation as regard the beginnings of St.Agnes is very scarce. That may be a good sign: no complaints on the part of the parishioners. There is however a letter, dated 1925, from the Provincial, Fr. Manassero, to Bishop McNeil, stating that he was happy that the diocese was pleased with the work of Fr. Truffa and his confreres. Bishop McNeil praises the Salesians, not only for the good spiritual work with the Italians, but also for a remarkable betterment in the administration of the parish.
Everything was going fine for the Archbishop. But it was not so for the new Provincial in the USA, Fr. Richard Pittini, called from Uruguay to succeed Fr. Manassero as Provincial. He saw no future for the Salesians in Toronto. Soon after becoming Provincial, he wrote to the bishop, stating his intention of withdrawing the Salesians from St.Agnes. Surprised and hurt by the hastiness of that orientation, the Archbishop wrote to Don Rinaldi, the Rector Major in Turin. That letter had two effects: the Salesians remained in Toronto, but the relations between provincial and bishop were broken and remained less than friendly.Fr. Pittini would complain that his letters to the Bishop went unanswered. In fact, when in 1933, he came to Toronto for the last time with Fr. Ambrogio Rossi, the new Provincial, he refused to accompany him to meet the bishop “because he had never received answer to the many letters in which he was requesting the administration of the two other Italian parishes in the diocese.”
Fr. Truffa became the key man of the Salesians in Toronto. He stayed at St.Agnes for the 10 years the Salesians were there, while his assistants changed often. For example, Don Mellica went back to the USA in 1927 and Don Carlo Simona replaced him. Then came in 1928  Fr. Alfonso Volonté, a very pious and zealous priest, who remained with Fr. Truffa until the end. Fr. Volonté had known Don Bosco, becoming a Salesian in 1887.
The ministry of the Salesians in Toronto coincides with that period when in Italy and in the “Italian colony” of Toronto there was the surge of the political phenomenon known as “fascism.” St.Agnes being the point of reference of the Italian community, it was necessarily involved in those events. There was but praise, as well on the part of the Chancery as that of the Italian community for the action of the Salesians. F. Truffa was tireless in defending catholicity and the flag of “Italianità”.  He was a man of action, taking advantage of every occasion for making of the parish a typically Salesian centre: music (he was a gifted musician), theatre, spectacles, Italian school, feasts, etc.
Much archival material of those ten years has been destroyed due to the chase to fascists in Italian communities after the Second World War and also to the fact that St.Agnes was handed over to the Portuguese community in 1970 (these were little interested in preserving the Italian past of the parish).The reports of the “ extraordinary visitors” ( in the central archives of the Salesians in Rome) would most probably be of great help in understanding  the work of the Salesians and the reasons of their withdrawal.
And it is justified to ask ourselves why the Salesians withdrew from St.Agnes? The official reason given, “for external use”, was that the Rector Major wanted the Salesians to live in community and dedicate themselves to youth.  The Salesians, as they had been for the past 10 years, were too isolated; so their situation was considered irregular and unacceptable. Another reason was given by Fr. James Hurley in the commemorative publication of the presence of the SDB’s in North America –We’re celebrating four generations of service to the young”- that would justify the abandonment of parochial ministry in the 1930’s in Toronto and in other American dioceses: economic difficulties and the need to consolidate the works. However the archival documentation of the times never speaks of economic difficulties as the main motivation of that “new orientation”. It seems rather that it was due to a new policy decided at the head of the Congregation ( the new Rector Major was Don Pietro Ricaldone), one that was critical of the kind of work carried out in the North American parishes and the fear of a certain tendency that was not in line with the authentic Salesian spirit. (to be continued)
R. Trottier

 This article is based on a well documented conference given in Italian by Mr. Luigi Pautasso,” I Salesiani a Toronto- 1924-1934”: paper read at the Ninth Annual Symposium of Italian Canadiana, Depart. of Italian Studies, University of Toronto, May 14, 2020.

 


 

When it became known that the Salesians were considering withdrawing from Toronto, forces mobilised to prevent that. At the top of the list, Giambattista  Ambrosi, Italian vice-consul in Toronto, spent much energy to have the Chancery change its mind. These actions took the form, in December 1933, of a battle. The vice consul sent a letter to the Rector Major on Feb. 6, 1934; he received an evasive answer. An equally evasive answer was received from the Provincial, Fr. Rossi , as well as from the Apostolic Delegate in Ottawa,  Mgr Cassullo. All without result.

It may come as a surprise to know that such a request also came from the Secretary of the Fascist Party, Umberto Primo with a letter to the Archbishop of Turin. The main grief reproached to the Archbishop of Toronto was that he had not kept his promise to give the other two Italian parishes to the Salesians, as the Provincial had requested, so that they would have a sufficient number of confreres to form a regular community.

Of course, many requests came also from the parishioners. Many of them saw their departure as the result of jealousy among the clergy. Their suspicions seemed to be confirmed by the strange inaction of the Archbishop. He showed no intention of opposing the Provincial’s decision to pull out the Salesians.” I believe that the Salesians leave St.Agnes simply because their superiors have decided so,” he wrote to Annunziata Cortese, one of the numerous parishioners who had written to him to defend the Salesians. He wrote “ I believe…” possibly because the real reason of their leaving had never been given to him. In reality, that opinion circulating among the people does not seem to have much foundation.

I alluded above to other reasons than the one officially given to justify that decision. According to the thinking of some of the Rector Major’s councillors, Americanism was infiltrating the Salesian communities in the USA. Don Bosco had just been beatified  in 1929 – he would be canonised in April, 1934) - and a wave of great enthusiasm was unfurling on the Salesian world. An effort was made to bring the Congregation to its original fervour. Don Ricaldone established his programme of restoration and of promotion of the authentic Salesian spirit. In the USA, very strict rules were issued for Salesian seminarians: they could no longer exercise pastoral work outside the community, go swimming or dress in lay clothes, even for recreational activities. Life in some American parishes was considered detrimental to the Salesian way of life and Don Ricaldone had ordered Don Rossi to close the parishes that remained out of control because cut off from Salesian centres. In the spring of 1934, he withdrew the Salesians from their parishes in Tampa, Sacramento, and Toronto. The year after, he dissolved the Salesian community at St.John Bosco’s Church in Albany, NY. At that period of the Congregation, schools and colleges were considered as more appropriate places for exercising the Salesian apostolate.

On November 25, 2020. Don Rossi and Don Pittini, his predecessor as Provincial, were in Toronto. They gave notice to Frs. Truffa and Volonté that they were to leave St.Agnes since they did not meet the criteria for a Salesian community. In his report to the Rector Major, Don Rossi enumerates the four reasons that rendered that decision necessary:  Don Ricaldone’s injunction; the isolation of the two Salesians (they are years without seeing other Salesians); the nervous depression of Fr. Truffa which he himself had ascertained; the danger that the priestly ministry be involved with politics, thus dividing the parish community, and the fact that the pastor had already “somewhat compromised himself.”

On November 28, Don Rossi met the Archbishop and let known to him the decision taken. As reported Don Rossi: “ Working in a parish being an exception for us Salesians, and the Superiors having received from Rome the invitation to reunite small and dispersed communities, Frs. Truffa and Volonté being so isolated, I asked the Archbishop to see to it that the parish be handed over to others within 3-4 months.” We can ask: in what way was Rome involved? Archbishop McNeil insisted and said that he was willing to hand over immediately a school to the Salesians to increase the number of confreres, “but I, continues Don Rossi, did not yield and so we parted with that understanding and on good terms.” Afraid that the Archbishop would write to Turin and have gain of cause, as had happened in 1927, Don Rossi beseeches the Rector Major not to yield even if the bishop offers a school to enlarge the community.

Let us come back to an issue that comes up in this whole controversy.  In 1934, Don Rossi mentions as a reason for withdrawing the Salesians from the parish that the pastor has “somewhat compromised himself as regard politics” (sembra “un po compromesso” con i “politicanti”). He is speaking of the ascending influence and action of the Fascists. It does not appear that Fr. Truffa belonged to that category of conservative Catholic elements which Don Luigi Sturzo defines as “clerico-fascisti”, but we must keep in mind that Fr. Truffa had left Italy in 1914 and that the action of the “Fascists” of the Italian colony in Toronto did not have that touch of anticlericalism and anti Catholicism that was developing in Italy at that time. On the occasion of the blessing of the office building of the  Party in 1928 (for the Italians of Toronto, St.Agnes is a point of reference), Fr. Truffa exposes clearly the motives that makes him approve Fascism: “ When we say Italian, we say also Catholic and, as Catholicism has become for the first time the religion of the State, I give my approbation and wish well to Fascism: a Fascism that is made up and governed by men of authentic Catholic faith.” (as reported by the Progresso Italo-Americano, April 19, 2020). It is clear from these words that the priest was not well acquainted with the political Fascist movement as it existed in Italy, as was the case of many other Italian priests then living in North America (so not to be classed as a “clerico-Fascist”) and he looked favourably upon the Fascist movement as a promoter abroad of an “Italianità”, understood as a bulwark against Protestant proselytism.

Now there was nothing else to be done. After ten years of hard work and sacrifice at St.Agnes, the question was definitively settled. On April 26, 2020, Don Truffa and Don Volonté met with their successor, the Franciscan Fr. Patrick Crowley. Fr. Volonté went back to the USA to continue his apostolate in the parish of Corpus Christi, Port Chester, NY, till his death in 1957, venerated as a very saintly man. At that time, I was in my last year of Philosophy in Newton, NJ, and our whole class went to his funeral presided by the Auxiliary Bishop of New York, G. Griffiths  As for Fr. Truffa, Bishop Dignan of Sault-Ste-Marie, ON, received him into his diocese in August 1936. In 1940 he was named pastor of St.Anthony’s Parish in Thunder Bay where he died in February 1949, esteemed and venerated by all,

In this whole issue, one has to keep in mind the historical context and not judge the affair as if it happened today. However some time before his death in 1964, Fr. Ambrogio Rossi, who finished his days, ironically enough as pastor of a parish in Salvador, admitted to some Salesian confreres to have been too strict at the beginning of his term as Provincial. While I was in theology in Turin, I had the occasion to meet Don Rossi who had come to the “Crocetta” to visit the “American colony” of students. He impressed me as a very jovial, intelligent and spiritual man: a gentleman and a very revered Salesian.

As I mentioned at the end of the first part of this article, most of the information contained in this article is taken from a conference by Dr. Luigi Pautasso, to whom I am very grateful for having allowed me to make use of his study. He ends his conference with these words: “In my opinion, now that the Salesians have returned to Toronto, the ten years spent at St.Agnes, as solitary pioneer of the faith and spirit of Don Bosco, merit to be remembered and perhaps also re-evaluated.”

The Salesians - three of them, Frs Quenneville, Gilliece and Craig - returned to Toronto some fifty years later, first as members of the staff at Henry Carr Secondary School in 1977, then to take charge of St.Benedict Parish in June 1983. The passage of time had healed the scars left by that unfortunate controversy.

R. Trottier