Italian-Montrealers rise up against city plan to rename Guido Nincheri Park

Family and fans of Guido Nincheri are fighting back against city plans to change the name of a park named in his honour as part of Montreal's 375th anniversary celebrations.

Artist known as 'the Michelangelo of Montreal' was a master of religious frescos and stained glass

Guido Nincheri brought artistic techniques learned in Florence, Italy, to North America. He was known for his frescoes and stained glass windows, like this one from St-Madeleine D'Outremont church. (CBC)

Family and fans of Guido Nincheri, a celebrated artist and well-known member of the Italian-Canadian community, are fighting back against city plans to change the name of a park named in his honour as part of Montreal's 375th anniversary celebrations.

Nincheri, who is best known for his religious frescos and stained glass windows in churches around North America, had the park named after him during Montreal's 350th anniversary celebrations in 1992, when he was honoured as 'The Michelangelo of Montreal.'

Guido Nincheri Park is located at Rachel Street and Pie IX Boulevard, across from his old art studio, which is now part of the Dufresne-Nincheri Museum.

The city wants to rename the park "Parc de la Ville de Quebec" next spring.

City officials say renaming the Dufresne Museum to include Nincheri's name a few years ago was a fair compromise.

But Many Italian-Montrealers see the move as evidence that the city does not grasp the extent of Nincheri's impact on the city, on its artistic community, and on the story of Italian-Canadians.

"I won't say it's 'a slap in the face' but it's almost a sign that the city doesn't actually understand the contributions of this man," Nincheri's grandson, Roger Boccini Nincheri said.

Guido Nincheri Park is situated across the street from Nincheri's old studio. It was named after Nincheri for Montreal's 350th anniversary. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

Half a museum 'isn't good enough'

Local playwright Steve Galluccio, whose work includes Mambo Italiano and The St. Leonard Chronicles, has been tweeting back and forth with Coderre this week over the issue.

Coderre reminded Galluccio that Nincheri's name is now part of the museum.

Galluccio told CBC News that "naming half a museum isn't good enough."

Losing Guido Nincheri Park is not only a blow to the Italian community, but is also loss for Quebec culture and Canadian culture.

"[Coderre has] a chance to correct it. Give Nincheri another park, or a street," he said.

Taking action to honour Nincheri's memory

Members of the Italian community took action this week as news of the renaming began to circulate.

The Montreal Young Italian-Canadian Association (MYICA) created a petition to fight the park's renaming.

MYICA's president, Nicholas La Monaca, said most of those who've signed so far are from outside the Italian community.

Friday, MYICA emailed interim Opposition leader Luc Ferrandez with the hope he will do something about it at city hall.

Ferrandez replied that the park is in city councillor François Croteau's borough of Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie, and he would let Croteau know.

Oversight by the Coderre administration?

Opinions are divided on whether Mayor Denis Coderre is to blame for the name change or if it was an oversight by his administration.

"It's nothing personal against the mayor. A lot of Italians love our mayor," said Mathew Foulidis, co-author of the cookbook From Nonna, With Love.

"The whole anniversary next year is supposed to be paying tribute to our city and we're going to name a park in homage to 'Parc de la Ville de Quebec'? It seems contradictory," Foulidis said.

According to Coderre, this name change has been in the works for two years and he's not sure why people are upset about it now.

Coderre brushed off questions about the park being renamed, saying it was announced years ago. (Radio-Canada)

"If there's someone close to the Italian community, it's me," Coderre said during a news conference Wednesday.

Tony Sciascia, the former president of the Italian Canadian Congress, said he plans to reach out to Coderre about the name change, hoping they can find a mutually respectful solution.

"If they are just changing the name, that's not acceptable," Sciascia said.

If the current location of Guido Nincheri Park has to change names, maybe another park, like Parc de la Petite Italie in Little Italy, could be renamed to honour Nincheri.

Nincheri brings 'prestige to Quebec'

Community groups seeking to preserve and promote Italian heritage in Montreal take a harsher tone when discussing any erasure of Nincheri's name.

The president of Casa D'Italia, Angela Minicucci, says the name change is "outrageous."

One of Nincheri's stained glass works inside Ste-Madeleine D'Outremont church. (Rebecca Ugolini/CBC)
"He set the bar very high for art," Minicucci said.

"Early turn of the century Italians came and brought high quality work and knowledge [to Canada]."

Giovanna Giordano, from Il Comites, a group representing Italians abroad, said she is also outraged and wants to see Nincheri's memory preserved because he "gave so much to Canada."

She said honouring Nincheri would give prestige to Quebec because he was so prolific.

Keeping Nincheri's memory alive

According to playwright Steve Galluccio, Montreal has a bad habit of erasing parts of its history when it changes the names of streets and buildings without any public consultation.

Galluccio said that Montreal could adopt New York City's approach to street names whereby new names are added to existing places rather than erasing the original name. (Wikipedia)
He suggested the city adopt a less destructive way of honouring new figures by adding names rather than subtracting them.

"Here they completely erase someone's name off a building, a monument, and we don't have a say," Galluccio said. "That's what bugs me most."

Who was Guido Nincheri?

Nincheri studied art and fresco painting in Florence before immigrating to Boston in 1913 then settling in Montreal.

He worked in a stained glass studio and went on to leave his mark on places like Saint-Léon de Westmount Church and the Church of the Madonna della Difesa in Little Italy.

He also worked throughout Quebec, Canada and the northeastern U.S., creating about 220 works.

He was very well known from the 1930s to the 1950s, but fell into obscurity during Quebec's Quiet Revolution, when people turned away from religion and religious art, according to his grandson.

Roger Boccini Nincheri has been working to catalogue and promote his grandfather's work since 2002. His home is filled with images of Nincheri's work and memorabilia from his life. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

Nincheri's story is heavily intertwined with the Catholic Church, and in 1933, the Pope honoured him with the Order of Saint-Sylvester.

But it was a politically challenging time for Italian-Canadians, particularly ones receiving honours from Italy.

Then-Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini was at his apex and had united church and state. He even made the Vatican its own city-state.

History would remember Mussolini as a fascist dictator, but Boccini Nincheri said he was very popular with Italian clergy in the early 1930s for his support of the Vatican.

In honour of what Mussolini had done for them, the clergy in Montreal demanded that Nincheri paint him into a fresco on the ceiling of the Church of the Madonna della Difesa on Henri-Julien Street in Little Italy.

The artist didn't want to, but eventually complied — something which led the Canadian government to arrest him as a fascist years later.

Nincheri only agreed to include Mussolini after the church threatened to tear up his contract if he didn't, and the founder of Italian fascism is still up there riding his horse to this day.

The original watercolour Nincheri presented to the Church of the Madonna della Difesa did not include Mussolini on horseback (seen bottom right). (CBC)

Interned during WWII

In 1942, Nicheri was working in Baie-Comeau when the RCMP came for him.

They took him to an internment camp in Petawawa, Ontario, where Italian-Canadian men with links to, or who were suspected of fascist allegiances, were held alongside Canadians of German and Japanese heritage. 

According to Boccini Nincheri, his grandfather was kept prisoner for three months before the family could prove that Mussolini was not in his original watercolour for the Madonna della Difesa fresco.

"That time was very hard from a psychological point of view," Boccini Nincheri said.

"In the camp he was well treated, but on the trip to the camp, by train, he was vilified. But he never said anything. He never talked about it [with us]."