Grace Bagnato flips the script on who should be remembered from history
The Bagnato household was never quiet — not that you'd ever expect that from a home that served four generations and over a dozen children for their Sunday brunch.
Along with the general chaos involved with raising such a large family, the landline telephone — not yet ubiquitous in early 20th century Toronto — would ring off the hook all hours of the day and night.
Callers were inevitably looking for the Bagnato family’s matriarch Grace: a one-woman ad hoc immigrant settlement agency, and Ontario’s first female Italian-Canadian court interpreter.
Grace’s neighbours in The Ward, home to thousands of non-English-speaking immigrants, needed her multilingual skills to help navigate the overwhelmingly Anglophone city, from finding a new doctor to getting them out of prison.
“My grandmother was a wonder woman,” said Angela Puzzolanti, 84, Grace’s second-oldest granddaughter.
“You never spent 10 minutes with her that weren’t the best 10 minutes of your life,” she told The Doc Project’s Veronica Simmonds.
Court interpreter for immigrants
Grace Genovese was born to Italian immigrants in Scranton, Pa., in 1891. Her family moved to Toronto when she was six years old.
As a teenager, she married 25-year-old Joseph Bagnato. He only spoke Italian and she only spoke English, so Grace learned Italian — becoming fluent in six months.
It turned out she had a knack for languages, so she set out to learn the languages of her neighbours, including Yiddish, Polish and Ukrainian.
“I remember a Russian lady was on our street, and nobody could understand her, not even my mother. And within a month, they were having full conversations together,” recalled Paul Bagnato, 84, Grace's youngest son.
While interpreting for immigrants ensnared in the courts, she did the same for the mostly English-speaking lawyers and authority figures on the other side.
She would also be called to speak as character witness: If Grace said you were a good person, you were likely to have an easier time at Toronto’s Old City Hall.
In 1921, she was formally appointed as a court interpreter.
According to a 1936 profile in the Toronto Star, she quickly became one of the city’s most sought-after interpreters, and was called “as far as Montreal and New York on serious criminal trials.”
“Some evenings there are a dozen people, all wanting counsel on something or other, waiting for me when I get home,” Grace told The Star.
Paul Bagnato remembers his mother taking him with her to the courthouse while she juggled parenthood with multiple meetings and court cases.
“Nothing was impossible to my mother,” he told Simmonds. “She said [women] could do anything, and she proved it.”
Bridging cultural gaps
Her work didn’t just involve translating words; she also helped bridge misunderstandings between cultures — such as explaining to Italian and other immigrants why winemaking at home was illegal.
Ontario was in the throes of prohibition and the temperance movement. From 1916 to 1927, alcohol — deemed immoral — was banned.
“They didn't see alcohol as being a sin. It was actually part of their traditions,” explained Ellen Scheinberg, historian and co-editor of The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto's First Immigrant Neighbourhood.
“They drank wine in synagogue and in church and they viewed it as something that was positive as long as you didn't overindulge. Even the rabbis had licences to serve alcohol at that time for spiritual reasons.”
Bootlegging was a way to bring in extra income to the often impoverished families in The Ward — even if they sometimes had to spend it paying off court fees after the occasional raid.
Immigrants caught up in the legal system, whether they knew why, had little recourse in Toronto’s mostly English-speaking institutions.
“She’d go down there and she’d rant and rave, and she’d get them out with no records or anything,” recalled Grace’s granddaughter Puzzolanti.
As thanks for her work over the years, the Italian Canadian Society scrounged up $109 to buy her a Ford Model T so she could better travel to and from the courts, and to meet with anyone else who needed her help, making her one of the first women in Toronto to drive.
Grace’s humanitarian nature extended beyond Old City Hall, and into her own home.
She would often invite less fortunate people she saw downtown for dinner, or to stay the night. Considering the Bagnato household often served a family of 20 to 25 on any given night, this was no mean feat.
“The kids gave up their beds for people. She was just a giving person,” said Sharon Bagnato, one of Grace’s daughter-in-laws.
According to granddaughter Puzzolanti, the dinner table was never just for family.
“She was like the mother of the world,” she said.
The Stork Derby
For all of Grace’s bridge-building and community outreach, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
In 1921, she and three other interpreters were suspended on suspicion of exerting improper influence over court proceedings. She was eventually exonerated, and returned to her work.
Except for this brief suspension, few records of Grace’s work survive.
“Working class people didn’t create a lot of records. They didn’t keep diaries; they didn’t document their lives as much as wealthy Torontonians,” historian Scheinberg said. “So it’s a challenge nailing down the details of their lives.”
She noted that it’s particularly difficult to find records of exceptional women from the era, since modesty and motherhood were often prized above all else.
Perhaps ironically, much of what we know about her — including the 1936 profile in The Star — comes from local coverage of something else entirely.
From the late 1920s to early 1930s, she was a frontrunner in the Stork Derby, a race sparked by the death of eccentric aristocrat Charles Vance Millar.
Millar’s will stipulated that his estate would award $500,000 — equivalent to nearly $9 million today — to the mother who bore the most children in the 10 years following his death.
Grace didn’t win; the prize ended up being split amongst four other women, each with nine registered children born in the allotted time.
Her grandson Charlie, 67, said anti-Italian sentiments may have played a part.
“My grandfather had clips from the paper, and I remember the judge's comments were: ‘We can't have this money coming back in bullets and bombs from Mussolini.’ This is about a woman who was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania,” he said.
“She never left Toronto, she was never in Italy in her life. She was born American, became Canadian, but somehow she couldn't get this money because of her last name.”
According to Puzzolanti, by the time she was a young girl, no one was allowed to speak of the contest at home.
“My grandmother hated it,” she said. “That's not why they had children. They wanted a huge family.”
Final Sunday brunch
Every story Grace’s descendants tell about her exemplify an unwavering work ethic and dedication to her family — including what Puzzolanti remembers of the day she died in 1950.
It started like any other Sunday.
Grace woke up at 4 a.m. to start making a massive brunch for the family, who would be coming home after mass. She made homemade meatballs and sauce, butter tarts, salad and handmade pasta.
Puzzolanti recalled how her grandmother would dry the freshly made macaroni or ravioli on tea towels draped over kitchen table chairs.
The spread was finished with bagels from a nearby Jewish bakery. Grace knew exactly when they were finished baking, so she came home with a paper bag full of bagels bursting with steam.
The bagels were always paired with her homemade meatballs and sauce. To this day Puzzolanti can’t eat meatballs without getting a craving for a bagel, and vice-versa.
See Grace's meatball recipe along with a few other family favourites featured in the cookbook.
Around 8 a.m., Grace told her husband Joseph she was feeling tired, and went to her room to take a nap. Joseph found her shortly after lying in her bed. She had died in her sleep. She was 59.
‘This is Grandma’s house’
The Bagnatos keep the spirit of those beloved brunches alive at their annual Christmas dinners.
Earlier this month they held the 88th such party, hosting 118 of Grace and Joseph’s descendants. The family has to rent a hall in Vaughan, Ont., to accommodate everyone.
Puzzolanti is always quick to remind everyone where the tradition started, and by whom.
“It’s not for you, and it’s not for me. This is Grandma’s house,” she said.
She worries, however, that as those with living memory of Grace grow older and pass on, her legacy as a female trailblazer and lynchpin of the city’s early immigrant community threatens to fade away.
“Some things run its course, right? I mean, history will go so far,” said Grace’s granddaughter Sherrie Bagnato, 61. “My kids, for instance, probably won’t be as engaged, and won’t have those memories. So it’s a little sad.”