The Bearded, Brown-Robed Founder of St. Anthony’s Church

Researched and written by Ariella DalFarra Hostetter
IlPostinoRev. F. FortunatoHe sits in the place of honour at the front and centre of the photo surrounded by rows of men dressed in their rough Sunday best. This serious looking man, with a long black beard, round glasses and wearing the sack-like brown robes of a Franciscan monk, is Father Fortunatus O.M.C., a Capuchin priest. Out of respect, he would be seated front and centre, in any case, but on this occasion it wasn’t merely a courtesy.It’s because the 1908 photo marks an important achievement by Father Fortunatus and a group of Italian immigrants. The reason can be seen in the photo’s background. It’s the modest chapel of St. Elizabeth on Murray Street in Lowertown, where, with permission from Archbishop Duhamel, he preached, officiated the sacraments and heard confessions in Italian.

In 1908 Father Fortunatus founded the Italian Mission of St Anthony1s . Initially services were held at L’Eglise St François d’Assise and later at the Chapel of St. Elizabeth of Murray Street.

Padre Fortunatus had arrived in Ottawa shortly after his ordination two years earlier in 1906, at the age of 26. He had requested that he be sent to Canada as a missionary to work among Italian and Maltese immigrants and to teach mathematics and English at the Franciscan Seminary on Wellington Street.

Born Fortunatus Mizzi in 1880 in Malta, Fortunatus was a member of the influential Mizzi family. His father Dr. Fortunatus Mizzi was a lawyer and founder of the Pro-Italian Anti Reform Party and another family member, Dr. Enrico Mizzi, became Prime Minister of Malta. 2 Fortunatus’s mother, Sophie Folliero de Luna was originally from France. Organizing was a family tradition. Father Fortunatus must have certainly been at ease with politicians and the elite of the church hierarchy.

In the early 1900’s Ottawa was a small place. After his arrival Father Fortunatus would quite likely have been introduced to Bishop Donato Sbarretti, the Papal Delegate (the Pope’s head honcho) to Canada and Newfoundland, and to Archbishop Joseph-Thomas Duhamel.

He would have been at ease in conversation with these men since Father Fortunatus was fluent in several languages including English, French and Italian3. The speed with which the congregation received permission from the Archbishop Duhamel to move forward with his efforts to organize a congregation within the Italian community shows that Catholic Church authorities had full confidence in this young Maltese priest.

Father Fortunatus’s description of the founding of the congregation tells of no opposition, obstacles or difficulties in receiving the necessary go ahead. He does, however, speak of a young Domenico Nasso who had the temerity to interrupt him, during confession to ask if he would preach to members of the small Italian community at Easter time. Domenico thought that he could bring 15 men to Easter Sunday mass.

Father Fortunato first sought permission to preach in Italian from the head of the Franciscan Order in Ottawa. Reverend Father Sebastian advised him to “refer the matter to Archbishop Duhamel.” No lowly mendicant would have been given the go ahead to speak directly to the Archbishop so easily.

Archbishop Duhamel, who never lost his concern for the common man and their need to worship in their language, replied to Fortunatus’s request as follows: “ I have been thinking of this for some time, and now that you ask me, I give you permission not only to preach to them but to baptize and to marry them, may our Divine Lord bless your Ministry.”

The “them” who needed to be baptized, married and buried consisted primarily of recent immigrants who were beginning to put down roots in Ottawa. In 1911 the population stood at roughly 800 souls. With an average family size of 6 that meant roughly 150 families. 4In 1908 Father Fortunatus talks of visiting 125 families as part of his organizing task and of 150 Italians assisting at services on Easter evening. Ten times the number Domenico Nasso promised that he and his friends could bring out.

Making personal visits to these families, who were clustered in the ByWard Market area, Rochesterville and the Lebreton Flats, was a major undertaking. In looking at the evolution of the parish over the years, Father Fortunatus certainly laid the ground work for a church solidly based in the community it served.

For sure, in 1911 these parishioners were neither wealthy nor part of the Ottawa elite. By-and-large they were day labourers who worked at repairing Ottawa’s streets. Entrepreneurs, among them, were fruit dealers with a few shoemakers and tailors. Those with highest standing the community were musicians, statue makers and marble workers. Only half could read and write.

In this young community, half were born in Canada. Much work performing marriages and baptisms lay ahead for Father Fortunatus. The hand-written parish register kept by Father Fortunatus from 1908 to early March,1914 shows that he celebrated 220 baptisms, 46 weddings and 43 funerals. Most sadly, of the 43 funerals, 27 were for infants.

It was fitting that the last sacrament that Father Fortunatus celebrated at St. Anthony’s church on March 16, 1914 was the marriage of Annunziata Crea and Domenico Nasso. His tenure as pastor to the Italian congregation had started with a cheeky request from Domenico and finished with celebrating his marriage ---- definitely not a likely coincidence. Father Fortunatus drew a long line in dark ink under this marriage entry in the parish registry and handed the care of his parishioners over to Father Prosperi of the Servite Order of Mary.

In 1913 Father had founded and was the first Pastor of the Italian National Parish of St. Anthony of Padua by then located at what is now the intersection of Booth and Gladstone Streets. In the spring of 1914 the parish passed into the care of the Servite Fathers.

Father Fortunatus continued to teach at the Franciscan seminary, left Canada in 1935 and passed away in Mossaic, France in1945.

1 Portelli, John, P., Father Fortunato Mizzi’s to Maltese Catholics in Toronto, CCHA Historical Studies, 67 (20010 57-80
2  Cumbo, Richard S., A Brief History of Early Maltese in Toronto, Toronto: Maltese Canadian Society of Toronto Inc., 75th Anniversary Publication, 1922-1997
3 Church of St Anthony Ottawa Parish Register, handwritten records by Father Fortunatus are written in French
4 Hostetter, Ariella, analysis of the 1911 Census of Canada