An angel from the ‘Italian Village’
by Zeljka Gaspar
I met Mrs. Mary Ierullo one Friday morning when the harsh sound of an ongoing construction machine was drowned out by the voices of children who were playing on Willow St. where Mrs. Ierullo’s house is located. The sign on the door read: “This house is protected by ANGELS”. And really, the mome
nt I came in I was surrounded by angels.
They were everywhere: on walls, in the garden, in photos. But the most important one was sitting right beside me. Mary Ierullo has done so much for the Italian-Canadian community that she could truly be called an angel.
This proud lady seems to be the first in many things. She was the first Italian woman real estate broker in Ottawa and Canada, and most probably in North America as well. While working as a court interpreter for Lyle Gillespie, the Special Examiner’s Office where the client and his lawyer would document discovery examinations prior to court proceedings, Mary Ierullo once spent six successive hours translating from Italian into English and vice versa: “They stood up and gave me a standing ovation. No one has ever been able to go through a solid six hours without stopping”, says Mrs. Ierullo.
Also, she and her husband honoured St. Anthony in 1953 by putting out the Italian, Vatican, and Canadian flags. “After this others in the village did the same”, says Mrs. Ierullo. There is a glow in her eyes that you can notice each time she speaks about ‘[her] village’ and its people. “We called this the Italian Village, because for us it was an extension of the home that we had left behind”, says Mrs. Ierullo. “We had our church, we had our school, we had our village”.
Mary Nazarena Dolores Parotta arrived in Ottawa at the age of eight with her mother, uncle, and grandmother on the first day of the year 1929. They originally came from the lower portion of the Italian peninsula, Calabria, like a majority of Italian families at the time. (Her uncle Bruno Messina came to Canada in 1909, while her two aunts went to Argentina in 1920).
“My generation has gone through depression, we have gone through the war, we have been able to mix and blend with people from different countries who moved here like ourselves. Fortunately, most of us did not have the scars that the later years brought in, the scars of fugitives. I, who worked as an interpreter with the immigration, could not only hear their pain, but I could feel their pain”, says Mrs. Ierullo.
She explained to me that the focal point at all times was the Church of St. Anthony. “One day in 1954 Father Jerome, who was the priest at the time, called me and said: ‘Mary, we are having a difficult time and I am wondering if you would be able to help out?’” A large number of Italians came at that time from Sault Sainte-Marie and South Porcupine where they had worked in the mine and where there was no job for them. They all came to Ottawa. They did not have the place to stay, so Mrs. Ierullo and her husband, Vincent, together with other people from the ‘Village’ put out their helping hand.
“Everybody pitched in”, says Mrs. Ierullo. “We were very devoted. I think that what made this community what it was is the old fashioned dignity and respect that one holds for the other, which is a wonderful gift. We stayed together, supported, and helped each other. We all worked together.”
When I asked Mrs. Ierullo if people still remember how much she did for the community she answered with an assuring “Oooh, yes. They phoned when I fell; they had cards and flowers sent. Oh, yes. But the most important thing for me is that warmth that I feel when I pick up the phone and somebody says: ‘Signora, mi aiutate?’”
As a young girl, Mary Ierullo dreamt of becoming a nun. However, on the advice of Mother St. Thomas Aquinas she “opened [her] heart to God and accepted the place which He had chosen for [her].” At the age of 31 she married Vincent Ierullo, a bakery worker, with whom she had three children: Peter, Anthony, and Angela. From 1952 Mrs. Mary was working as a freelance court interpreter for the next 45 years to come. She also made her way by giving typing lessons. In 1953 her husband Vincent suffered the third successive injury at work. “At that moment I knew that I had to get into something solid. That is how I got the idea of going into real estate”, says Mrs. Ierullo.
In 1955 she started to work as a real estate agent. Two years later, after passing the examination for real estate broker, she opened her own office. The sign on it read: M. IERULLO, REAL ESTATE BROKER, Ottawa’s First Real Estate Office to Help Canadians and New Canadians of Average Earnings. The agents who worked for her could sell and buy houses in six languages — English, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hebrew — which was something that had not been done before. Mrs. Ierullo can still recall the name of every single person to whom she sold a house, as well as the names of those who she helped in other ways.
Before I left the home of Mrs. Ierullo I drank the “best ice tea in the city” made by 11-year-old Stephane, one of the Willow Street Angels, a group that Mrs. Ierullo’s daughter, Angela, founded four years ago. At the end I went back to my work with the words of Albert Pine resonating in my head: “What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
Q: Mrs. Ierullo, what were the most important changes that took place in the Italian-Canadian community in the past fifty years?
A: A very important thing was an awareness of the importance of women. Their traditional role was to stay in the house, but slowly the ‘little’ women came out of the kitchen. They were mothers, wives, but also persons able to express themselves. We became involved in politics, in our community, our voice became heard; we became more involved in the outside and the younger generation of men acknowledged that partnership.
Also, there was an opening and expanding of each section of the Italian community. They became aware of the need to be able to show their children their identity, their roots. There was an opening up of different groups wanting to show where they came from, their hometown, their pride. We were Italian, yes, but there was a distinction. Each one had to show where they came from and which characteristic made them different in that mosaic.
Q: Did you have a role model in your life?
A: My role model all along the way was my mother, Angela Maria Messina. She was a widow at 27 and she had the courage to come in this strange land and start a new life. In Italy she was, after many years of perseverance, granted permission to serve as the first woman telegraph operator in early 1920’s. In Ottawa she opened her embroidery workshop on George Street. I was helping her for 8 years until her death in 1948. The most important thing that my mother taught me was to stand on my own feet, to put out the helping hand, and to always have the courage to move on.
Q: What are the things in your life that you are proud of?
A: I took pride in being able to achieve what God had given me. I’m proud that I was able to take hold of my life with so many wonderful people along the way. The most important thing is that feeling of contentment; I found who I was and what I wanted out of my life, and at the same time, I saw my children do the same thing I am doing. I am very proud of each one of them, because everyone of my children work hard out in the field, which is the world, and in which is not easy to live.
Q: What would you like people to remember you for?
A: I would like to be remembered as a child of God who worked very, very hard in order to better herself, and more than anything else, to be remembered for love, peace, and understanding.