What is a picture of Mussolini doing on the wall of a Church?

What is Benito Mussolini doing on a church fresco in Montreal?

In the church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense, in the heart of the Italian quarter of Montreal, Canada, a huge fresco continues to provoke debate in the Italian community.

Note that Mussolini and most of his associates are turned away from the Pope, apart from the nun caring for children.  Hidden meaning.

In Little Italy, the old-timers of the district drink espressos from the bar at Caffé Italia, then satisfy their appetite at the Alati-Caserta pastry shop. Its cannolis will end up staining the pages of a book, also quickly devoured, in Dante Park. Montreal's Italians have lived in every district of the city for a long time, but they haven't deserted their lively base camp around rue Jean-Talon.

This is where they thrived at the beginning of the 20th century, in the then sparsely urbanised suburbs, where they could grow their own vegetables when they weren't working on the railways in the world's second largest country. Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense church remains the cornerstone of Little Italy. The one that brings people together, but also the one that stands out.

The exterior of the monument, with its pretty red brick façade, comes as no surprise. It's the interior that stands out. On the right-hand side of a huge fresco, surrounded by churchmen, a recognisable figure stands out: Benito Mussolini enthroned on a horse, surrounded by Fascist dignitaries. Luca Sollai, a lecturer in history at the Université de Montréal, couldn't believe it when he saw the fresco on his arrival here. "He was surprised, yes, but also indignant. The painting is a tribute to the Lateran Accords, signed in 1929 by Mussolini and Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, which, among other things, settled the 'Roman question'.

A lack of context

What is also surprising about the church is that there is no permanent sign to contextualise the fresco. A simple leaflet is offered to visitors at the reception desk. "What is it still doing there? That's what everyone can ask themselves when they enter", says Luca Sollai. Along with other intellectuals, many of whom are of Italian origin, he launched a petition in 2020 calling for the church to take a more critical look at why the Duce appears to be glorified in this way. The petition read: "We believe it is necessary to reflect on the need to distinguish, with respect for the memory of the Italian community, the history of the Church of Montreal from the trajectory of fascism in Italy, Montreal and the world".

The petitioners wanted a sign that would "correct" the presence of Mussolini and, for the sake of balance, wanted a painting of an opponent of fascism to be placed in the church. The figure of Don Minzoni, killed by the Squadre, the armed wing of Fascism, was mentioned. For the petitioners, the leaflet provided for visitors was not enough. In 2020, one of its instigators wondered whether the fresco should not be replaced by another, asking: "And if there was a painting showing Pinochet or Hitler in a church in Montreal, would the authorities allow it?

The shadow of fascism in Montreal

Why did you choose to depict Mussolini? At the time the painting was created, fascism had many sympathisers in Quebec," explains Luca Sollai. And the words of Father Maltempi, a powerful figure among Italians in La Belle Province, who asserted that "a good Italian is a good Catholic and a good Fascist", were listened to attentively. "The Fascist government financed nationalist propaganda that appealed to Italians abroad," explains Luca Sollai. In the newspaper La Patrie, in 1936, the inauguration of the Casa d'Italia in Montreal (the home of Montreal Italians) was, in a way, a celebration of Mussolini, he says. "The emphasis was on his working-class origins, even though the neighbourhood in which Casa d'Italia was built was very working-class. And the right-wing in Quebec includes admirers of fascism. At the time, Italians in Canada could not escape the influence of the movement," he sums up.

Pier Luigi Colleoni, a history teacher and parishioner who accompanies guided tours of Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense church, writes that an open letter published in the Quebec daily Le Devoir at the time of the petition still reflects his thoughts today. In it, he acknowledges the importance of explaining to visitors that preserving the fresco "is in no way a political exaltation". For him, the information leaflet provided at the entrance to the church is sufficient. The teacher added that "apart from occasional visitors, the church's faithful no longer look towards Mussolini" and that removing him from the fresco "would be like raising the Leaning Tower of Pisa".

The trace of a past difficult to erase

The petition had little practical effect. The Archdiocese of Montreal writes that the parish priest and the parish council have met with the signatories and that all parties agree that the figure of Mussolini cannot be removed because of the "inestimable" value of the fresco. He considered that an explanatory sign would be unnecessary, as it would draw even more attention to the Duce.  Finally, in the council's view, an opponent of fascism is already represented in the fresco: Pope Pius XI, who denounced this ideology in 1931 with the encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno.

But how does the Archdiocese view the fresco? Is it a trace of a past that must not be erased? On this point, the communications department refers us to the "only brief statement of position" from this authority, which comes from Mgr Chimichella, former auxiliary bishop emeritus of Montreal. In an interview in 1990, he said: "The painting of this fresco reflected the feelings that inspired the Concordat. We must have the courage to recognise that the choice of Mussolini, who is depicted as the civil authority in the fresco, was a mistake".

Rekindling the drama of internment

Since 2020, Luca Sollai's approach has changed. The petition may not have had any tangible effect, but it has loosened tongues among Montrealers of Italian origin. "Memory is a sensitive issue, and we can't take a frontal approach to this debate. For the fresco brings back dark days for the community. On 10 June 1940, Canada declared war on Italy, and the government arrested Canadians of Italian origin, now considered enemies of the State. Many were interned in camps in Petawawa and Kingston.

"Almost 600 people were interned. People avoid talking about it so as not to reopen wounds. For some people, the fact that the fresco is still there is like accepting internment, accepting the idea that the Italians here were all fascists at the time. There were some sympathisers among the internees, but they weren't the majority." Some spent more than three years in the camps. The author of the fresco, Guido Nincheri, who did not initially want to paint Mussolini, was also arrested because of his painting.

During the Second World War and until the 1950s, the fresco was hidden by a large curtain

The page of the camps has not yet been turned for all Italian-Canadians, but the work of remembering is gathering pace. Justin Trudeau's three words, No ci scusiamo, in 2021 have done some good, according to Luca Sollai. Two years ago, the Canadian Prime Minister apologised for the harm done to more than 30,000 Canadians of Italian origin. "(...) We are sorry. Your family and your community did not deserve this injustice. (...) Reputations have been ruined. Businesses have been dismantled. Families have been left with no means of support," he lamented.

The Italians here are still here, and so is the picture. During the Second World War and until the 1950s, it was hidden by a large sheet. Now that it is out in the open, it is perhaps opening up a dialogue and confronting the memories of Italian-Canadians, as Luca Sollai explains: "After the war, the internees came out, there were no trials and nobody wanted to reopen this page. The debate surrounding the fresco provides much-needed food for thought in the community."

The painting questions and divides. Fascist sympathisers have sometimes crossed the Atlantic to come and salute the Duce in this church. A local grocer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told us he "never wanted to set foot in this place" and doesn't understand "how anyone can accept that Mussolini is still here, after everything he did".


Cathcon:  A warning not to represent anything other than God, his saints and his angels in Church art.  Modernity soon grows stale and leaves a stench.


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