Forty years ago this month, a group of local men formed a fraternal lodge to promote Italian culture in Nelson. While similar organizations existed in Trail for decades, there was nothing like it here.
“One day Albert Maida phoned to see if I was interested in starting an Italian club,” recalls Cosimo Chirico, who at 24 was among the youngest founding members. “A few days later we had a meeting at DiBella Electric.”
The first executive included Maida as president, vice-presidents Frank DiBella and Gordon Correale, secretary John Malito, and treasurer Bill Freno.
Off the bat, they signed up 86 members, most of whom came to Canada in the 1950s.
“It was easy,” Chirico says. “As soon as we started, they joined on their own. Mostly, we were immigrants. Maybe six, seven, or eight were born here.”
The Nelson Italian Lodge — now the Nelson Italian Canadian Society, or Societa Italo Canadese di Nelson — helped assimilate recent arrivals who lacked education or felt intimidated by the language barrier.
“It let them be a family unit,” says current president Rocco Mastrobuono, who became a member soon after coming to Nelson in 1977 — the last of the immigrants, as it turned out.
He recalls meeting on alternating Sundays at the Hume Hotel, with turnouts of 70 or more.
“It wasn’t easy to become a member of the executive,” he says. “Competition was very stiff.”
Membership peaked in 1986-87 at 120 as a new generation came of age, while the old guard was still around. It has since dropped back to around 85.
“Most are first and second-generation born,” Mastrobuono says. “We, the immigrants, are now the minority. It flipped.”
To increase the numbers, the club now offers associate memberships.
“It’s been a man’s club forever,” says secretary Marcello Piro, whose father was a charter member. “And it still is. But to keep the membership up and involve women and non-Italians, we invite associate members to join as well.”
Although many founders have long since died, about 20 remain.
Piro says many traditions upheld here would be considered anachronisms in Italy today.
“The mentality is still how it used to be in the ‘50s and ‘60s when all these immigrants left. That’s the picture they have in mind. But if you go back to Italy, everything has changed.”
One thing the group never had was its own building, but they aren’t giving up.
For years, they’ve met at St. Joseph’s school, but a proposal to add a banquet facility to the community complex is headed to public consultation, Mastrobuono says.
“It would help other service clubs in town. [The idea is] not to build an Italian centre, but have a room where we can hold meetings and a couple of bocce courts.”
The society is perhaps best known for its banquets and bashes. In its first year, a party at Notre Dame University drew over 400 people. Subsequently, it wasn’t uncommon to sell tickets a year in advance. There were also summer picnics, a fall Colombo party, and until recently, a spring wine festival.
That’s been scaled back to a single annual event. This year, to celebrate its 40th anniversary, the club is holding a dance and dinner May 12 at the Eagles’ Hall, including a traditional Italian meal. Tickets are $30, available from society directors and at Maglio Building Centre, but capped at 180 and expected to sell out. Proceeds go to a variety of charities.