My daughter Lisa was able to interview my mother before she passed away. This is her story. My mother was sister to Brian Ritchie's grandmother Maria Sonego.
By Lisa Casagrande Hoshino
At 92-years old, my Italian grandmother still appears considerably strong and healthy. She has a steady gait, strong grip, good posture and surprisingly few wrinkles. As always when I visit, she has her white hair neatly tucked into a hairnet and she wears her usual dark-coloured attire. Yet the somber exterior belies a playfulness that I have come to know well. Her hearing has of course faded somewhat in recent years, making phone conversations a little more strained, but her eyes betray the spryness of individual half her age. In typical Italian fashion, ‘Nonna’ never fails to remind me that I don’t call or visit often enough. Regrettably, with my harried lifestyle, I know she’s right. She has been a solid fixture in the 33 years I’ve been in this world - always happy to see me and never forgetting a birthday. Her enduring presence is something I have definitely taken for granted. A few years ago I recognized that this taciturn grandmother of mine, with the very broken English, was a warehouse of untold stories and interesting experiences. She had almost lived a century, and shamefully I had never asked her about her life! Then and there I decided I needed to find out more about this enigmatic woman, known to others as Lina, and who was the link to one half of my family’s history.
Lina allowed her story to unfold in bits and pieces over a series of short interviews with my uncle present to help with translation. At first she was uncomfortable with the attention, preferring to adopt her usual unassuming demeanor. I tried to convey to her that it was the little details, and not the big picture, that interested me. At last we compromised, meeting somewhere in the middle – a place where key aspects are revealed but much is still left to the imagination. Amazingly she still remembered all the dates and place names that had been significant in her life. As she brought out her old photo albums and various keepsakes, I was grateful that she too seemed to be enjoying our special chats.
My own upbringing took place in Sault Ste. Marie, about 190 kilometers southwest of Chapleau. My parents, Dean and Sheila Casagrande, used to take the family on the occasional trip up to Chapleau to visit the Capellani family when my brother and I were young. At the time of course, I didn’t fully understand my family’s connection to the town. My own memories of Chapleau are few but fond: being outdoors, eating watermelon, playing with the Capellani’s cocker spaniel and swimming in the lake with my waterwings. But when my father talks about the town I can see a twinkle in his eye. Probably the same twinkle that I get when I think about my childhood in the Soo. After all, in someway we’re all a product of where we grew up.
For eight years, Chapleau was part of the Casagrande family’s history, which is perhaps not a huge amount of time in the course of a life. However they were defining years and instrumental in getting us to where we are today. Chapleau provided an escape from the hardships of war in the ‘old country’ and provided the break my grandparents needed to provide a better life for their children and grandchildren. This is the simple story of one couple that was thankful for that there was a little town called Chapleau in the 1950s with opportunities for hard working Italian immigrants.
Lina’s story begins in the northern Italian village of Sacile, not far from the city of Verona. Pietro and Catarina Cesa were hard working Roman Catholic farmers with a busy household of children – three boys and three girls. When Italy joined the Great War in April of 1915, Catarina was 48 years old and with some trepidation I imagine, expecting the couple’s seventh child. Then in the fall of that year, they welcomed their youngest daughter Lina, into the world.
Lina, like her brothers and sisters, attended public school until around the fifth grade, after which she stayed home to help her parents tend to the needs of the farm. This suited Lina just fine as she “had no patience for school” and preferred to be engaged in more productive endeavors. There was plenty to keep young Lina busy with the upkeep of the farm. In addition to the standard farm animals sold for meat at the market, the family operated a corn mill for production of polenta, a staple in the Cesa home. Without the benefits of refrigeration, trips to the market were a daily event in order to ensure a steady supply of fresh food for the family. Although northern Italy was economically and technologically advantaged compared to it’s counterpart to the south, the modern conveniences of the time – such as phones, gramophones and motorized vehicles - were reserved for the affluent minority. A bicycle was the Cesa family’s primary mode of transportation and communication. The children owned one outfit a piece; clothes were removed for laundering in a nearby pond, and replaced as soon as they were dry!
Upon reaching the youthful age of 15, it was time for Lina to contribute to the household income by seeking employment outside the home. She secured a job at Viotto a local factory where she painted and varnished furniture. Throughout this period, as Lina entered her early adult years, her life was fully consumed by the demands of factory work, activities at the church and the hustle and bustle of family life. Being the youngest, she had already seen several of her siblings get married and leave home to carve out their own place in the world. Her older sister Maria, had moved a continent away with her husband to build a new life in North America. Little did Lina know, she would one day follow in her sister’s footsteps.
Things continued as usual for young Lina until one fateful December day outside San Nicola church. While chatting with her sister-in-law after mass, the ladies were approached by a rather loquacious young man. This charismatic fellow, by the name of Camillo, was taken with Lina, the dark-haired, 23-year-old beauty. Camillo, like Lina, came from a farming family and worked at a local furniture factory. He was the sixth of seven children born to Antonio and Severina Casagrande. It didn’t take long for the couple to recognize that they had found something special and ten short months later they were married. The wedding was held September 17, 1938 at San Nicola Church in Sacile. Lina remembers the date because it is inscribed on the inside of a black bible she received as a wedding gift, and still cherishes today.
In their first year of marriage Lina had the couple’s first child. As was typical in the day, the baby was delivered at home with the assistance of a midwife. The long awaited moment however, was bittersweet. The infant, christened Dino Antonio after the priest who baptized him, passed away just a few short hours into his new life. The child was blessed at the hospital and buried in the cemetery – important rituals that gave Lina and Camillo some closure and peace of mind. Not long after the loss, Lina returned to her job at the furniture factory.
Then in June of 1940, the tide of peace had turned and Italy was once again consumed by a world war. With three brothers already in the military, Camillo was exempt from serving in the war. Jobs however, were scarce in Italy during these sobering times and Camillo was forced to explore opportunities outside the country. He, along with some friends, made the journey to Germany where there was an abundance of construction jobs for general labourers. Always the opportunist, Camillo was determined to pick up some German. He would keep a journal of all the new words he’d learned and he’d review his new vocabulary when he had the chance. His German would later get him out of some difficult situations with German soldiers back in Italy.
Camillo was able to manage a trip home to Italy about one month each year to visit with his family. Lina, still living with her in-laws in Italy and working at the factory was now expecting another child. With her husband off in Germany, Lina gave birth to a healthy baby boy named Dino in October of 1941. During their time apart, the couple corresponded mostly by letter. It is thus by letter, that Camillo received word of the birth of their child and subsequently, of Lina’s experiences in this new world of parenthood!
Throughout the war the town of Sacile was on the receiving end of frequent bombing raids due to the strategic importance of the Venezia-Udine railway. At times, Lina recalls bombs dropping every two to three days. During these air raids Lina’s in-laws, would take young Dino to a safer location by a creek, a short distance from the home. Lina would stay home to guard the family’s belongings.
In 1945, the Second World War came to an end and Italy began the long process of economic and political recovery. Camillo returned home to his family to make up for lost time. During the four years he spent in Germany much had changed. His son had grown from an infant into a talkative youngster and sadly his mother had passed away. However, life for the Casagrande’s carried on and in the summer of 1948, Lina and Camillo welcomed the birth of another son. They called the child ‘Rino’. Shortly thereafter the Casagrandes also took in their 9-year-old niece Anna after the sudden and tragic death of Camillo’s sister Maria.
By the early 1950s Camillo was still struggling to find steady work in post WWII Italy. Determined to secure a good life and future for his wife and boys he began rethink his options. He was intrigued by tales of opportunity and prosperity for hard working Italians in North America and in particular Canada. Moreover, he already had a family connection in Canada through Lina’s older sister Maria. Lina was only nine years old when her older sister left for Canada with husband Carlo Sonego (see the chapter: The Sonegos). Although Camillo had by now proven he could adjust to life in a foreign land, Lina was not quite as adventurous. Her family, her customs, and everything she knew was in the town of Sacile. In honesty, she had not ventured far from home even within the Italian border.
So on March 11, 1952, Camillo set off on his own to stake out a life in the remote north of Canada. Camillo likely had a lot on his mind as he boarded the ship that would take him far from his wife and two young sons. Some 6500+ kilometers and 13 days later Camillo arrived in Chapleau, Ontario to begin a new chapter of life. In doing so he altered the course of life for future generations of Casagrandes to come.
Camillo set up home in the garage of George Bucciarelli, a friend of the Sonegos. Bucciarelli had been instrumental in helping many immigrants from Italy get settled in Chapleau, and for the Casagrandes it was no different. Camillo converted the residence into an apartment with two rooms and a kitchen, in expectation of the eventual arrival of Lina and the boys. A photo of that first garage-residence can be seen below.
Like many young men before him, he secured a job with the CPR. His first assignment involved working with a ‘track gang’. They would leave Chapleau during the week to work on the track route heading west. He and the other foreign immigrants would spend the weeknights sleeping in the boxcars and return to town on weekends. During this time Camillo would send money back home regularly to pay off debts incurred to buy food when jobs were scarce.
Eventually Camillo was able to get a job working in the shops which serviced the passenger trains arriving from the east and west. Chapleau, being the midway point between Montreal and Winnepeg, was the logical point for the steam engines to stop to get serviced. On the side, he also brought in extra income building houses with family friend Joe Bignucolo.
During his time in Chapleau Camillo would send letters home describing the new life he had established in Canada. He told of the other Italian families that had settled there and of the home he had prepared for their arrival. He urged his wife to join him in the new country. Times were difficult for Lina and the boys. They survived with the money Camillo sent home and food generously donated by her big sister Gusta. Still she was not so eager to make the journey to Canada. After a full two years of contemplating she finally relented. In the 15 and half years they had been married, 6 years had been spent living in different countries! The time had finally come for the boys to be reunited with their father.
Dino was already 12 years old and very excited about the trip and the prospect of seeing his dad again. Rino was 5 and not really sure what to think. After all he had seen very little of his father in his short lifetime and was not old enough to comprehend the enormity of the upcoming transition. The move also meant that the family must say goodbye to 14 year old Anna, who had become like a sister to the boys over the past 6 years. And so it was that on March 19, 1954, Lina with her two boys in hand, boarded a ship for this young country they called Canada.
The journey across the Atlantic, from Genova, Italy to Nova Scotia, Canada, took 11 long days. For Lina and Rino, who could not tolerate the constant listing of the ship, the trip was agonizingly long. While they nursed a terrible seasickness in their bunks below deck, Dino spent his the time exploring the nooks and crannies of the great vessel. It was a great adventure and he was wasting none of the experience. While on the ship the Casagrandes befriended the Sovran family who were making the journey with four children of their own and were destined for Windsor, Ontario. When the ship finally docked at the Halifax harbour on March 30th, the two families bid farewell with promises to stay in touch.
Once in Halifax, Lina and the boys boarded a train for Montreal where Camillo would be waiting. As Dino excitedly recanted details of the travel to his father, Rino shyly hid behind his mother’s leg. It had been a long two years and there would be plenty of catching up to do. From Montreal, the Casagrandes took the train to Chapleau using the passes Camillo received as a benefit for working for CP rail. It was the last leg of a long journey, and with apprehension Lina awaited the arrival at her new home. Lina recalls vividly, how the train stopped “in the middle of the bush”. “This can’t be home” she thought, “All I see is forest”! Sure enough, she had arrived in the small northern community called Chapleau, located in the heart of the Boreal Forest.
The adjustment was difficult for Lina. The winters were terribly cold and she missed her family and the vibrant vegetable garden she had kept back in the old country. She also ached for the relative anonymity she enjoyed in rural Sacile. In this small community everyone seemed to know what everyone else was up to!
The boys enrolled at the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart School which was also not without its challenges. When Dino came home with a shiner, he quickly learned that being the new kid in town was not so fun when you didn’t speak the language! Before long however the boys were fitting in establishing themselves as rightful Chapleau residents. Never one to sit on the sidelines, Dino took up soccer and could soon hold his own against the older boys in town.
Lina did her best as well to assimilate into the culture and make peace with the town’s rustic charm. Often in the early hours in the morning, after coming home from his shift at the railway, Camillo would have to shuffle a path to the privy outback where they kept their supply of firewood. She now recalls with humour the ventures outdoors in extremely subzero temperatures just to use facilities. The outdoor work in Chapleau’s frigid temperatures began to take its toll on Camillo and eventually he secured a job indoors working as a mechanic’s assistant. Lina used her skills as a seamstress to earn some extra money on the side making and fixing outfits for her neighbours.
Being so far from home the family found comfort in the company of the Sonegos and other Italian immigrants. Maria and Carlo Sonego had four grown children who called Chapleau home – Hilda, Cisto, Gina, Reggie and Rina. Rino fondly recalls Saturday night gatherings at the home of Gina and Louie Capellani where the relatives would cheer for their beloved Montreal Canadians. The Capellani’s happened to be the only family nearby that owned a TV! To this day, Rino is a fierce Habs fan, even after spending the majority of his life in Toronto.
In 1960 the Casagrandes received news which would once again alter their life’s course. The CP rail station was closing in Chapleau which meant Camillo was out of a job. The company offered him the opportunity to transfer however, and both Sudbury and Toronto were potential destinations. Since Camillo’s good friend Dante Luchese was already living in Mimico, the family chose Toronto. Conveniently, this was also where Maria and Carlo Sonego retired a few years prior.
Their first few days in Toronto were spent with Luchese. They then went on to rent an apartment on Superior Ave. from a cousin of the Sovran family – the family they had met six years prior on route to Halifax Harbour. Ten months later they purchased their first home on Royal York Rd. in Mimico. They chose this location so that Camillo would be able to take the streetcar to Union Station where he worked. In Toronto Lina worked at a Mimico shoe and toy factory until finally retiring in 1967 at the age of 52. They remained in this home for the next 23 years until the move to Lina’s current residence on Melrose Ave. Eventually Camillo got a job as janitor with the board of education. The Board had a good pension plan – something CPR did not offer employees who were hired over the age of 45. Lina still receives that pension today. Camillo always talked with Lina about making it to their 50th anniversary. He unfortunately passed away December 9, 1986, less than 2 years shy of that day.
With her 93rd birthday approaching, in Nonna I can still see the 15-year-old girl from Italy. She lives modestly, wastes very little, and just looks forward to time spent with family. In particular she enjoys visits with her great grandchildren Liam and Mikayla, who make their home with my brother Brian and his wife Marisa in Ottawa. I now live with my husband Koichi in Surrey, British Columbia. If my grandfather were alive today he would have enjoyed reminiscing about the past. I’m sure he would have had many a tale to contribute about the years spent in Chapleau. Boy did he love to talk! But what he loved most was when everybody was happy! It would have been nice to hear about his days working for CPR, and what he was thinking when he was separated from his family and so far from home. When I ask Nonna about her husband she states that in the 48 years they spent together they always got along. She credits their tenacity to their willingness to accept life’s circumstances without complaint. This is sound advice that I secretly tuck away in the back of my mind. As for Nonna, her best gifts were her children; her worst memory was her husband passing. Her favourite time in life was “everything” and she is happiest “when the sun is shining!” I’d like to think that the contentment with her life is due in part, to the opportunities provided by a small northern Ontario town called Chapleau.
Lina, Camillo and Rino, at Dean and Sheila's their wedding.