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The Italian Connection


Normally I would strongly discourage anyone from eating or drinking near their computer. I’m speaking from experience gained from when a beverage tipped over onto my favourite computer keyboard causing it to become a non-functional sticky mess. However, I think that an exception can be made for this particular blog post. If you are careful I would suggest reading this post with a meal of spaghetti or lasagna paired with your favourite wine. The reason should soon be clear.

The Italians of Alberta

It’s always amazing how many groups of unique nationalities and cultures that have settled on the Canadian prairies in the early 20th century. There are of course lots of people from the larger groups such as the British, Scottish, Irish, French, Germans and Ukrainians. There were settlements consisting of Scandinavians, as well as all of the Slavic and Baltic nations throughout the prairies. We seemed to have most of the northern and central European countries represented in the three prairie provinces. I haven’t found a Spanish community yet but that’s understandable because the Spanish would head south to Central or South America rather than Canada for reasons of culture and language. But what about the Italians? Was Canada just too cold for Italians to be interested in homesteading? That seemed to be the answer until I visited Naples.

I would love to take you on a tour of Naples, Italy but Naples in Alberta will have to do. Join me now as we head north of Edmonton to the general area of Barrhead where there are many unique and surprising communities.

An approximate location of Naples, Alberta.
Naples Catholic Church and Cemetery

Based on my observations and research it was my conclusion that Italians did not form a major part of the immigration mosaic that is Alberta. This is somewhat confirmed by another source that a reader directed me to. It’s an article at the UofA called “Alberta’s Italian Community“. It states therein that, “Italian immigrants were not a significant part of the early settlement history of Alberta“. I believe that there were more Italians who settled in the mining communities near the Rocky Mountains as well as in the larger cities than there were Italians who homesteaded.

It’s possible that I would never have discovered this Italian district called Naples but for the fact that there remains an old Catholic Church in the district which carries on that name. The local history book doesn’t say much about this old Catholic Church except to mention who donated the land for it. However the local history book does have a few pages of information about the Naples district. Reading it clearly shows that a lot of people from Italy homesteaded in the Naples district although some first moved to the USA for two or three years before they arrived in Alberta. An example of the Italian heritage is the Rusconi brothers, who were originally from Italy prior to arriving in 1906. Carlo Rusconi donated the land for the Naples Roman Catholic Church in 1923, and this is where the church was built in 1932. I don’t know why it took nine years after obtaining the land for the church to actually build it.

The People of Naples

Frank and Carlo Rusconi, brothers, were the first settlers in the Naples district, coming from northern Italy in 1906. In 1913 Caroline Farinate came to become Frank’s bride, while her sister, Soffia, coming with her, married Carlo. Soon after the wedding, Frank and his bride moved to Edmonton, where he worked for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad. In 1920, with the four daughters they then had, they returned to Naples, where later another daughter and a son were born. Two of the daughters, Mrs. Harold Booth (Eda), and Mrs. Tonsi (Angela) still reside in the area.

Carlo and Soffia stayed in the Naples district, became parents of two sons and a daughter. In 1923 Carlo donated land from his farm for the Roman Catholic Church which was built there some years later. In 1907 Jim Andreis came and filed, by proxy, on homesteads for Paul Bassani, Joe Crippa and the brothers, Gaspare and John Ciocchetti. These families came and settled here the next year. Some of them had been living in the U.S.A. for some years, and had become acquainted with Jim Andreis while working in mines there.

Trails Northwest, A history of the district of Barrhead, Alberta. Page 249.

Tony, Salvadore and Luigi Properzi

All pioneers experienced difficulties while homesteading. Making a farm out of land that had never been plowed, while at the same time building a house and caring for their families was a struggle that required endless work. I think it must have been even more difficult for those who came here from warmer parts of Europe such as Italy because they would not have been accustomed to the cold winters. Here’s an example of what they dealt with. The Properzi family had to walk a mile through the dense forest to bring water back to where they lived.

Tony Properzi came to the U.S.A. in 1901, returned to Italy a few years later and was married, then took his bride to Chicago, where they lived for a few more years. In 1908 he came to Edmonton, where he met Jim Andreis, and filed on the N.E. ¼ 4-61-2-W5. He went back to Chicago, and brought his family – wife, three sons (Merico, Mosa and Dominic) – and two brothers, Carmen and Salvadore, who also took up land here. In 1910 he gave up the first homestead and filed on the S.E. ¼ 33-60-2-W5 to be nearer to his brothers. Their first home was a tent, until a house could be built. The bush was so dense they were afraid of getting lost when going for water, a mile away. They would spread out and keep calling to one another so as to keep track of where they were.

Tony Properzi was very active in the community, serving several years on the school board, hall and church committees.

Trails Northwest, A history of the district of Barrhead, Alberta. Page 250.

This country definitely wasn’t for everyone. Many of the descendants of the Naples pioneers moved to the larger centres such as Barrhead and Edmonton. Perhaps some of them ended up in the Little Italy district in Edmonton? A good example of the difficulties were those experienced by Salvadore Properzi. Salvadore was Tony Properzi’s younger brother. Salvadore left Italy for the USA and remained there for two years. At the age of seventeen he left the USA and moved to Naples. He was too young to file for his own homestead but at seventeen he was allowed to have a location reserved for him so that he could file to homestead it after he became eighteen. Life wasn’t easy for Salvadore. He was accidentally shot in the eye with a .22 rifle. No details were provided as to how this happened or how he survived such an injury except that Salvadore had to walk to Westlock, to see a doctor. He lost his sight from that one eye. Salvadore married an Italian girl named Victoria Grosso who arrived in Naples in 1920 with her cousin. She did not like the area at all and wanted to leave. Somehow Salvador convinced her to remain in Naples (and to be his wife) so she had to get used to the hard life on the frontier.

Poor Victoria Grosso Properzi

Victoria said, “Everything happened to me!” One time she saw a beautiful little animal among her turkeys, called the children to see it, and they quickly discovered it was a skunk.

Trails Northwest, A history of the district of Barrhead, Alberta. Page 251.

Victoria and the Coyote

It seems that the passage of time didn’t make life any easier for poor Victoria Grosso Properzi. The history book goes on to describe what happened after a successful hunting trip of her husband, the one eyed Salvadore. He was no doubt proud of his catch because hunting couldn’t be easy with just one eye.

Salvadore was walking through the bush with his gun, saw a coyote, shot it and carried it home. He was so proud of it, he took it into the kitchen to show it off, and leave it so it would not freeze until he could skin it. Victoria was preparing a meal, turned from the stove, and there the coyote was on its feet but weaving about. She was so frightened, grabbed
the children to her and ran part way up the stairs to a landing, where she stood clutching the children. When Salvadore came in a few minutes later, he laughed at her and asked if she thought the coyote couldn’t go up those few steps.

Trails Northwest, A history of the district of Barrhead, Alberta. Page 251.

I hope that Victoria had a sense of humour because if she didn’t she may have taken a pot from the kitchen and walloped Salvadore over his head for laughing at her in her time of distress. In 1925 Salvadore’s brother Luigi, came to live with them in their Naples house.

Luigi Properzi came from Italy in 1925 and took a homestead near his brothers. For some years he lived with his brother, Salvadore; he later built a house on his land and married Teresa Bompe of Edmonton. Two daughters and two sons were born to them. The sons still do the farm work. The daughters married and moved away.

Trails Northwest, A history of the district of Barrhead, Alberta. Page 255.

Note that the Terresa’s last name was spelled incorrectly in the local history book. It should read Dompe with a “D” rather than Bompe with a “B”. Luigi and Teresa Properzi are buried in the Barrhead Community Cemetery. Teresa’s maiden name is spelled “Dompe” at the Find-A-Grave site rather than “Bompe” as in the above quote. Linda de Jong, from the Properzi clan, commented below and confirmed that it should be Dompe. I left the quote with the incorrect spelling because a quote is a quote and that’s how I found it.

“Married by Proxy”

Once again history shows us events that were occasionally much stranger than fiction.

Mr. Varalta came to Edmonton from Italy; he later came and homesteaded at Naples about 1915. As so many of the pioneers did, he worked out during the winter months, spending the summers on his land, clearing and breaking. In 1922, having saved enough money, he sent for his bride, to whom he had been married by proxy. They raised a son and two daughters, and were active in all community affairs, helping to improve living conditions generally.

Trails Northwest, A history of the district of Barrhead, Alberta. Page 255

Perhaps I’m just too traditional because I had to look up marriage by proxy. Oh I know what the words mean but exactly how is this done and why? According to Wikipedia “A proxy wedding or proxy marriage is a wedding in which one or both of the individuals being united are not physically present, usually being represented instead by other persons.” “Marriage by proxy is usually resorted to either when a couple wish to marry but one or both partners cannot attend for reasons such as military service, imprisonment, or travel restrictions; or when a couple lives in a jurisdiction in which they cannot legally marry.” It goes on to say that marriage by proxy is legal in Canada as long as it was legal and recognized in the country in which it happened.

I can certainly imagine situations where marriage by proxy could happen in the 21st century. A good internet connection and software such as Microsoft Teams or even Apple’s Face Time would make a long distance wedding possible, although hardly desirable. But how would you do a proxy wedding in the very early 20th century, or earlier, when phones hadn’t even reached rural areas. At what point does the groom by proxy cease to stand in the real groom’s place? So many questions and I don’t have the answers.

If anyone reading this blog has more information about marriage by proxy in the the pre-internet era please feel free to comment and explain the mechanics of this type of marriage. How does the stand-in (the proxy for the groom) not end up married to the bride?

Some Additional Bits and Pieces of History

I spoke to Rebecca Carr, a school teacher who told me that she has taught members of the Properzi family at her school in Barrhead so they clearly have many descendants who have remained in the area.

A lot of other Italians moved to Naples to homestead but there were other nationalities too. There were some Polish people, Austrians, Swiss, and German settlers in addition to the Italians. They built up the community, had many children and built a school. To drive through the area now a person might not even realize that it was once a predominately Italian district. All that remains are some Italian last names, and of course the Naples Roman Catholic Church and the cemetery.

The School

Naples was growing. At first the people had to go to Freedom for mail until 1923, when the Naples post office was opened. A post office was a big deal back in the early century, just as the loss of the post office was also a big deal when that happened for various reason.

By 1912, there were enough children in Naples that a school district was established. The Naples School opened on November 25, 1912. It was a log school and was used when weather permitted and a teacher was available. In 1918 a more traditional frame school was built. People were having large families so there were a lot of school children. In 1934 there were 57 children of school age (I don’t know if they were using the old log school along with the 1918 school or otherwise how they could handle so many students prior to 1934). On August 20, 1934 a second school building was constructed. It wasn’t used for long though because in 1949 the decision was made to bus the children to Barrhead for school. After the school closed, it was used as a store at Linaria, then as a home for Ken and Wendy Baggett. The land where the school was previously situated was sold in 1954.

Naples Catholic Church and Cemetery

The Naples church was built in 1932 to serve the community of Naples. It is very simple, perhaps even plain with the faux brick (tarpaper) exterior. However inside it’s quite nice with the rounded ceiling and decorative woodwork. According to the book, From Sojourners to Citizens: Alberta’s Italian History, by Adriana A. Davies, the original name of the church was Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I haven’t seen the book but Adriana Davies commented on my blog in a Facebook post and shared that name information from her book. I don’t know when it was changed to Naples Catholic Church.

The sign on the front of the church.
Naples Catholic Church and Cemetery
The inside from the congregation’s point of view.
The inside from the priest’s point of view.

Below is a trapdoor to the basement. The door to the basement fits quite tightly so it would be easy to miss if it wasn’t for the large black handle.

I didn’t wander around the basement but I did walk, or rather climb, down those very steep steps to see what was there. Despite the fact that the main floor looks modern and well kept, the basement looks quite rustic. I’m amazed that the trap door still fit like a piece of fine cabinetry because this church basement had the feel of an old underground mine that was about to collapse.

The basement is just large enough to accommodate the coal fired gravity furnace. Perhaps it was excavated after the church was built?
Naples Catholic Church and Cemetery

An unusual sight in the Naples Roman Catholic Cemetery is the marker for Private Isaia Zille who served in the Royal Italian Army. According to the local history book, he actually joined the Canadian Army but asked if he could serve with Italian troops. Based on the inscription and the lack of a result when I searched the Canadian Government’s WWI database for Isaia Zilli, he must have been transferred to the Royal Italian Army rather than being a Canadian soldier who was on secondment to serve with Italian troops.

“After serving in the Italian Army, Isaia Zilli came to Canada in 1913, working in a planer mill in B.C. In 1915 he joined the Canadian Army, requesting he be allowed to fight with Italian troops, so was sent to Italy the same year. He was taken prisoner by the Austrians, escaped and returned to his home in Cusano, remaining there until the end of the war. In 1919 he came back to B.C.; but two years later he went back to Italy, where he married (Emma). He returned to Canada in 1923, and in 1925 homesteaded at Naples, where they have stayed since that time.”

Trails Northwest, A history of the district of Barrhead, Alberta. Page 255.

Image by D Tosto – Find-A-Grave website.


I have since learned that Naples wasn’t the only Italian settlement in Alberta. Another one is called “Venice” and is located close to Lac La Biche in north east Alberta. Venice might well be the furthest north of any Italian community in the world although that’s just speculation on my part.

When the first settlers were granted a post office, they gave it the name of “Venice” to commemorate their favorite city in Italy; there were several Italian families in the area by that time.

Lac La Biche : yesterday and today – Mrs. A. Biollo. Page 164

For Additional Information

If you enjoyed this particular post and would like to read more about the Italian communities and immigration into Alberta I can definitely recommend a book called, From Sojourners to Citizens, Alberta’s Italian History by Adriana A Davies (2021). Her book has 400 pages of information of the impact and experiences of Italians who came to this province. As a resident of Edmonton I found the stories especially fascinating. The Edmonton section of Davies’ book provides context and history of the Italians who created two well known businesses both of which continue to be fixtures in the city’s grocery and baked goods community. Those two business are:

  • The Italian Centre created by Franko Spinelli and his wife Rina Quagliarello. Their combination grocery store, meat shop, bakery and coffee shops have grown to five locations, the last time I’ve counted, and there’s even one in Calgary now. I go there for my favourite pasta that is hard to find anywhere else and have often enjoyed a lunch in their cafè. Some interesting trivia, Franko Spinelli was originally from that other Naples, the one in Italy.
  • The Italian bakery created by Antonia Innocente Frattin and his wife Aurora Assunta Tedesco. I remember that when I was younger I was frequently sent there to pick up a bag of buns because they were so good and always the buns seemed so inexpensive that I thought there was something wrong when I paid for them. When the buns were baked they were placed into a big box like structure where you would just tell the busy clerk how many you wanted. The line up for buns made me wonder if anybody bought anything else. Sadly two major fires destroyed the 97th street location in 2016 and 2017 so the original business is gone but their website says that they are rebuilding and will add a cafè and a deli. I think that after two fires most people would lose heart and discontinue the business but never under estimate the tenacity of an Italian baker. We are all the richer for their contribution to the mosaic of Alberta culture.

I’m not of Italian descent but I do share something in common with the author of this book about Italians in Alberta. Both Adriana Davies and I have been awarded the Queen’s Jubilee Medal.


While reading the history of the people of Naples I was intrigued by the fact that even though many people left Naples for various reasons, a lot of them came back. That says a lot about how tight-knit a community Naples was.

Thank you for stopping in to read a brief history of Naples near the town of Barrhead. Now if you’ve finished off your spaghetti and wine, have a nice cup of espresso to finish off this blog. Arrivederci.


It’s important to respect and protect the places that I visit to photograph. For this reason I am reluctant to give out exact locations, although for proper context I do try to describe the general location. If you recognize a place featured in my blog posts please do not give out the location in the comments. If you visit a place featured here please respect the owner’s legal rights for private property and if it is on public property, such as a place on Crown land, always leave it in as good or better condition that it was when you arrived, including ensuring that the door is properly closed. Together we can help to ensure that these historic structures are available for the next generation to experience and explore. There’s no better way to learn history than to stand in the place where that history happened.


32 thoughts on “The Italian Connection

  1. I knew about the Dutch connection near Barrhead, but not the Italian one. Canada must have been marketing the heck out of the Barrhead area in the early 1900s. Not a bad place to set up as the farmland is pretty good there. Thanks for sharing these stories Glen. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting Allan. The Dutch settled everywhere but more in BC than Alberta. At least that’s my impression.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Walter Preugschas March 25, 2023 — 10:09 pm

    Thanks for summarizing this bit of Naples history. I know a number of the Properzis living in the Barrhead area. It continues to be a prominent family. The extended family have regular reunions that bring together several hundred people from many parts of N. America. I too see the importance of preserving these historic churches. It’s amazing how many of them still exist if you are on the lookout for them. Walter

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s always great to hear from people who live or lived in areas that I write about. I knew that there were Properzis still in the area but I had no idea about the large reunions. Hopefully some of them will discover this blog post as I’m sure that they would find it interesting. Thanks for taking the time to comment Walter.


      1. Walter Preugschas March 25, 2023 — 10:56 pm

        About the Dutch settlements: In your travels check out the Neerlandia settlement. It is just to the north and west of Naples. It has a unique history when it comes to Alberta pioneer communities. It is also one of the three major Dutch settlements in Alberta. Th other two being around Lethbridge and around Lacombe.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ll do that the next time I’m up that way. Hopefully I can find a character old homestead to photograph. If you know of any interesting old structures in Neerlandia I’d be happy to receive any suggestions.


    1. Walter Preugschas March 26, 2023 — 7:30 am

      I can’t think of an old building in the Neerlandia area but I’ll keep my eyes and ears open for one and let you know.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. We have some old photo’s of Neerlandia which we can share.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’d be happy to see them. I won’t add them to this post but if I do a post of Neerlandia the extra old images would be great.


      2. Walter Preugschas March 26, 2023 — 1:02 pm

        Just in case you’re interested and you didn’t know: Ft Assiniboine is celebrating its 200th anniversary this summary. It’s the 3rd oldest in Alberta after Ft Vermilion and Ft Chipewyan.
        It will be celebrated the weekend of July 8th. There will be a canoe brigade going down the Athabasca from Whitecourt to Athabasca with various stopovers along the way. Ft Assiniboine will be featuring various cultural and historic activities. There will be a stopover at the historic Klondike Ferry at Vega.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. So many places to go and we have such a short summer. It’s been a while since we stopped in at Fort Assiniboine.


      4. Walter Preugschas March 26, 2023 — 7:28 pm

        Yes, that’s the problem, alright. I agree.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks Glen . Very nice photo’s , description of the area and it’s families. The school which is no longer there was located about a mile north of the church . Another interesting item is at one time there was a coal mine located directly west of the church. I resided about three miles north of the church.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Glen, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I may have a look for where that old school was. Even though it’s probably long gone there may still be a sign to mark where it was.


      1. I have photos of the old school , they are in a local history book , i can share them with you not sure the best way to send them to you . There is no signage for the school.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. If you would like to see them in the blog I would add your name under the image. You can email them to me at If they are to go in the blog there should not be any recognizable people in the image.


  5. Bernard J. Boutin March 28, 2023 — 11:21 am

    Some very interesting info. The only Naples I have been to is Naples Florida. Not sure how many Italians there are there, but there are certainly loads of rich people.

    Shot in the eye and walking for medical attention…wow, that is unbelievable. The bit about the Coyote was pretty interesting as well. I can see how a wife coming from Italy would not care too much for the area. I think of how cold and brutal life must have been in winter compared to the Mediterranean climate.

    The outside looks pretty good, the inside looks excellent, but yeah, that basement and the foundation look pretty bad. Another great job on bringing us some great local Alberta history.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Bernie for taking the time to read this post and comment.


  6. I have read your article on the community and Church of Naples. I am 3rd generation Canadian (PROPERZI family). We do have family reunions every few years dating to our first in 1982 and last one was 2022, the next will be in 2025. Numbers attending have surpassed 300! Over a 3 day family gathering. Thankyou so your article!
    Note: Luigi PROPERZI’s wife was Teresa Dompe
    Sincerely Linda (PROPERZI) de Jong

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Linda for the confirmation of Teresa’s name. 300 people at a reunion? That’s fantastic. I hope they can continue to hold those reunions for a long time.


  7. I love the detail you provide in these looks back at a location. It is good farming land but for the uninitiated the bush must have provided a challenge. But free is free. That’s why so many started in the States but came to Canada. Interesting about the proxy wedding. Bernie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed Bernie. What would we do for free land? What would anyone do for free land?


      1. My grandfather left his whole world, except for his best friend, behind to cross an ocean. My other grandfather moved from Ontario with his brother. It wasn’t really comparable as one arrived with equipment and the other nothing. Bernie

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s hard to imagine starting a new life with nothing but many people did it. Some of them even succeeded.


  8. I really loved this!!! Thank you. I even read it a second time, out loud, to my daughter who loves history.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much. It’s comments like yours that motivate me to continue.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are most welcome!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. A very inspiring account of how Italians managed to persevere in your province. It appears your Canadian culture provided a better option for many immigrants than theU/S. During tht time. I wonder how they were treated during World War II given the Italian connection to the

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Cont’d. Axis enemy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d like to believe that they fared better than Italians in the USA, but that’s not necessarily true. There are many accounts of them being paid less than British workers. During war times Italy was undergoing so many changes that it’s hard to pin down exactly who was in charge and who’s side that they were on. I’ve read of freedom fighters fighting the German occupiers, fascists, and even communists. So was Italy really part of the axis and if so why were they occupied by Germany? It’s safe to say that during the war years if you didn’t speak perfect English and have a British or otherwise nondescript name you’d experience some sort of discrimination. The irony is that all of my grandparents were culturally German but since they farmed in Russian occupied lands they were treated as alies. So the Germans with Russian passports were not seen as a threat but the Italians who just wanted a better life in Canada may have been looked upon with suspicion. This is why I avoid politics in my blog posts, none of it seems to make any sense.


      1. I agree that unfair labeling of people makes for bad historical reporting. It’s sad that America no longer represents the “promised land? Maybe yours has done better.


  11. Well I guess that it depends on what promised land means to a person. If it’s about getting rich, then the States are still the place to go. If it’s about being able to afford an Education or even to enter the professions, then that dream is better here in Canada.


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