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Sons of Italy planted seeds for Dante Club in 1938

The popular club is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year and has a weekend full of food, entertainment and memories in the works

The Porcupine Dante Club is well known in the Timmins area as a great place for fun, food and entertainment.

As the club prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary with the community, it is an ideal time to re-examine its roots.

Dr. Chris Loreto, a director on the executive of The Dante Club, grew up in a household that was part of Timmins’ Italian community and is well-versed in club history. 

“The club first started as the Sons of Italy, and that was back in 1938,” he said. “It was a meeting place for Italians who immigrated from Italy to gather and to meet. At that point, there was no official hall. They would meet and have dances at the McIntyre Ballroom or in the basements of churches and such.”

The was an influx of immigration to Canada from Europe after the Second World War. Timmins received its share of newcomers. Just like today, moving to a strange new land can be stressful or even a scary experience.

“Italians came to Canada for a better life as they were told that the Canadian streets were paved with gold,” Loreto said. “In the 1940s, after the war, the Mascioli family, which ran a construction company in Timmins, needed strong bodies to work on its sites and many young Italian men came over. They came here looking for jobs to make money so they could bring their parents or their wives to live in Canada. The idea was also to make enough money to be well-off and return to the old country. Several have returned on trips since then but many now call Timmins their home.

“For many, the transition was a difficult one. Adapting to a new language, a new culture and a new way of life was not easy. Some grew homesick, missing their relatives and friends thousands of miles across the ocean. One purpose of the club was to help these immigrants learn the new language and assist them with paperwork.”

When the club formed, it brought unity and familiarity to Italian immigrants.

“By the early 1950s, there was a fair number of Italians living in Timmins and many of them wanted a place to call home where they could preserve the Italian culture and be able to speak Italian,” he said. “During that time, there used to be Italian dances called Ballo Italiano in church basements and at the McIntyre arena ballroom.

“In 1952, a small group of men applied to form the club and received their charter which laid out the parameters of the club. Those five men were Tony Mascioli, Joe Pindilli, Pete Morandin, Silvio Torlone and Pete Cosco. They chose the name Porcupine Dante Club of Alighieri. Dante Alighieri was a poet and philosopher of the Italian Renaissance period during the 15th century.

“The Dante Club started with no money so the men had to pledge and donate to buy a piece of land. By the end of the pledge drive, $75,000 had been collected to purchase land on Cedar Street South. In the fall of 1953, construction began. Construction continued through 1954 and the first wedding was held at the Dante Club on April 1, 1955.”

The club made a huge difference for many families and it grew.

“Once the club was built, dances were held on Saturday nights in a hall that was half its current size,” Loreto said. “There were no records so the music was provided by live bands. The cost of admission was $1.

“A major expansion was undertaken in 1970. In 1992, the club members held a ceremonial burning of the mortgage and then renovated again in 1995. The old stage was removed and the floors were redone in hardwood.

“The second hall (now the restaurant) was added as well as additional washrooms and a bocce court. The Goldcorp (now Newmont Porcupine) Banquet Room can comfortably seat up to 500 guests.”

For Loreto, growing up in Timmins’ Italian community created many fond memories.

“There are many highlights,” he said. “When I was growing up in this town, that parking lot would be full. They would be having picnics and gatherings in the parking lot. There was always the famous greased pole. They would put a salami at the top and you would try to climb this pole covered in grease to get it. There were pig roasts, get-togethers and food festivals — very similar to what you saw in Italy.

“The Italian community was in the south end of town, basically you took from Third Avenue south and from to Spruce and Mountjoy, and that was the Italian community and everybody was here. When you were growing up, this lounge was very busy. There was a pool table in this lounge, so you would start out and get together here.”

There were a wide variety of occasions that brought families and friends together at The Dante Club.

“Back in the day, there were always very special nights. We used to have five nights a year (celebrating regions in Italy),” he said. “Whenever the World Cup was on, you would have gatherings here. The highlights growing up were the special nights, the Christmas festivals, the traditional nights where they celebrated certain foods, the weddings — everyone we knew got married here.”

Teens and young adults didn’t always accompany their parents to events. But The Dante Club had a certain allure to them as they matured.

“When I was younger, we never went to things like Abruzzi night, that was for the older crowd,” Loreto said. “When we got back to Timmins in ’95, we were going to these special nights.

“We have special nights for chestnuts around Christmas, a special night for the tasting of the new wine. We have all these special festivals throughout the year.

“As we got older, a lot of the traditions died off. We went from five region nights a year to two. But we want to start bringing back some of this culture.”

A determined group of volunteers have been hard at work revitalizing The Dante Club spirit and making sure everyone, regardless of ethnic background, feels welcome as a guest or as a member.

“We have a very, very vibrant volunteer group, which does the making of the sausage, the porchetta, the sauces, the baking, all the food,” he said. “We have a very strong volunteer group that helps this club survive.

“We also have a good portion of non-Italian members. Many of our French members are very strong members of the club. Many joined because they like the event, the culture and want to see the club survive.”

In 2020, the Porcupine Dante Club won the Nova Award for best non-profit organization by the Timmins Chamber of Commerce. Members take pride in the honour as it reflects the community's appreciation of the club.

“In 2017, we borrowed Festa Italiana, to try to have a summer festival similar to what we had in the past but similar to what Italy does,” Loreto said. “In Italy, you go to all the small towns. And in the piazzas, you have these festivals. That went from a one-day festival to a three-day festival.

“We had two years off, because of COVID. But now, we’re on to our fourth festival. We’re trying to continue with the same traditions we had growing up, try to promote and maintain the Italian culture in Timmins and sharing it with the community of Timmins.”

The festival, which will be held in July, will tie in perfectly with a weekend of celebrations for the 70th anniversary. The special weekend runs July 22-24.

There will be a pizza party open to everyone in the parking lot from 7 p.m. to midnight with live music from Paul Sebalj.

Saturday is the 70th Anniversary Gala featuring Italian food, music, performing, and sharing memories. Tickets are on sale now.

Sunday, July 24, is the Festa Italiana Street Party from noon to 6 p.m. There will be live entertainment, urban market vendors, children’s activities, Dante Club food, a beer garden and more.

“It’s an afternoon to come by, your kids can play, you can have Italian food,” he said. “It’ll be on rain or shine because if the weather gets bad, we’ll move everything indoors."

With COVID restrictions lifted, life is ready to blossom once again at The Dante Club.

“The restaurant is back open,” he said. “The halls are open for bookings. The lounge is open.”

Cultural nights are returning. The club hosts nights of Italian film. There are also events designed to promote the Italian language. And, of course, the bocce courts are open again.

Find out more about the club and its hours here. The club is also active on Facebook.