Pope Francis meets a member of a Canadian family led by Vilma Cortelucci-Fiuza, center, at the International Forum on Migration and Peace at the Vatican Feb. 21, 2017. CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano

Toronto family’s migration story finds papal audience

By 
  • March 11, 2017

Vilma Cortellucci-Fiuza was battling nerves as she stepped up to speak in front of the Holy Father.

Her family’s story was not a unique one. In fact, it was only one of three testimonies that were shared at the Vatican’s VI International Forum for Migrants and Peace Feb. 21. But it reflected a universal dream that all migrants of all generations have shared.

“We will always remember our roots as migrants to Canada,” she said to a room of 250 dignitaries, Church leaders and lay people. “Because of our blessings, and never forgetting the plight of the migrant... we give ourselves in whatever way we can by being advocates for those who are marginalized, the most vulnerable in our society, the people with special needs.”

Vilma, along with her husband Manuel Fiuza, her sister-in-law Roseanne Cortellucci and her brother Nicola Cortellucci, were invited to speak at the Migrants and Peace forum as recognition for their work as members of the North American leadership council of the Scalabrini International Migration Network (SIMN).

SIMN, which also facilitated the forum Feb. 21-22, is a non-profit organization that supports Scalabrinian missions around the world that help migrants and refugees.

That day, Vilma stood and her family stood as living proof of the Church’s role in addressing migrant issues.

Meeting Pope Francis and speaking at Rome was nerve-wracking. Vilma didn’t know until the day before that she was going to be speaking not just to the Pope, but to 250 members and partners of SIMN.

This was also her brother, Nicola’s, first trip to Italy since he emigrated 56 years ago. Shaky voice aside, she was determined to speak from the heart.

“Words cannot express,” said Vilma. “I was so spiritually inspired by him…. It felt like I was speaking to him as a friend.”

“I focused on (Francis) the whole time she was speaking and I noticed that he listened to every word that she said,” said Roseanne. “He’s so humble, so down to earth.”

After her three-minute speech recounting her family’s story, the Pope personally greeted each of the foursome and exchanged handshakes.

Vilma said she wanted Francis to know how much he inspires her family to continue to spread the blessings they’ve received over the years. She said she owes much of her family’s success to the support of the Church community and so it was only natural that her family, in turn, supported the work of the Church.

Migrating from Italy to Canada in 1962 was not easy. Vilma, 61, remembers growing up in the rural town of Abruzzi, Italy, with no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Her family lived off the land, so her father Pietro decided to move to Canada to find work.

Nicola, now 69, followed a year later, but then left school at the age of 14 to work in the construction business and help his father earn enough money to bring seven-year-old Vilma, their mother and three brothers to Canada.

“We landed in Pier 21 in Nova Scotia. We travelled by boat and it was very rough waters,” said Vilma. “It was two weeks but we were at the bottom of the boat. We were not First Class, so we felt everything.”

Once they arrived in Halifax, they took the train to Union Station in Toronto and the family has settled here ever since.

“I remember is was a huge culture shock. It was so, so, so surreal,” she said. “I had never seen a fridge in my life and when my brother opened the fridge to show me the food, I thought, ‘My God, where are the trees?’ ”

Vilma said the first few years in Canada was a huge adjustment for everyone. Not only was the family learning a new language, but they were also adjusting to life in an urban city.

Fortunately, they found support in their local Church community, St. Thomas Aquinas parish. At the church they found fellow Italian immigrants who helped them with anything they needed, including winter clothes and registering the children at the nearby school.

“Nowadays we have more centres that help migrants, but in those days, it was basically the church that supported you,” said Vilma. “At church, they would speak our language… it was a place where you could gather and share different experiences that you were going through.”

Nicola has spearheaded a successful family business in land development and construction, and his three brothers, Roseanne and Manuel all followed suit.

Nicola and Roseanne have four children: Nicolas, 40, Fabrizio, 39, Sabrina, 35, and Claudia, 33. They also have six grandchildren.

Vilma worked as a social worker for 10 years. Vilma and Manuel, 64, have raised two sons: Jonathan, 29, and Daniel, 27.

The Cortellucci family remained close to the Italian Catholic community of Toronto, even as they moved around in the city over the years. It wasn’t until they became parishioners at St. Paschal Baylon Church in Thornhill in 1977, however, that they were introduced to the Scalabrini Fathers.

Formally known as the Congregation of St. Charles Borromeo, the Scalabrini Fathers’ main mission is to support the plight of all migrants around the world. Through their friendship with the pastors at St. Paschal Baylon Church, the family has supported many Scalabrini initiatives.

In 2008, Vilma and Roseanne decided to join the North American leadership council of SIMN, a non-profit organization that supports Scalabrinian missions around the world.

“We never forgot our roots,” said Roseanne, 64, who immigrated to Canada at three years old before meeting the Cortellucci family as a young child. “We remind (our children) all the time it wasn’t easy for my parents and not for their father, Nick, to be where we are today. It was hard work.”

Vilma and Roseanne agreed that their faith has been at the centre of their journey as migrants. The blessings they now receive, they work to support other migrants and vulnerable people in society.

“Wherever the Scalabrini Fathers direct us to support, we go without hesitation,” said Roseanne.

The Cortellucci-Fiuza family also support many Church initiatives, including Catholic Missions In Canada, the Aptus Treatment Centre, the Mackenzie Health Foundation. Sunnybrook Hospital and many others.

“We try to help wherever we can,” said Vilma. “Our philanthropic work as a family has fulfilled me more than any other work.”

The Cortellucci-Fiuza’s audience with Pope Francis and other scenes from the VI International Forum for Migrants and Peace can be found on the Vatican’s YouTube channel.

The family wasn’t the only Canadian presence at the forum. Sarita Bhatla, director general for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (CIC), participated in a panel on “Promoting Better Integration Programs as a Common Responsibility: The Role of Governments, International Organizations, civil society and the Catholic Church.”

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