GLIONNA, FRANCESCO, carpenter, musician, peanut vendor, and hotel proprietor; b. 18 June 1825 or 28 June 1828 in Laurenzana (Italy), son of Vincenzo Glionna; m. before 1864 Anna Vittoria — (d. 1908), and they had three sons and three daughters; d. 9 Dec. 1918 in Toronto.
Francesco Glionna was born in the province of Potenza in the Kingdom of Naples. Little is known of his European past, but he seems to have arrived in North America with his wife and children in the late 1860s or early 1870s. He and his brothers – Giovanni Battista, Donatantonio (Donato), and Rocco – were part of a growing migration from the south of Italy; they went first to Paris and later to New York, plying various trades. Laurenzana was one of a number of towns which sent harpists, violinists, and clarinettists, as well as boot makers, cordwainers, and coppersmiths, throughout the world. On their journeys such tradesmen often brought children, the most conspicuous of whom were street musicians. They were especially evident in Paris, but after the expulsion of child street performers during the universal exposition there in 1867 and the start of the Franco-German War, they moved to such other European and American cities as Barcelona and New York.
In the early 1870s Francesco Glionna lived with some of his brothers in Crosby Street on the perimeter of New York’s Little Italy, where the city directory listed him as a carpenter. By 1874 he was in Toronto, working as a cabinet-maker and carpenter; later in the decade and in the early 1880s he also worked as a musician and as a peanut vendor on Yonge Street. It is not totally clear why the Glionnas came to Ontario, but it seems that their move had something to do with New York’s opposition to child street musicians, particularly in 1873. The Giovanni Glionna arrested in New Haven, Conn., in the summer of that year for keeping child street musicians was probably Francesco’s brother, who appeared in Toronto a few months later. The Glionnas were followed by other immigrant families from Laurenzana who had been living in New York, among them the Laurias, the Brancieres, the Lobraicos, and the Laraias. In 1877 Francesco and Anna Glionna became naturalized Canadian citizens.
At first the Glionnas rented homes on Chestnut Street, which had been settled a few years earlier by Genoese tradesmen and their families. Known as the Ward, this part of the city – properly St John’s Ward – was one of the poorest and most overcrowded areas in Toronto in the late 19th century. It was the main receiving area for new immigrants; by World War I over half its inhabitants were Jewish and about 15 per cent were Italian. In the late 1870s Francesco Glionna had invested in real estate and within a few years he owned 11 lots at Chestnut and Edward streets. On this corner, which became the heart of Toronto’s first Little Italy, he constructed a number of houses and, in 1885, the Glionna Hotel, an immigrant saloon that was probably also a labour agency for Italian immigrants. In the 1870s Canadian contractors, following the lead of their American counterparts, were beginning to employ Italian immigrants on public projects, most notably the Welland Canal. They used Italian padroni (labour agents) to bring workers from Italy, and a number of the padroni in North America were from Laurenzana.
Francesco’s prominence in Toronto’s early Italian community came not only from his relative wealth – he also owned farmland in Scarborough Township – but also from his position as patriarch of the community’s largest (over 80 members in 1908) and most influential family. The Glionnas were certainly visible as musicians. Francesco worked periodically as one before 1885. His brother Giovanni, a street performer in Paris in the 1860s, was a glazier and a padrone in New York but he went back to the music trade in Toronto. Each of the brothers had at least one son who was a musician. Francesco’s son Donatantonio (Donato) Giuseppe, a sometime bartender at his father’s hotel, was a musician, and another son, Egidio, also had his own orchestra, E. Glionna Sr Brothers and Company, which could be booked at the hotel. There was also Vincenzo Glionna, whose family connection is not certain; he had 15 children, all of them musicians, and he directed his own orchestra, Glionna, Marsicano and Company. At a time when bands were few in the city, the Glionnas performed for entertainments, at tea parties for wealthy families, at department stores such as Eaton’s, and in vaudeville theatres and churches. In 1895, for example, Vincenzo’s orchestra performed a mass by Dvořák at Our Lady of Lourdes Church.
The second generation of Glionnas had an important place in the Italian community. Donato was the Liberal party’s organizer there and he became involved in a number of high-profile projects and organizations. For instance, he founded the Umberto Primo Benevolent Society in 1888 and was its president until 1911. This society, of which Francesco was a member, and its colourful corps of bersaglieri (ceremonial guards) were present at all important Toronto Italian gatherings. At the turn of the century Donato tried to persuade the local Roman Catholic archdiocese to establish an Italian parish and offered to donate land for a church. As late as the 1920s he began a second friendly society, the Italian Aid and Protective Society. The first doctor and lawyer of Italian origin in Toronto were Glionnas – Francesco’s grandson George and Joseph F. respectively – and two Glionnas served as Italian consular agents in the city between 1914 and the early 1920s.
Francesco Glionna had retired from his hotel business about 1903 but it was continued by the family until 1917, when it was closed and sold, probably because of the introduction of prohibition the previous year. A member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, he died of pneumonia in 1918 and was survived by 5 children, 45 grandchildren, and 50 great-grandchildren. His family’s prestige in the Italian community continued into the interwar period, but the arrival of many more immigrants from various regions of Italy and the growth of fascist and antifascist movements in Italian Toronto marginalized the Glionna family and reduced its political power.
AO, RG 22-305, no.41604; RG 80-8-0-343, no.5438; RG 80-8-0-654, no.8746. NA, RG 31, C1, 1901, Toronto, Ward 3, div.14: 3 (mfm. at AO). St Michael’s Cemetery (Toronto), Gravestone of the Glionna family, lot 102 South St Ellen. Evening Telegram (Toronto), 10 Dec. 1918. Directory, Toronto, 1876–1919. J. [E.] Zucchi, The Italian immigrants of the St. John’s Ward, 1885–1915: patterns of settlement and neighbourhood formation (Toronto, 1981); Italians in Toronto: development of a national identity, 1875–1935 (Kingston, Ont., and Montreal, 1988).