A tidal wave of emigrants left Italy between 1880 and 1920 to escape starvation, malaria and never-ending poverty.
Hundreds of thousands streamed across the ocean. Sailing for several weeks on ships carrying hundreds of passengers herded together like cattle, many became ill from the stormy waters of the Atlantic.
A few were headed for Canada. Smaller numbers still were bound for Winnipeg. But by 1901, 147 people of Italian origin lived in Winnipeg, according to Stanislao Carbone, author of Italians in Winnipeg, and by 1921, 1,311 Italians lived here.
Before 1923, Winnipeg Italians worshipped at St. Mary's Cathedral and other parishes until eventually they found a place they could call their own.
"The most important institution in the early years of Winnipeg Italian history... was the Holy Rosary Church, which opened its doors in October of 1923," notes Carbone.
The former Lutheran church was ideally located in the West End, at Sherbrook and Bannatyne, the original Little Italy where many Italian immigrants first settled.
In the mid-1960s, the Winnipeg Children's Hospital purchased the property, and the parish had to find a new home.
The new site, at 510 River Ave., was closer to the Fort Rouge neighbourhood where many of Winnipeg's estimated 1,200 Italian families were then settling. The church opened in 1967.
Now an oasis of serenity in bustling, trendy Osborne Village, the attractive Tyndall stone structure is the spiritual home to about 800 families.
"October 2013 will be the 90th anniversary of the parish," says Fr. Sam Argenziano, pastor of Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church for 17 years.
W.R. MacDuff of Green, Blankstein, Russell Associates designed the 500-seat church -- which also houses an administration centre, rectory and parish hall -- at a cost of $390,000.
The details of the church reflect the Italian community. In the piazza outside Holy Rosary Church, Argenziano explains the bronze statue of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina.
"He was a Franciscan monk who lived in a monastery in the town of San Giovanni Rotundo, noted for his great sanctity and charity towards the poor." The Italian saint was canonized in 2002 by Pope John Paul II.
High above the piazza, on a tower, is a statue of the Madonna holding the baby Jesus, sculpted by Italian artist George Barone.
Parishioners come from the surrounding area as well as the north and south of the city, says Argenziano, whom many simply know as Father Sam.
"Most are Italian-born and of Italian ancestry," and they range in age "from cradle to crypt."
The parish serves the Italian community primarily, he says, but "the ethnicity is changing with the arrival of new immigrants from Africa and Asia who live downtown and close by."
There's been no new immigration from Italy in recent years. Looking to the future, Argenziano says, "Even though Italian immigration is finished, I would like to see the children and grandchildren make this their spiritual home and also to be a welcoming parish to all immigrants and refugees."
Every Sunday, he adds, Holy Rosary has a second collection called the Least Coin collection. About $25,000 is raised each year. "That money then goes to Hospitality House, which works with the Canadian government to sponsor refugee families."
The parish also belongs to the Nassau Street Refugee Committee, which sponsors a refugee family.
Argenziano estimates about 15,000 Italians live in Winnipeg now.
"This is their parish. If they go to another parish but wish to come here for baptisms, weddings, etc., they are more than welcome," he says.
The 64-year-old priest -- whom one Winnipegger describes as "a lovely man, everyone likes him" -- conducts all four masses on Sunday. "Three in English and one in Italian," he says.
Born and raised in Staten Island, N.Y., Argenziano learned to speak Italian only after coming to Holy Rosary in 1995. Though his grandparents emigrated from Italy to find work in New York, the language did not get passed along.
"My parents were born in New York and Italy was at war with North America... My parents had to prove themselves to be more American than the Americans.
Learning the language at 47, he says, "was a chore of love and pride."
Argenziano knew he wanted to be a priest in the second grade. He studied theology at the University of Toronto in the 1970s, then friends invited him to look at the Archdiocese of Winnipeg. Accepted by Archbishop George Flahiff in 1977, he finished his studies and was ordained on a bitterly cold February day in 1979 at St. Edward the Confessor on Arlington Street.
"When I came, the people were wonderful, hospitable and welcoming... but the winter of '79 was the worst winter in 50 years. On Feb. 15, 1979, it was 42 degrees below zero and only God knows what the windchill was."
It has not deterred him; he's stayed for 34 years.
Every year, says Argenziano, Holy Rosary holds an annual procession on their Feast Day in August. Special masses are held and statues of saints are carried in a colourful procession.
"It's very much a part of Italian culture to celebrate the patron saints and area of origin," he says.
"It (Holy Rosary) holds a very dear place in the hearts of Italians. We celebrate here the most important parts of our lives."