Mary Hucul (b. 1921) reminisces about her two-week immigration trip from Italy to Vancouver at age 8, her mother’s garden on Pender St., and working at Olympia Tailors.
Immigration from Italy
I was born in the southern part of Italy in a little village named Cancellara. That was the village where my father was born, and my mother was born in another village close by named Pietragalla. He used to go shop at my maternal grandmother’s corner store, and that’s how my mother and father got to know each other, and eventually they got married.
My maternal grandfather had immigrated to Vancouver at the turn of the century and stayed about a year to make enough money, then he went back to our village. He sponsored my father to come to Canada. After my parents were married for a while, my father immigrated to Vancouver, and my mother came later on because my father had to earn enough money to bring us over—me, my brother and my mother. They couldn’t make a living in Italy; they were too poor. My mother had three sisters here before we came and they were Grippos. Grippo was a very common name in my village.
I arrived in Vancouver on December 13, 1929. It was a one-week boat trip and then a one-week train trip across Canada. I was 8 years old and I had never been on a train before.I remember that my father came to meet us at the station. It was a rainy day, and the first thing he did was get a pair of rubber boots for us. It rained a bit in the winter in Italy, but it was overall pretty dry.
Life in Vancouver
In the 1930s, we lived pretty skimpily, and they used to have what they called “the relief“. My father would go with a pack-sack to pick up the groceries. A lot of the stuff they gave us, like syrup, was stuff we’d never had in Italy. Then they changed it and started giving people a cheque to do their own shopping.
We lived at Hastings and Commercial Drive; the area wasn’t too much different then. My mother used to shop at Woodward’s with my aunts, and they used to walk there, believe it or not, even if there was a streetcar going down Hastings. They used to have what they called a “99-cent day”.
My parents had a magnificent garden on Pender St. and they produce so many vegetables that they had to give some away to people in the neighbourhood. They grew tomatoes, green beans, and squash. You could cut the squash up into small pieces and stir-fry it with a little onion and tomatoes. My mother made tomato sauce quite a bit. We had chickens in the backyard so we got the eggs. My aunts, who lived on Keefer St, had goats. At Tosi’s, we bought oil by the gallon, and Italian food like pasta, and bread.
When I met my husband Mike, he used to take me to the White Lunch. I used to go to the Little Theatre (later the York Theatre) on Commercial Drive, because we lived just a couple of blocks away. I would go see whatever movie was playing, and I remember shows by Claudette Colbert. There was a grocery store next door from the theatre, but I only went there occasionally.
I remember there were a lot of Italians on Prior Street in the 1930s. There was a church there, the Sacred Heart Church—that’s probably why they congregated around that area. I went to Sacred Heart Catholic School; it was just a small little school, and there was a yard on both sides of the school—one side for the boys, one side for the girls.
Olympia Tailors and Memories of the Grippo Family
I worked in the Olympia Tailors store, all along from the time my brother Carl opened it (when he arrived here from Italy) until it was passed to his son Dominick. He chose the name Olympia because he was involved in sports—he used to play football and was also a lightweight boxer for a while.
Theo Grippo of Continental Coffee is my first cousin. I was 17 when his daughter Anita was born. When her mother, Nancy, came out of the hospital with Anita, I was at school and I walked all the way from school—I went to St. Patrick’s—and went to see the baby at 1600 Graveley Street. That’s where my aunt lived and Theo Grippo and his wife Nancy. Theo ground coffee in his garage and had a roaster in his basement, a fireplace, and also an old iron stove. Our grandmother had a coffee store in the village, back in Italy.
Historian’s note: Anita Grippo, who now runs Continental Coffee at 2nd Avenue and Commercial Drive, is the daughter of Theo Grippo, Grandview’s first coffee roaster. Mary’s brother Carl opened Olympia Tailors, the oldest business in what is now called the East Village. His initial rent was only $5/month. Carl passed away in 2014 at age 99; today, Olympia Tailors is run by his son, Don.
Story edited by Jade McGregor