When Maria Marrelli married in 1936 and discovered that, under Quebec civil law, she wasn't able to open a bank account in her own name without her husband's permission, she had "a conniption." That incident sparked her life-long role as one of Montreal's leading community activists not only in the Italian community but in the English and French communities as well.
Marrelli was a rare woman of her era who felt women "needed to be free from being restrained," so, in her words, "I just set out and did what I thought needed to be done."
Diminutive but determined, she was at the forefront of the campaign to give women in Quebec the right to vote in 1944. She railed against stereotyping of Italian-Canadians, and was involved in the attempt to have the federal government apologize for incarcerating Italian-Canadians during the Second World War. For 13 years, she also wrote a column for The Suburban community newspaper before being named a judge of the citizenship court in 1977.
"She was a leader. A force to be reckoned with. Not only was she able to express her views, she was able to rally people behind her so when she spoke. She spoke with a unified voice," said Montreal's executive committee chairman Michael Applebaum. "She worked day and night for the community, and when she put her mind to something she came very well prepared to argue her case, and she usually got it."
Maria Di Grandis was born in Montreal on May 18, 1915, the daughter of an Italian immigrant family who had come to Canada from Ancona, an Italian province on the Adriatic Coast. As a youngster she couldn't speak a word of English. She was taunted by classmates, who called her "spaghetti" and said she smelled of garlic. The biggest influence on her life, she said, was her maternal grandmother, Augusta Mercantini. "She had a fist like a man. If she wanted something, nothing stood in her way, she just went out and got it," Marrelli once told a reporter.
At the age of 17, during the Depression, Marrelli started Loggia Elisabetta Di Silvestro, a charity that helped young Italian women on welfare. She became a teacher, married in 1936, and was principal of Patranato Italo Canadese Agli Immigrati, a private school that offered Italian language classes every Saturday morning. In 1972, Marrelli was the only female founding member of the Quebec Congress of Italian Canadians, which was started to safeguard the interest and the reputation of the Italian community. She also worked as an interpreter for the local credit union.
"She was headstrong, a feisty powerhouse, a community leader on so many levels who mastered the art of politics behind the scene. She was one of those people who by the sheer force of their personality get things done," said retired Quebec Superior Court judge Pierrette Sévigny. "She was very well organized, well connected. She had a list of about 400 women she could call up and mobilize. She ran elections at the municipal, provincial and federal level as a enumerator, district returning officer, and as a judge of the revisions board."
"She was formidable, a small woman packed with energy, she got along with everybody," said former solictor-general Warren Allmand. "She was outstanding, and active in the English, French and Italian communities. She organized for me all the years I was in politics, and in nine elections over 31 years, I never lost a single poll."
Marrelli was largely responsible for having the statue of Christopher Columbus erected in Montreal''s Little Italy. In 1988, she was honoured with Italy's Order of Merit, and five years ago the National Congress of Italian Canadians honoured her with a medal. Marrelli never thought of herself as a feminist. "There was no such thing in my day," she said. "But it seems I was always the one woman doing things in the company of the men. I'm proud of that. I've always been busy. I like to keep busy."
She remained active in the affairs of her church and her local borough until about three years ago. "We are all family. No matter what your ethnic background or your race, we are all family," she said. "You keep the family together - that's my creed," she said. "Somebody gets sick, has a baby or dies and the whole family comes into play. That's what has made us strong."
Her husband, Giuseppe, died in 1991.
She leaves her three children, Beatrice Pearson, Roger and Nancy, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at the Centre Funéraire Cotes-des-Neiges Saturday, July 7, at 2 p.m.