Generous York benefactor, Dr. Mariano A. Elia, remembered

The York community was saddened to learn of the recent death of Mariano A. Elia (LLD ’85), a long-time friend and supporter of the University. Dr. Elia died last week at 89, after a full and vibrant life.

Dr. Elia was born in Italy in 1917 and immigrated to Canada as a young man. In 1941, after studying architecture in night school for five years and overcoming much hardship, he started a small general contracting firm. This ultimately brought him great success and he became a considerable Canadian philanthropist, involved in many good works.

Right: Seen in a photograph from the York Gazette, May 18, 1984, signing the official agreement for the Mariano A. Elia Chair in Italian-Canadian Studies are, from right to left, Senator Peter Bosa; William C. Found, vice-president academic affairs; MP David W. Collenette; and Mariano A. Elia (signing the agreement)

In 1984, Dr. Elia made a significant donation to York, matched by the federal government, to establish the Mariano A. Elia Chair in Italian-Canadian Studies. The purpose of the Chair was to create an academic focus on teaching and research, as well as out-reach to the Italian-Canadian community.

In 1985, Dr. Elia received an honorary doctorate from York. The Italian government also granted Dr. Elia membership in the Italian Order of Chivalry and the esteemed title of “Commendatore”, which rewards Italians living abroad for their achievements in arts and sciences that are of benefit to Italy.

“From its very beginnings, Dr. Elia took an active interest in the Chair and worked to reinforce its purposes both in the Italian-Canadian community and abroad,” recalls Harry Arthurs, York president emeritus and University Professor. “He was a man with a vast array of interests, but the Chair was his passion.”

Arthurs describes Dr. Elia, whom he met with often during his presidency and in recent years, as a man who had a vital character, a deep interest in politics and an excellent memory. “I liked and admired him enormously and he will be deeply missed by the York community,” he adds.

The Mariano A. Elia Chair in Italian-Canadian Studies is currently the only Chair in Canada focused on this area. The Chair sponsors three annual fellowships, to support students conducting research in the field and continues to be involved in the support of faculty exchanges with other universities in Canada and internationally. In 1988, Dr. Elia was instrumental in helping to develop one of the Chair’s strongest collaborations, a student exchange with the University of Calabria.

“We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dr. Elia for his generosity and involvement with the Mariano A. Elia Chair in Italian-Canadian Studies,” says Elio Costa, professor emeritus and former Chair-holder. “His legacy will allow York to continue to achieve great success in the area of Italian-Canadian Studies.”

The Chair celebrates the notion of a “university without walls” and has developed strong links and partnerships beyond the University with Italian-Canadian community groups to encourage the dissemination of knowledge of Italian-Canadian issues to the broader public. The Chair also seeks the community-based preservation of materials important for understanding Italian-Canadian reality.

To foster community participation in the field of Italian-Canadian Studies, the Chair has sponsored an annual lecture series since 1984 at the Columbus Centre. The Series features guest speakers who are internationally respected scholars, researchers on all aspects of Italian-Canadian life, artists, and community members involved in issues of importance to Italian-Canadians.

“Dr. Elia’s death is a great loss,” said Lorna R. Marsden, York’s president and vice-chancellor. “His contributions to establish the Mariano A. Elia Chair in Italian-Canadian Studies helped York University’s students immensely. The accomplishments of the Chair brought Dr. Elia tremendous pride, and we are committed to ensuring that our work in the area of Italian-Canadian Studies continues to make his family proud.”

Dr. Elia also helped fund the Marconi Museum in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, to commemorate Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian physicist who sent the first wireless transmission across the Atlantic. Dr. Elia was also involved philanthropically with Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto and the Art Gallery of Ontario.