DONEGANI, JOHN ANTHONY (baptized Jean-Antoine; not to be confused with Guiseppe Donegana, another Montreal hotel-keeper), tavern-keeper, businessman, municipal politician, and seigneur; b. 6 Aug. 1798 in Montreal, eldest son of Joseph and Thérèse Donegani; d. 6 July 1868 in Montreal.
Approximately 50 families of Italian origin lived in Montreal in the half-century before confederation. Most were from northern Italy and found employment in the grocery, tavern, or hotel trades. Among the innkeeping families were the Bonacinas, the Delvecchios, the Rascos, and the Doneganis. John Anthony’s grandfather, Guiseppe, immigrated to Montreal in 1794 from Moltrazio in Lombardy with his wife, three sons, daughter, and nephew, Joseph Donegani. Guiseppe Donegani established himself as an innkeeper, but returned to Italy in 1802. His offspring remained in Montreal and prospered.
In 1797 Guiseppe Donegani’s daughter, Thérèse, had married her 40 year old cousin, Joseph. A year later, John Anthony was born; two other sons, Joseph and Guillaume-Benjamin, followed. The three boys attended the Collège de Montréal and Guillaume-Benjamin became Montreal’s first Italian physician. After his father’s death in 1816 John Anthony took over the family’s tavern business in the faubourg Récollet, and began speculating in real estate. In partnership with his brother Joseph, he owned property on the island of Montreal, at Laprairie (La Prairie) on the south shore of the St Lawrence, and on Perrot Island. In 1829 he bought for £2,700 the seigneury of Foucault (Caldwell’s Manor) on the Richelieu River near the American border. The seigneury, inhabited largely by loyalists, included five schools, a mill, and a fine manor house. In 1842 Donegani sold it to Joseph-Frédéric Allard of Chambly.
John Donegani was a scrappy individual who spent much time in the courts. In 1827 a bitter court battle began between the three Donegani brothers and their uncle Joseph, a successful merchant, manufacturer of mirrors, and proprietor of a well-known tavern, Les Trois Rois. The three brothers, who hoped to obtain real estate in Montreal left by their grandfather, contended that their uncle, an alien, could not inherit property in Canada, and that they, born in Canada, were the only legitimate heirs. The complex case involved French civil law in Lower Canada and the rights of aliens in France and England. The lower courts in Montreal in 1828, the appeal courts in 1832, and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1835 all upheld the claims of the brothers who were allowed to take possession of the property.
The 1830s and 1840s were boom years for ambitious Montreal businessmen like John Donegani. While other entrepreneurs profited from banking, commercial, and industrial expansion, Donegani made a fortune from rising property values. By 1847 he owned at least 65 properties in Montreal; in a good year in the mid 1840s he made up to 60 land transactions, many involving thousands of pounds. His properties were concentrated in the old commercial district, but he also participated in the west-end expansion along Rue Saint-Antoine, a prestige residential area. Construction of the Montreal and Lachine Railroad, started in 1846, further enhanced the value of his west-end properties.
In the years from 1833 to 1835 and from 1840 to 1843 Donegani was a member of the Montreal City Council; in 1837 after the first municipal charter was allowed to lapse he was named a justice of the peace. As a member of the first council Donegani joined Jacques Viger*, John Torrance, Charles-Séraphin Rodier*, and other members of the commercial class in directing development in the growing city. They were concerned with three major problems: expansion of the commercial district along Saint-Paul and Commissaires streets (where Donegani had extensive properties), improvement of the city’s roads, sewers, and waterfront, and protective measures against cholera epidemics. As chairman of the roads committee Donegani had to placate angry residents from the Sainte-Catherine and Saint-Urbain streets area who complained that the combination of sewage in the streets and the lack of sidewalks made the roads almost impassable.
Donegani made his political sympathies clear during the tumultuous events of 1837–38. He did not ingratiate himself with conservatives when, as jp, he led the 1st Royals against the Doric Club, a secret society dedicated to maintaining strong links with Britain. In November 1838 he was arrested without warrant by Robert Weir*, proprietor of the Montreal Herald. After testifying that he had committed no wrong Donegani was released. Later he became a patron of French Canadian literary and cultural activities. In January 1841 a public meeting to encourage the formation of an institute of literature, science, and the arts was held at his home [see Nicolas-Marie-Alexandre Vattemare]. Throughout the 1840s he continued to press for expanded cultural facilities. In 1845 he provided land on Dorchester Street to the Jesuits on which they built the Collège Sainte-Marie. The site was evaluated at more than £8,000 but Donegani sold it to the Jesuits for £2,250 with the stipulation that a daily mass would be said for him until the last of his children died. In 1849 he signed the Annexation Manifesto.
Donegani’s social standing kept pace with his financial successes. His first business associate had been Joseph-Maximilien Bonacina, an Italian partner of his father. In 1819 he listed himself as a tavern-keeper, a decade later he was a seigneur, and in 1840 he was described simply as a “gentleman.” His various places of business and residence are also an indication of his changing status, culminating in offices on Rue des Commissaires and a lavish home among the élite on Côte Saint-Antoine (Westmount). In May 1830 Donegani had married Rosalie-Louise-Geneviève Plamondon, the daughter of Louis Plamondon, a Quebec City lawyer. They had a son and a daughter. As a landowner, municipal politician, and magistrate Donegani seems to have been accepted into the inner circle of Montreal’s French Canadian bourgeois class. After the death of his brother Joseph in 1837 Donegani participated in real estate deals with Antoine-Olivier Berthelet*. For legal advice Donegani turned to George-Étienne Cartier*; his notary was Théodore-Benjamin Doucet.
At the end of the 1840s, however, John Donegani fell on hard times. The circumstances are not clear but by the early 1850s he owed the Banque du Peuple, of which he had been one of the first directors, over £30,000. To forestall his creditors Donegani ceded his property to members of his family and in February 1850 declared himself bankrupt. The Banque du Peuple brought him to court and seized his possessions. After 1855 little was heard of the aging and bankrupt Donegani.
Montreal was changing and Donegani was a man of the pre-confederation era. Old Montreal was giving way to the new centre-town commercial district. The Italian taverns and hotels with their charm and cuisine were now gone, replaced by new centre-town hotels with large capital investment and oriented to the railway trade. In the face of industrialization and the growth of capital in the Montreal area, the roles of the tavern-keeper, small entrepreneur, and seigneur were diminishing in importance. It was fitting and ironic that Donegani should die on Rue Sainte-Catherine, symbol of the new Montreal.
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