second generation Italian
More information about the Italy-born community in Australia can be found at the DIMIA website.
Known at home and abroad as la mamma degli italiani (the mother of the Italians), Lena Santospirito negotiated... the complexities of being a wife, mother and community worker with remarkable success.
Lena Santospirito was the Australian-born daughter of Italian migrants who arrived in Australia in the early 1890s. Although not a migrant herself, for most of her adult life, Lena worked tirelessly for the benefit of those who were. One of the first Italo-Australian women to assume a leadership role in the provision of welfare and community services to Melbourne's Italian community, Lena Santospirito was also the first woman (and lay) president of the Archbishop's Committee for Italian Relief. She led the work of the Committee from 1946 to 1955. Her presidency coincided with the beginnings of mass migration from Italy to Australia, a period of rapid change and new challenges for the community.
Louisa Angelina Virgona was born in Ballarat, rural Victoria, on 4 April 1895. Her parents, Bartolo and Bartolina, had emigrated in the early 1890s. The family eventually settled in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. When she completed her schooling, Lena (described by her sister Masy as 'the brains of the family') worked as a telephonist from 1913 until in 1925 she married Antonio Santospirito, whose family migrated in the late 1890s. Whether working for wages, or caring for her three children (Gerard, Maria and Antonio) at home, Lena was also a committed volunteer community worker. She and her sister both assisted the local priests (Fr De Francesco (1920-34) and Fr Modotti (1938-46) in their pastoral and welfare work. Fr Modotti, in particular, encouraged her to take an active role in his program of welfare provision to the Italian community. Consequently, when the Archbishop's Committee for Italian Relief was established in June 1940, Lena Santospirito was one of its founding members, acting in the position of comitato organizzatore of the Committee. By 1943, she had organised fifty-seven dances, raising £2,092 (around $99,000 in today's terms), and three bazaars, which raised £829 (around $39,000). The funds raised by the Archbishop's Committee were used to provide financial aid to the families of internees, and 'comforts' for the internees in the camps, such as books, recreational equipment and Christmas hampers.
The program of the committee evolved with the complicated turn of world events in the middle of the twentieth century. During the war, she lobbied on the behalf of local interns, in order to improve their living conditions. Following the Armistice with Italy in September 1943, the Committee adopted an international perspective and directed its efforts towards providing relief to war-torn Italy. After the war, as migration to Australia from Italy increased astronomically, the focus returned to the domestic front, in response to the needs of the steadily increasing number of Italian migrants. The government's policy of assimilation precluded the provision of culturally-specific services for new migrants. Assistance with settlement and after-care for migrants was thus largely left to ethnic communities and religious organisations, who struggled with the workload they felt compelled to take on.
It was at this time, in 1946, that Lena Santospirito assumed the presidency of the Archbishop's Committee. She worked from the family home in Carlton, where each morning queues of Italian migrants waited to see her. They needed help finding accommodation and employment, particularly during the years of high unemployment in the early 1950s. On top of assisting in these immediately practical matters, Lena Santospirito also lent people administrative support by helping those whose applications for landing permits had been refused by the Department of Immigration. Additionally, the committee continued to provide a social focus for the Italian community through the program of weekend dances. They were extremely popular events, attended by hundreds of people every Saturday and Sunday night in the early 1950s. As well as being an effective mechanism for raising funds, they performed an important social purpose, in that they provided a way for the 'old' and 'new' Italian communities in Melbourne to socialise.
Known at home and abroad as la mamma degli italiani (the mother of the Italians), Lena Santospirito negotiated (not without some sense of guilt, at times) the complexities of being a wife, mother and community worker with remarkable success. A deeply spiritual woman, she is remembered for her faith, kindness and generosity and as a pillar of the Italian community in Melbourne, Victoria.
Source of Image: http://www.coasit.com.au/historical/sant/SANP001.htm
There are numerous published and archival sources relating to the experience of Italian women in Australia. The following list is provided as a guide and is by no means comprehensive.
Records of the Italian Federation of Emigrant Workers and Their Families (Australia). New South Wales Branch, State Library of New South Wales, Manuscript Number MLMSS 5288
Records of the National Italian-Australian Women's Association. New South Wales Branch, State Library of New South Wales, Manuscript Number MLMSS 5288
Records of the National Italian-Australian Women's Association (W.A.) Inc., Battye Library, Manuscript Number ACC 6237A
The Oral History Collection at the National Library holds interviews with first and second generation Italian Migrants.
Select List of Community Support Groups
The following list is provided as a guide to the key organisations in Australia:
Italo-Australian Welfare and Cultural Centre Inc, Western Australia.
209 Fitzgerald Street
Perth WA 6000
Contact: Ms Sarina Sirna
Italian Migrant Welfare Organisation
155 South Terrace, Fremantle, WA, 6160
Tel: (08) 9335 2897
Italian Australian Club
77 Federal St, North Hobart 7000, ph: (03) 6234 5654
Italian Cultural and Welfare Association Inc
81 Federal St, North Hobart 7000, ph: (03) 6234 8249
Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia
PO Box 344 Curtin, ACT 2605
Phone:02 6282 5755
Fax: 02 6282 5734