Guide to the Santospirito Collection

Lena SantospiritoThe Santospirito Collection comprises the personal papers of Mrs Lena Santospirito (1895-1983). Mrs Santospirito was a leader of the Italian-Australian community in Melbourne and is best known for her charitable work as President of the Archbishop's Committee for Italian Relief in the early 1950s period of Italian mass immigration to Australia. The records in this Collection document her work with the Archbishop's Committee, as well as her involvement with other institutions and her personal and family affairs.

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Date Range 4 April 1895 - 19 November 1983

Mrs Lena Santospirito contributed years of her life to the Catholic Church's program of welfare assistance to Melbourne's Italian-Australian community. She was President of the Archbishop's Committee for Italian Relief from 1946 to 1954, the foremost provider of welfare services to Italian migrants during the post-war period of mass migration. The Santospirito Collection comprises her personal papers which provide a record of the diverse charitable and fundraising activities carried out within Melbourne's Italian-Australian community during the post-war period.

Lena Santospirito's parents, Bartolo and Bartolina (née Pirera) Virgona, emigrated from the Aeolian Islands to Melbourne in the 1890s. The Aeolian Islands (Isole Eolie), province of Messina, are an archipelago of seven islands, off the north-east coast of Sicily. This region of Italy was a source of many migrants to Australia (as well as to the United States and South America) from around the 1880s. In fact, migration from the Aeolian Islands reduced their population from 22,000 in 1881 to 15,000 in 1951.[1]

Bartolo and Bartolina Virgona were from the town of Malfa on the island of Salina, the second biggest of the seven Aeolian Islands. As was common, Bartolo Virgona travelled alone to Australia in 1890, and, like many other immigrants from the Aeolian Islands, established himself in Melbourne as a fruiterer. Bartolina Virgona and her son Vincent travelled to Australia to join Bartolo in 1892.

The Virgonas had four children: Vincent, Maria ('Mary', born 1893), Rosa (who died from diabetes at the age of sixteen) and Lena. Lena was born on 4 April 1895 in the rural Victorian town of Ballarat. Not long after her birth, the family returned to Melbourne, to a shop and dwelling in Smith Street, Fitzroy.

Lena's older sister Mary Rodriquez remembered that their mother Bartolina had the 'business brain' in the family, and it was Bartolina who organised the purchase of the property in Smith Street. Mary recalled Bartolina's efforts to help other immigrants from the Aeolian Islands, often housing them in the family home until they became settled.[2]

Lena and Mary were educated at St Joseph's College in Collingwood. Lena, the 'brains of the family' according to Mary, went on to study on a scholarship at the Catholic Ladies College in Fitzroy. Despite Lena's academic talents, the family was against her studying at university,[3] and after leaving school she worked as a telephonist for the Postmaster General's Department from 1913 until her marriage in 1925.[4] Lena's job helped the family to pay off the loan on their shop. Her sister Mary had left school to work in a milliner's shop. Their father Bartolo had died in 1915.


The two daughters and their mother became involved in charitable work for the Catholic Church in the 1920s. They assisted Melbourne's first Italian priest, Father Vincenzo De Francesco of St Ignatius in Richmond, with his work for Melbourne's Italian community.

In 1925, Fr De Francesco married Lena and Antonio Santospirito. Antonio was born in 1892 in Salina and came to Australia with his mother Giuseppina in 1897. Antonio's father was already established in Melbourne, selling fruit and flowers. Antonio Santospirito became a naturalised British subject in 1924. He ran a flower stall in a laneway next to 226 Flinders Street, and was known locally as 'The Flower King'.[5]

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Members of Melbourne's Italian community
gathered at St Ignatius' Church for a religious festa with Fr De Francesco, c.1920s.
Source: Italian Historical Society


After their marriage, Antonio and Lena moved into 79 Bouverie Street, Carlton. The Santospiritos had three children: Gerard, Maria (later Triaca) and Antonio (Tony). The house at Bouverie Street was to become the 'headquarters' for the work of the Archbishop's Committee for Italian Relief.

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Fr Ugo Modotti Source: Italian Historical Society

Fr Ugo Modotti was Melbourne's second chaplain to the Italian community. Invited by the Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, Modotti arrived in late 1938 and from his base at St Ignatius began a program of opera religiosa (religious work) that aimed to revitalise the faith of Melbourne's Italians, through religious, charitable, social and cultural activities. Both Lena and her sister Mary were enlisted by Fr Modotti to help him in his charitable work.

Modotti's plans were interrupted by Italy's entry into World War Two on the side of the Axis powers. From 11 June 1940, all people of Italian-origin in Australia assumed the status of 'enemy aliens', regardless of their nationality. In Victoria, around 170 Italians were interned by the Federal Government. Archbishop Mannix established the Archbishop's Committee for Italian Relief in June 1940, originally to provide assistance to the internees, and especially to their families who were experiencing great financial hardship.


Lena Santospirito was a founding member of the Archbishop's Committee. During the war years, she organised many fundraising activities, such as dances, bazaars and raffles. By 1943, Mrs Santospirito 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.


Following the Armistice in September 1943, the focus of the Committee's work turned towards providing aid to war-torn Italy. Mrs Santospirito worked with the Committee in its efforts to raise money for the Archbishop's Fund for Italian Relief, and helped organise the despatch of blankets and other material to Italy through the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).

Fr Modotti was recalled to Italy in 1946, to the dismay of many in Melbourne's Italian community. (He remained in correspondence with Mrs Santospirito until his death in 1971.) After Modotti left, Lena Santospirito took over as President of the Archbishop's Committee. The Committee was still busy coordinating its relief to post-war Italy, and providing assistance to Italian prisoners-of-war who remained in captivity in Australia for years after the conclusion of hostilities. For example, Mrs Santospirito wrote to the government in 1946, complaining of the conditions in the Rowville POW Hostel.[6]

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Archbishop's Committee members with bundles to be sent to Italy through UNRRA,
c.1944. (Lena Santospirito third from left).
Source: Italian Historical Society


The beginning of the Commonwealth Government's program of post-war mass immigration led to another change in the work of the Archbishop's Committee. With the increasing numbers of unassisted migrants from Italy, the Committee worked to meet their needs for assistance with finding employment and accommodation. 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.

Many newly-arrived migrants from Italy heard of the services provided by Lena Santospirito and the Archbishop's Committee and came to the Santospirito house in Bouverie St, Carlton for help. Sir James Gobbo wrote of 79 Bouverie St during this period, 'There were queues right down the corridor of her house, around one of the rooms, into another room, then out into the street'.[7]

The records in the Santospirito Collection document Lena Santospirito's efforts to find employment for Italian migrants. She wrote job application letters for those who could not speak English well. Lena Santospirito also wrote numerous unsolicited letters to prospective employers, letting them know of the pool of workers available, their skills and their great need to find work.

Mrs Santospirito also assisted a great number of people in their dealings with the Department of Immigration. People came to her for help after their applications for landing permits for relatives in Italy to migrate to Australia were rejected. Lena Santospirito made representations on behalf of many such cases to the Department of Immigration, explaining the family's situation and urging that decisions be reconsidered.

This correspondence went through Mrs Santospirito's friend and local member for the federal seat of Melbourne, Arthur Calwell Calwell was Australia's first Minister for Immigration, from 1945 to 1949. He was an outspoken supporter of Italians in Australia during the Second World War, and from 1942 chaired the Aliens Classification and Advisory Committee, established to review the cases of people interned by the Commonwealth Government.

Calwell would forward Mrs Santospirito's correspondence to the Secretary of the Department of Immigration, and in many cases, her representations on behalf of prospective migrants were successful. Lena Santospirito also personally sponsored the passage of several people, and nominated many more for landing permits.

The news of Lena Santospirito's generosity and work to help Italians spread beyond Australian shores in 1950, when she was mentioned in a newspaper article published in Italy. The journalist Gino De Sanctis wrote a series of articles about Australia for the Italian press, painting a picture of Australia as a land of plenty for the Italian migrant. In one feature about Harold Holt, the then-Minister for Immigration, and Arthur Calwell, the architect of the immigration program, Mrs Santospirito rated a mention of one line. To locate Calwell, De Sanctis wrote that 'all it took was one phone call to an Italian in Melbourne, la signora Santospirito, who they call here 'la mamma degli italiani'.[8]

This brief mention is probably the first time Lena Santospirito was referred to as 'la mamma degli italiani', a title that stuck. The Italian article resulted in a flood of letters to Santospirito from all over Italy from people eager to escape a stricken Italy for the prosperity of Australia, so glowingly described by De Sanctis. It is a credit to the postal service that such letters ever found Lena Santospirito, as they were addressed simply to 'Gentile Signora Santospirito, La Mamma degli Italiani, Australia'.

During the post-war period, the organisation of dances at Cathedral Hall in Fitzroy and St Georges Hall in Carlton was a major source of fundraising for the Committee's work. The dances also provided a social focus for Italians in Melbourne. During the period 1952-54, at least 500 people attended each of the dances, which were held every Saturday and Sunday night.

The Santospirito Collection also contains records of other social and cultural events organised by the Committee, such as debutante balls, musical evenings, bazaars, theatrical productions and film nights.

Lena Santospirito's involvement with other charitable and religious activities is also documented in the Collection. For example, she helped the American priest, Fr Patrick Peyton, with his Family Rosary Crusades in Australia during the 1950s, and organised the translation of his publicity material into Italian. Mrs Santospirito also served as President of the St Benedict's Hospital Well-Wishers Appeal Committee and President of the Cabrini Hospital Ladies' Auxiliary. In addition, she worked with the Capuchin Fathers, an order of Italian priests who came to Melbourne at the invitation of Archbishop Mannix in 1949.

Lena Santospirito resigned as President of the Committee in March 1955. The position was taken up by Mrs Lena Cincotta (later Sinelli). The Archbishop's Committee continued its work until around 1969. It would seem Mrs Santospirito's resignation took place amid some controversy about the financial state of the Committee. The Santospiritos were 4,000 pounds (over $90,000) out of pocket when Mrs Santospirito resigned, often having used family money to provide loans to migrants. Around this time, the family home in Bouverie Street was sold.

Antonio Santospirito died in 1959. The Santospirito family moved several times between 1954 and 1964, when they settled in East Kew, the house Lena Santospirito was to live in until 1980, when she went to live with her daughter, Maria.

After her resignation from the Archbishop's Committee, Mrs Santospirito remained involved with various charitable organisations and religious work, such as helping to organise 'spiritual bouquets' for the Vatican. Lena Santospirito became a devoted follower of Padre Pio, a Capuchin priest in Foggia, who was beatified in 1999. She travelled to Italy twice in the 1960s, once with her son Anthony, to confess to Padre Pio.


Lena Santospirito's work for the Italian community was recognised in 1958, when she was awarded the Italian Star of Solidarity in a ceremony at the Archbishop's residence, Raheen.

In 1967, a profile of Mrs Santospirito in The Advocate again lauded her as 'La mamma degli Italiani'.[9] She died on 19 November 1983, at the age of 88.

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Archbishop Mannix with Lena Santospirito (left) and Lena Cincotta receiving the
Italian Star of Solidarity at Raheen in 1958. Source: Italian Historical Society

1. Maria J. Triaca, "Italians in Australia, from the Aeolian Islands - Contributions to Literature", 1977, Italian Historical Society (IHS) collection. [Return to text]
2. Oral history interview with Mary Rodriquez, 29 August 1984, Oral History Collection, IHS. [Return to text]
3. Tony Santospirito, "Lena Santospirito - the Person." Italian Historical Society Journal 9, no. 1 (January-June 2001): 20. [Return to text]
4. "List of Permanent Officers of the Commonwealth Service", Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 1913-1925. [Return to text]
5. Oral history interview with Tony Santospirito, 21 March 2001, Oral History Collection, IHS. [Return to text]
6. The letter from Mr [sic.] L.A. Santospirito is referred to by Alan Fitzgerald, The Italian Farming Soldiers: POWs in Australia 1941-1947 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1981), 153. [Return to text]
7. Sir James Gobbo, "Italians in Victoria and the Second World War": an address for the Italian Historical Society given at the Italian Institute of Culture, 19 May 1988, 13. [Return to text]
8. "Porte spalacante in Australia", clipping from Il Messaggero, c. June 1950, IHS collection. [Return to text]
9. The Advocate, 28 September 1967, 25. [Return to text]
References Full bibliographic references for this biography of Lena Santospirito are available in the Hard Copy Guide to the Santospirito Collection, Italian Historical Society of Victoria.