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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In 1950, an Italian journalist travelled around Australia and filed a series of reports in the Italian press about the lives of Italian migrants who had settled in 'the fifth continent'. Gino De Sanctis' articles provided Italians with his view of the 'Australian way of life' in the early 1950s. The articles, published in a range of Italian newspapers, provided would-be emigrants with detailed information about matters such as Australian wages, housing, job prospects, and the government's post-war immigration policy.


One De Sanctis article, in which he profiled Australia's then-present and former Immigration Ministers, Harold Holt and Arthur Calwell, provided good publicity for the new, welcoming post-war Australia. It discussed how Australia was opening its doors to workers from countries like Italy to assist in the process of post-war reconstruction.

The article had a somewhat unlikely outcome. One passing reference by the journalist to Lena Santospirito, and how she was known as la mamma degli italiani (the mother of the Italians) because of her kindness and generosity, resulted in a small wave of letters to her from desperate people in Italy, appealing to her to act as their sponsor. (Australia's immigration system required that unassisted migrants were nominated for a landing permit by a sponsor already living in Australia. Italians called this the system of atto di chiamata.)

One of De Sanctis' articles in the Italian newspaper, Il Messaggero, c. June 1950

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The letters written after the Italian newspaper articles were published all found their way to Lena Santospirito, despite the fact that her new correspondents didn't have her address. At least fourteen people wrote to Lena Santospirito after reading the article, seeking her advice about migrating from Italy to Australia. For more information see Series 50 - Letters from Italy, 'La Mamma Degli Italiani'.

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There are hundreds of documents in the Santospirito Collection relating to post-war migration from Italy to Australia. Many people came to Mrs Santospirito, asking her to make representations on their behalf to the Department of Immigration. Santospirito wrote hundreds of letters to her good friend and former Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell. These interventions often resulted in decisions being reconsidered, reversed or expedited. For more information see:

You can search the Santospirito Collection by surname to locate documents relating to particular families.