Lena Santospirito was 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. Mrs Santospirito was the first woman (and layperson) President of the Archbishop’s Committee for Italian Relief, and 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.
She was born Louisa Angelina Virgona, in Ballarat, rural Victoria, on 4 April 1895. Her parents, Bartolo and Bartolina, had emigrated from the town of Malfa on the Aeolian Island of Salina in the early 1890s. The Virgona family became settled in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, where they established a shop.
After school, Lena worked as a telephonist from 1913 until her marriage to Antonio Santospirito in 1925. The Santospirito family had also made the journey to Australia from the Aeolian Islands in 1897. The Santospiritos had three children, Gerard, Maria and Antonio.
Lena and her sister Mary volunteered their services to help the pastoral and welfare work of Melbourne’s Italian priests, Fr De Francesco (1920-1934) and Fr Modotti (1938-1946). Fr Modotti was a strong influence on Lena Santospirito, and encouraged her to take an increasingly active role in his program of welfare provision to the Italian community.
The Archbishop’s Committee for Italian Relief was established in June 1940, originally to raise funds to assist Italian internees and their families. Lena Santospirito was a founding member of the Committee and by 1941 was acting in the position of comitato organizzatore.
The program of the Committee evolved with the changing international situation. Following the Armistice with Italy in September 1943, the Committee directed its efforts towards providing relief to war-torn Italy. After the War, the Committee’s focus changed once more, in response to the needs of the steadily increasing number of Italian migrants.
Lena Santospirito became the President of the Committee in 1946, following the sudden departure for Italy of Fr Modotti. The workload of the Committee grew rapidly in the immediate post-war period. Mrs Santospirito ran the Committee from the family home in Carlton, where each morning saw queues of Italian migrants waiting to see her. These people needed help finding accommodation and employment, particularly during the years of high unemployment in the early 1950s. Lena Santospirito also devoted herself to helping people whose applications for landing permits had been refused by the Department of Immigration.
The Committee raised much of its funds through dances. These dances were attended by hundreds of people every Saturday and Sunday night in the early 1950s, and provided a way for the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Italian communities in Melbourne to socialise.
After her resignation from the Archbishop’s Committee in 1955, Mrs Santospirito continued her community work for various religious and charitable organisations. Lena Santospirito died on 19 November 1983.
Mrs Santospirito is remembered for her tireless work, her faith and the generosity she showed to so many people in Melbourne’s Italian community. Lena Santospirito’s personal records (held by the Italian Historical Society) also reveal her conflict and insecurity about balancing the roles of wife, mother, and community worker. Her work for the Italian community was recognised by the Italian government in 1958, when she was awarded the Italian Star of Solidarity.