- Honour Roll
As the President of the Archbishop's Committee for Italian Relief, Lena co-ordinated the welfare work of the Italo-Australian community, as it strove to meet the needs of hundreds of arrivals from Italy.
Lena was born in Ballarat on 4 April 1985. Her parents migrated to Australia from the Aeolian Islands, off the north-east coast of Sicily. Bartolo Virgona, her father, came to Victoria in 1890 and was joined by his wife Bartolina and their son Vincent in 1892. Like many immigrants from the Aeolian Islands, Bartolo worked as a fruiterer. The Virgonas moved from Ballarat to a house in Smith Street, Fitzroy not long after Lena was born.
Lena and her sister Maria went to St Joseph's College in Collingwood, and Lena went on to study at the Catholic Ladies College. After school, Lena worked as a telephonist in the Postmaster General's Department from 1913-25. In 1925, Lena married Antonio Santospirito. Antonio was born in the Aeolian Islands in 1892 and came to Australia in 1897. He ran a flower-stall off Flinders Lane in Melbourne and was known to many as 'the Flower King!' After their marriage the Santospiritos moved into the home at 79 Bouverie Street, Carlton, which was soon to become the headquarters for Italian welfare in Melbourne.
The Archbishop's Committee for Italian Relief was established in June 1940 by Archbishop Daniel Mannix. The Committee was formed to provide assistance to Italians who were interned by the Commonwealth Government on Italy's entry into World War II. The internment crisis brought great hardship to many Italian families in Victoria, and many others suffered due to their new status as 'enemy aliens'.
Lena was a founding member of the Committee and worked throughout the war organising fundraising dances, concerts and bazaars. Lena took over as President of the Archbishop's Committee in 1946 from Father Moditti. As President, Lena presided over the most turbulent and dynamic period of Italo-Australian history. The focus of the Committee's work shifted towards providing services to post-war Italian migrants.
Unassisted migrants from war-torn Italy began to arrive in Australia from 1946, and the number of arrivals steadily grew over the ensuing years. Many people know of the hardships endured by assisted migrants in the Bonegilla Reception Centre. However, only 20% of Italian migrants were assisted - the situation for unassisted migrants was even worse. The Australian Government's policy of 'assimilation' meant that almost no culturally-specific services were provided for post-war migrants.
Unassisted migrants required help finding accommodation, employment and to deal with Australian government departments. This assistance was provided by the Archbishop's Committee, which largely operated out of the Santospirito household in Bouverie Street, Carlton. Lena used her contacts in the Italian and wider communities to find work placements for many migrants. She also found jobs for people by sending migrants off to various companies with her 'letters of introduction'.
Reviewed 26 May 2022