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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Rubeo, Elena Domenica (1896–1979)

by Carmel Floreani

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Elena Domenica Luisa Rubeo (1896-1979), community worker, was born on 23 November 1896 in Rome, fourth child and only daughter of Luigi Rubeo, printer and compositor, and his wife Edvige Cecilia, née Marani. Elena arrived in Adelaide with her parents and brother Ricardo on 16 October 1908 in the Seydlitz; two of her brothers had migrated earlier. She was educated at the Convent of Mercy school, Angas Street. In 1912 the family moved to Ruthven Mansions, a luxury apartment building in Pulteney Street, where they opened an elegant restaurant, Café Rubeo, which offered authentic Roman cuisine and live music. After her brothers enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in 1914, she helped to manage the restaurant and became active in the British (Australian) Red Cross Society. She later received a decoration from the Italian Red Cross. In 1920 her parents acquired a large house in Lefevre Terrace, North Adelaide; she was to live there for the rest of her life.

Signorina Rubeo retained affection for Italy and frequently returned to Rome where she had many friends, including members of the Borghese family. Following one trip in 1927, she began to import fine goods, such as linen drapery and silk lingerie, to sell to her friends in Adelaide. She came to the attention of the Customs Office for failing to provide proper documentation for the goods and for importing foreign language publications, as well as the British Labour Monthly which was classified as seditious literature.

Intelligent, well-informed on world affairs and fluent in English, Rubeo assisted newly arrived immigrants to cope with Australian laws and regulations, and was occasionally employed by Commonwealth departments as a translator. She taught Italian to Australians and (in 1934) to the children of Italian fishermen living at Glanville. Her school was set up by the consul, who had been directed by the Italian government to promote its cause abroad. Although a loyal Australian citizen (her parents had been naturalized in 1911), Rubeo believed that Benito Mussolini was achieving much for her native country. She stopped teaching in 1935 to care for her ailing parents. During World War II, aware that she was under investigation by the Security Service, Adelaide, she led a retiring life. To help to support herself, she took in boarders, some of whom—like the author Ernestine Hill—became friends.

From 1945 Rubeo worked with renewed enthusiasm for the welfare of the Italian community. Describing herself as 'a self-appointed mother to them all', she sought work and housing for new arrivals, lent them money interest-free, acted as their confidante and interpreter, found them doctors and lawyers, and visited those who were confined in gaols, hospitals and asylums. Her voluntary work filled a need in a period of large-scale immigration when no appropriate government agency existed.

Rubeo was registered as a business agent in March 1950. She aided Italians by translating documents, preparing wills and applications for repatriation, and arranging passages to and from Australia; for these services she charged a nominal fee. In 1952 she was appointed Italian consular-agent for South Australia (vice-consul from 1955), a position she held without remuneration until 1962. The consulate offices in Gilbert Terrace were transferred to her home so that she could be contacted by day and night. She also ran (from 1960) a travel agency, Arrow Travel Express, in the city.

Five ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall, Rubeo was a good-looking woman with a dignified and gracious manner who commanded the respect and affection both of Italian immigrants and the professionals with whom she came in contact. In 1977 she was awarded the O.A.M. She died on 4 June 1979 in North Adelaide and was cremated with Catholic rites.

Select Bibliography

  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 20 Feb 1952, 11 June 1977, 6 June 1979
  • D596, item 1929/9662, D1915, item SA14581 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Carmel Floreani, 'Rubeo, Elena Domenica (1896–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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