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Louisa Angelina (Lena) Santospirito (1895–1983)

by Cate Elkner and James Gobbo

This article was published:

Louisa Angelina (Lena) Santospirito (1895-1983), welfare worker, was born on 4 April 1895 at Ballarat, Victoria, third of four children of Italian-born parents Bartolo Virgona, greengrocer, and his wife Bartolina, née Pirera. The Virgonas soon left Ballarat to live in a shop and dwelling at Fitzroy, Melbourne. After being educated at St Joseph’s School, Collingwood, and (on a scholarship) at Catholic Ladies’ College, Fitzroy, Lena worked in the Postmaster-General’s Department as a telephonist.

Lena’s mother, Bartolina, helped many new arrivals in Melbourne, often housing them in the family’s Fitzroy home until they became settled. In the 1920s Lena and her sister Mary began to assist Fr Vincenzo De Francesco, the chaplain to the Italian community in Melbourne, in his welfare work. On 29 April 1925 at St Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral, East Melbourne, Lena married Italian-born Antonio Santospirito. He ran a successful flower stall in a laneway off Flinders Street, Melbourne, and was known locally as ‘The Flower King’.

Welfare was an effective way for the Catholic Church to build and maintain links with Italian-Australians. Santospirito’s goal of helping Italian migrants was motivated by her deep Catholic faith. In 1940, on Italy’s entry into World War II, Archbishop Daniel Mannix established the archbishop’s committee to raise funds to assist Italians experiencing hardship as a result of their new status as ‘enemy aliens’ and invited Santospirito to join this group. Despite the conflict between the Catholic Church and leftist groups such as Italia Libera, the archbishop’s committee provided aid to war-torn Italy after its armistice with the Allies in September 1943.

Fr Ugo Modotti, who became Melbourne’s second chaplain to the Italian community in 1938, was a driving force in the church’s welfare work for Italians during the war. The Jesuit priest had many devoted assistants in his program of opera religiosa (religious work), including Lena and her sister Mary. Modotti was recalled to Italy in 1946, to the dismay of many, including Lena Santospirito, who remained a friend and corresponded with him.

In 1946 Santospirito became president of the archbishop’s committee. She helped Italian migrants to find employment and housing. The committee organised dances that raised much-needed funds, but also functioned to bring the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Italian communities in Melbourne together.

The Santospiritos’ home in Bouverie Street, Carlton, was the headquarters of Italian relief in Melbourne: people queued through her house and out into the street. The high unemployment rate among recently arrived Italian immigrants in the 1951 recession had a severe effect. Santospirito inserted newspaper advertisements offering the services of strong, hard-working Italians. Personally sponsoring the passage of several people, she nominated many more for landing permits. She also assisted many people in their dealings with the Department of Immigration—this correspondence went through her great friend and the local member of parliament, Arthur Calwell. Among those she sought to help was Tony Agostini, who was in Pentridge gaol following his conviction of manslaughter in one of Australia’s most famous mysteries, the ‘Pyjama Girl’ case. Santospirito offered to visit him but, in a courteous letter, he thanked her for her kindness but thought that she should not be exposed to the harsh atmosphere of a prison.

The news of Santospirito’s generosity and work for Italians spread beyond Australian shores. In 1950 her influence, kind heart and reputation as la mamma degli Italiani (the mother of the Italians) were mentioned in newspaper articles published in Italy. This brief reference resulted in a flood of letters to her from yet more people seeking information.

In March 1955 Santospirito resigned as president of the archbishop’s committee, amid controversy over its financial state. The Santospirito family were some £4000 out of pocket, Lena often having used family money to provide personal loans to migrants. Around this time their home in Bouverie Street was sold. After her resignation Santospirito expressed in personal correspondence her guilt that she had neglected her family for her community work. Following the death of her husband in 1959, these feelings were particularly strong.

Santospirito continued to serve on a range of religious and charitable organisations. A deeply spiritual person, she was a devoted follower of Padre Pio, the Italian Capuchin priest who was to be canonised in 2002. She co-ordinated a series of ‘spiritual bouquets’—collections of prayers by Australians for various Catholic feasts—and sent a record of them to the Pope. In 1959 Santospirito was awarded the Italian Star of Solidarity in a ceremony at the archbishop’s residence, Raheen. Predeceased by her elder son (d.1971) and survived by her daughter and younger son, she died on 19 November 1983 at Camberwell, Melbourne, and was buried in Melbourne cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 22 Dec 1958, p 18
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 28 Sept 1967, p 25
  • C. Elkner, Making Archives, Making Histories: The Santospirito Collection Project (PhD thesis, Univ Melbourne, 2003)
  • J. Gobbo, Italians in Victoria and the Second World War (manuscript, 1988, Italian Historical Society, Melbourne)
  • Santospirito papers (Italian Historical Society, Melbourne).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Cate Elkner and James Gobbo, 'Santospirito, Louisa Angelina (Lena) (1895–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Virgona, Louisa Angelina

4 April, 1895
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia


19 November, 1983 (aged 88)
Camberwell, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.