Rosa is a hopeless romantic. She is also a strong woman who was ahead of her time and believed in no rules but love. After running away from her family to be with her boyfriend (now husband) Giovanni, Rosa made the move to Australia at 19, where she embarked on a new life with her husband.
Rosa is a born and bred Italian lady, who now calls Rathdowne Place home. Rosa first arrived in Australia in 1953, but her story doesn’t begin there. It starts back in Ramacca, her hometown in Sicily. Rosa was born in 1930 and lived with her mum and sister. Rosa went to school, but completed when she was 11 years old. Rosa explained: “Once you were grown up, that was it with school. After they asked me, what do you want to do? I decided to sew. My friends encouraged me to start sewing.” Little did Rosa know that the decision to start sewing would become her lifelong skill and livelihood.
Rosa ran away from home when she was 18, with her boyfriend Giovanni. Giovanni was also from Ramacca and they were deeply in love with each other. They didn’t want to lose each other, so they had no choice but to rebel against their families and run away. Eventually the two won both their parents’ blessing and soon after Rosa had her first child at 19 years old, a son they named Frank.
Rosa still has fond memories of Frank’s baptism. One priest in her hometown refused to baptise her son, because running away together was considered a sin. This priest soon went on holidays and without his knowledge, a new priest had filled his position. This priest was a friend of Giovanni’s and he helped them celebrate their son’s birth. She spoke with a gleam in her eyes as she remembers that day: “We closed every door that day and put on every light, we played the music with the organ. This priest believed in love; it was wonderful, a wonderful day”. She remembers the light in the church glistening that day, and finally, Frank was baptised.
On 21st November 1953, Rosa set sail with her three year old son on the Neptunia. She was about to embark on a new life in Australia. Arriving on the 17th December that same year, the young family settled in Newport in Melbourne. Rosa and Giovanni added four more children to their family in Australia, Pippo-Aldo, Angelinda, Mirella and Roberto.
To support her growing family Rosa got a job as a seamstress in Melbourne, working for Laurie McCarthy, a well-known designer who was stocked at Georges, Myers and Buckley & Nunn. Rosa specialised in making customised buttonholes. She still remembers exactly how to create them, having created these button holes on a daily basis for work. She takes out a piece of paper to show how they were created: “I cut the piece of material like this, stitched round there to there, I cut in the middle and turn and then stitch here and there. They don’t do this anymore. A buttonhole that no longer exists, because it’s very hard to do, only a few people hand-sew button holes.” Her attention to detail is still as exacting as it would have been working for Mr. McCarthy all those years ago. She still talks with passion about the garment materials; wool from London, silk from Egypt and cotton from Switzerland, clearly remembering a time when clothing was special and not mass produced.
Giovanni had a series of jobs when he came to Australia and was a man of all trades. Originally a blacksmith when he arrived in Australia, his first job was at an electricity station in Newport. After that he worked at the railway, then was a welder, then soon after that he worked at Telecom. After years of working hard, Giovanni turned 65 and they both decided to retire. “That’s it, we finished,” Rosa said, dusting her hands. “We enjoy life, we make tomato sauce, cook broad beans and go out to Footscray to meet friends at the cafe and sometimes I cook lunch and dinner for friends”.
Now living at Rathdowne Place, Rosa has found a new love in knitting and she can knit patterns without instructions. She now knits for her extended family: “I have ten grandchildren,” she said proudly. As Rosa counted each of her 10 grandchildren on her fingers she told me each of their names, Andrea, John, Alessandra, Patrick, Greta, Simoneta, Leah, Luka, Hugo and Octavio. As a woman who has always believed in love, she ran away to follow her dream of having a family. Her commitment to her decision to follow her heart, even when others condemned her, has given her a large and loving family in return.