Annarosa Coluccio (née Bova) was one of 12,000 young Italian women who arrived in Australia as proxy brides between 1945 and 1976. Confronted by vast cultural and linguistic barriers, she eventually settled in with the love of her husband and the friendship of their new Australian neighbours.

In 1956, 15-year-old Annarosa Bova accepted a proposal to marry and start a new life in Australia, some 15,000 kilometres from her Italian hometown. She was to marry by proxy Giuseppe Coluccio, an Italian immigrant who had arrived in Australia two years earlier. Wearing a gold necklace that had been given by her mother-in-law as per Italian wedding custom, Annarosa walked down the aisle of her local church to begin her new life. Due to Giuseppe’s absence, Annarosa’s brother-in-law Giuseppe Lo Presti stood in for the groom.

Marriage by proxy was authorised by the Catholic Church in the 16th century. The practice was widespread in Italy in the aftermath of the two World Wars, reaching its peak in the late 1950s. It was particularly common among the Italian community in Australia, where successive government immigration policies to recruit single men for agricultural and manufacturing work had resulted in a gender imbalance. Thus for young Italian men looking for a partner with shared cultural and family values, a proxy marriage in their homeland provided the solution. The wedding ceremony would be performed in the bridal village, with the groom represented by a substitute, or proxy, usually a brother or brother-in-law. The marriage was registered in Italy and a second celebration was often held after the bride migrated to Australia. For many young Italian women, proxy marriage and migration offered opportunity, adventure and an escape from extreme poverty.

Annarosa's Italian identity card
Annarosa's Italian identity card. Image reproduced courtesy Isabella Coluccio

Annarosa Bova (1940–2018) was born in the small coastal town of Roccella Jonica in the Calabria region of southern Italy. She was the fifth of seven children born to Vincenzo Bova, a contadino (farmer), and Maria Rosa Congiusta, a casalinga (housewife). The Bova family lived in a stone house in the mountains, located about an hour’s walk from the township of Roccella. The house had no electricity and only one room, in which the family slept. On their farm the family grew wheat, broad beans and olives, and raised pigs, two sheep, a goat and a donkey, which was used to transport goods and to collect water from a well. They were self-sufficient, even making their own soap from olive oil, but food was often scarce. The family endured great hardship, with the youngest son, Nicolino, dying at the age of one due to a lack of access to medical attention.

Marriage by proxy was authorised by the Catholic Church in the 16th century

Like Annarosa, Giuseppe Coluccio (1927–2015) was born and raised in Roccella Jonica in Reggio di Calabria. He was the youngest of three siblings. When Giuseppe was two years old, his father fled to Argentina, leaving behind a wife and three children. Although there were occasional letters, Giuseppe never saw his father again. During the 1940s, Giuseppe experienced the full impact of the Second World War, economically, physically and mentally.

Seeking a better life away from the devastation of post-war Italy, Giuseppe decided to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Natale, who had migrated to Australia in 1952. In September 1954, 26-year-old Giuseppe arrived in Sydney aboard the Flotta Lauro liner Sydney. He quickly found employment at the steelworks in Port Kembla, in the Illawarra region on the south coast of New South Wales.

Annarosa and Giuseppe Coluccio's wedding celebration in Australia, 1958. Annarosa is wearing the gold necklace given by her mother-in-law in Italy
Annarosa and Giuseppe Coluccio's wedding celebration in Australia, 1958. Annarosa is wearing the
gold necklace given by her mother-in-law in Italy. Image reproduced courtesy Isabella Coluccio

In search of companionship, Giuseppe wrote to his mother back in Italy to ask for her help in finding a wife. Giuseppe was connected to Annarosa through their relatives in Roccella Jonica. Unlike some proxy marriages, where the bride and groom had only met through the exchange of photographs, it is believed that Giuseppe and Annarosa may have met at a younger age in Italy. After accepting Giuseppe’s marriage proposal, Annarosa learnt to sew, as a form of dowry and in preparation for her future role as a wife and mother. Following her proxy wedding in 1956, Annarosa lived with her mother-in-law until her migration to Australia was approved.

In September 1958, 17-year-old Annarosa embarked on her own from the Sicilian port of Messina on the Flotta Lauro liner Roma. A young bride, she was excited at the prospect of starting a new life with Giuseppe, yet sad to be leaving her family. Like so many proxy brides, Annarosa migrated to Australia on a promise, placing her trust in family and the hope of a better future. Among her possessions were a new black coat with lace trim, as well as handwoven towels, sheets, blankets and tablecloths that had been made by her family as part of her dowry. The white linens, embroidered with the initial ‘B’ for her family name Bova, were the domestic necessities to build a new home in a new country. She also carried a photograph of Rosaria (Viola) Multari, a family friend, who would later make her own journey to Australia to marry Giuseppe’s brother, Natale.

Like so many proxy brides, Annarosa migrated to Australia on a promise, placing her trust in family and the hope of a better future

In October 1958 Roma docked in Sydney, where Annarosa was greeted by her husband and a new neighbour. Travelling down Bulli Pass to her new home in Russell Vale, Wollongong, her first impression of Australia was that it was all bush – not dissimilar to her region of Calabria. Although she did not speak any English, Annarosa was warmly welcomed by her new neighbours, who cared for her as a daughter of their own. When Annarosa was expecting her first son Vincenzino (Vince), her neighbour Mrs Walker would take her to the clinic and ask questions on behalf of Giuseppe, who had solicited English words from his colleagues at the Port Kembla Steelworks. As time passed, Annarosa learnt English from her neighbours, her husband Giuseppe and her son Vince (born 1959), once he started school. Annarosa and Giuseppe’s two sons, Vince and Frank (born 1962), grew up speaking Italian at home prior to attending school.

Annarosa with her firstborn son, Vince, c 1960
Annarosa with her firstborn son, Vince, c 1960. Image reproduced courtesy Isabella Coluccio

In the 1970s, Annarosa took a job as a machinist at the King Gee textile factory in nearby Bellambi, to help support her family. During this period she made a return visit to Italy, followed by another visit in 1990. Since her migration in 1958, some of Annarosa’s family members have travelled to Australia. Her mother-in-law visited in the 1960s and her eldest sister Elisabetta visited in the 2000s. Annarosa’s second eldest sister, Maria Teresa, migrated to Australia in 1961. Her brother Giuseppe also migrated in the 1960s, but returned to Italy after six years.

Annarosa was special in the hearts of many. Her story highlights the kindness of neighbours and the importance of a sense of community. Her former neighbours, the Walkers, fondly recall her connection with Mrs Walker, who would help Annarosa to prepare coddled egg for her firstborn son, Vince. Another memory is the ‘vegetable swap’ over the fence, where the two families would grow vegetables, often different, for the purpose of benefitting each other.

Like the Walkers, other former neighbours, the Grahams, warmly remember Annarosa, who introduced them to her Italian home cooking. To this day they still associate sugared almonds with her, as the sweets were served after Annarosa and Giuseppe’s Australian wedding celebration in October 1958, and again at their 50th anniversary as part of the Italian tradition of bomboniere (wedding favours). The five sugar-coated almonds symbolised health, wealth, happiness, fertility and long life.

Annarosa (right) in the kitchen with her sister Maria Teresa in Wollongong, New South Wales, c 1970s
Annarosa (right) in the kitchen with her sister Maria Teresa in Wollongong,
New South Wales, c 1970s. Image reproduced courtesy Isabella Coluccio

In September 2018, Annarosa Coluccio died unexpectedly at the age of 77. She is survived by her two sons, Vince and Frank, and three grandchildren, Alexander, James and Isabella, to whom she is affectionately known as ‘Nonna’. Her courage to migrate to Australia provided her future family with many opportunities. Vince went on to complete a Diploma of Education at the Wollongong Teachers College. He was a payroll officer at the Port Kembla Steelworks and subsequently a mathematics teacher before his retirement. Frank studied a Bachelor of Science (Chemistry), worked at the Electricity Commission at Tallawarra Power Station and is now a conservationist. In 2010 Frank registered his parents Annarosa and Giuseppe Coluccio on the Welcome Wall to thank them for coming to Australia and to value their courage in moving to the other side of the world.

Vince’s daughter Isabella Coluccio reflects: 

My nonna and nonno were very humble, generous people who were blessed to be accepted and befriended by their neighbours during a time when racism was prevalent. Their beliefs have helped me to further recognise the importance of education, as they had very little education due to their circumstances. 

Nonna’s humility has helped me to become a better person, and someone who wants to help better the lives of others. Nonna was more than gold. Her involvement in the upbringing of myself and my brothers is cherished in our hearts, and she is someone who we will forever love. The story of Annarosa and Giuseppe exemplifies the significance of face-to-face interaction and sharing with others. The generosity and kindness that they had received from their neighbours is something that our family will always hold close to our hearts.

The author wishes to thank Isabella Coluccio, Annarosa’s granddaughter, for her assistance with this article.

The Welcome Wall
For 20 years, the Welcome Wall at Pyrmont Bay Wharf has celebrated and recorded the stories of those who left their native shores to make Australia home. The museum is planning a renewal of this project, with a new launch in late 2019. 

This article originally appeared in Signals magazine (Issue 126).

 

 

 

 

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Kim Tao

Kim is the curator of post-Federation immigration at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Posted in: Welcome Wall