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From Italy, with love

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Members of the Newton parish and local Italian community were filled with pride and joy when they learned that “our Maria” had received a Medal of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s birthday honours in June.

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Octogenarian Maria Donato said when word got out about the OAM she was “bombarded” with messages from well-wishers, and her husband Michael cried “tears of joy” he was so proud of his wife.

While those around her made a big fuss, the ever-pragmatic Maria described the many decades she spent working and volunteering for the Italian community as a labour of love.

“I always had satisfaction in helping – it’s amazing for me to get an honour when it was something I enjoyed doing,” she said.

Emigrating from the Campania region in Italy with her family in 1950, 11-year-old Maria embraced her new life in Adelaide. She attended Dominican School at Semaphore and quickly learned to speak English, with her new language skills soon in demand.

“At the time when I came to Australia there weren’t many in my age group that had the background of Italian and had learned English… so they would say, ‘go see Maria’ if you needed a letter read or help with writing something.”

Learning business/secretarial skills at Muirden College added to her ability to help even more.

When she started her first job at the Housing Trust Maria would often see Italians coming in who were frustrated and confused because they could not speak English. Translating for them where possible, she would sometimes catch a bus after work and go to their home to provide more assistance.

Her business acumen also led to her helping to fill in the tax returns for friends and family.

“To me it was simple, but to them it was a big thing,” she said.

“And then these people would become friends. I think I was the godmother for about 20 children at the time. Our families became close and we’ve been friends for life.

“Now my grandchildren say to their grandchildren, my nonna knows your nonna!”

Until her retirement in 2018, Maria worked in a number of different administration and bookkeeping jobs, including at the SA Italian Association and also Italian Community Radio for 25 years.

Maria Donato at home with husband Michael.

Away from work, the Donatos are strong supporters of the Newton parish, with Maria having a long association with the Madonna di Montevergine Festa.

She remembered attending the first festival in 1955 and until last year had always walked in the procession from the Church of the Annunciation at Hectorville to St Francis of Assisi Church, Newton.

A member of the women’s committee for half a century – and secretary for 10 years – Maria recalled that in the 1970s they decided it would be nice if the women could wear matching capes in the procession.

Maria put up her hand to make them and some beautiful gold material was purchased, with extra stock ordered to come from America, well in time for the festival.

Unfortunately when the shipment didn’t arrive they discovered the matching material was out of stock and considerable ingenuity from Maria was required.

“I thought, what am I going to do?” Marie laughed.

“First I thought that instead of making them long they could be short capes, but there still wasn’t enough material to do it. So one day we sat down and measured it all again and decided to make them straight instead of on an angle.

“We got to work and made those 50 capes out of what we had – and we wear them proudly every year!

“I made beautiful friendships through the committee. It was special because not only were we Italian but we were all from the same region.”

Maria said she had been fortunate to return to Campania on several occasions since the mid-1990s, when she began leading religious pilgrimages to the Holy Land – something she enjoyed doing for 20 years.

With an OAM recognising her commitment to the Italian community, Maria said by far her greatest achievement in life had been her wonderful marriage with Michael.

Both originally from Campania, they met for the first time in Adelaide when Maria was 16 and it was “love at first sight”.

Married now for 63 years the couple has two sons – Phil (former chair of the Hutt Street Centre Board and who also has an OAM) and Anthony – four grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

According to Maria, the secret to their successful union has been “give and take”, with “love as the bottom line”.

“And yes, we would have been lost without our Catholic faith. It’s been there always.

“Faith is important and it helps keep families together.”

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