Italians in Nelson - a memorial trail

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Wakapuaka Cemetery in Nelson holds a number of graves of members of the early Italian community in Nelson.  Discovering the life stories of some of those people, provides us with an insight into the reasons behind italian immigration to New Zealand and, specifically, to Nelson.

Nelson has the second largest Italian community, as a percentage of population, in New Zealand after Wellington, to which it has close ties. Chain migration, where one member of a family follows another until a whole village group relocates to another specific area, has happened in Nelson,  with many residents tracing their roots to Southern Italy.

Wakapuaka Cemetery
Father Garin's chapel at Wakapuaka Cemetery, Andrew Hill (2001)
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Italians Walk in Wakapuaka Cemetery
Click image to enlarge or download PDF map and walk

The 14 hectares for Wakapuaka cemetery were purchased by the Superintendent of Nelson in 1859, and opened as a cemetery in 1861.  The layout had separate areas according to denomination. Most of the Italians graves can be found in the Roman Catholic section of the Cemetery. At the centre of this section is the picturesque crypt (4) of Father Antoine Garin, the founder of the Nelson Catholic parish and a key figure in educating and fostering the development of Italians in Nelson, as significant part of the Catholic community. A map and information about the Cemetery, plus a searchable records database can be found on the Nelson City Council website.

Mariano Gargiulo
The memorial pillars (1) at the entrance to the Cemetery were donated by early immigrant Mariano Gargiulo. Mariano Gargiulo was granted his letters of naturalisation to become a New Zealander in June 1901.  He came to Nelson from Massa Lubrense, Campania in Southern Italy at the time when the chain of migration began from this area.  He settled down in Nelson in an area known as "the Wood". This area contained a strip of fertile alluvial land once deposited by the Matai Stream. Groups of Italian families had 1-3 acre lots here and, by the late 1950's, there were 37 acres of market gardens mostly under glass and concentrating on the production of tomatoes.

The Italian immigrants were hard workers, bought land and generally prospered. Many became naturalised New Zealanders and travelled back and forth to Italy bringing out wives or other family members. Rosa Gargiulo, Mariano's daughter, married Frank Monopoli and the families were very close, despite a defended action reported in the Colonist 17 July 1912 between Mariano Gargiulo and Francesco Monopoli.  Joseph, oldest son  of Frank and Rosa, shares a memorial (2) on a plot purchased in 1915 with his grandfather Mariano Gargiulo who died in March 1914 .  Joseph, who died in 1938 was a keen sportsman.  He had been hit in the kidney area by a cricket ball and became unwell and died aged only 24.

Frank and Rosa (formerly Gargiulo) Monopoli  (10)
Frank Monopoli was one of a family of ten children born in Sorrento in the Bay of Naples. He first came to Nelson a few years before his brother Bill came in 1913, but returned to Italy for the duration of World War I with his wife and family.  When Frank and Rosa returned they settled in Grove St. Sadly, besides losing their eldest son Joseph aged 24, Frank and Rosa also lost their second son Mariano aged only 28yrs. He was taken prisoner of war in World War Two, and died towards the end of the war.   Of the several New Zealand born Italians from Nelson, who fought for New Zealand in WW2, all returned except Mariano Monopoli.

Frank's brother Bill Monopoli served his community well. There were so many Italians in Nelson that the Italian Government appointed Guilliamo (Bill) Monopoli as the Nelson Italian Consul in 1961.  He carried out his official duties from his property at 353 Trafalgar Square for over 20 years.

Giacomo Persico
Sadly some immigrant families did not settle as well as others.  Little Giacomo, buried here (3), was only 15months old when he died in November 1912. His mother was heartbroken and she and her husband returned to Italy. Giacomo was named after his paternal grandfather, as was the custom with the firstborn male child. The first girl is named after their paternal grandmother and the second boy and girl get their maternal grandparents' names.  The grandfather, Giacomo Persico, who came to Nelson from the fishing village of Massa Lubrense  in 1904, is regarded as being one of Nelson's first Italian tomato growers.

Sadly some immigrant families did not settle as well as others.  Little George Antonio buried here (3), was only 15 months old when he died in November 1912. The family decided against settling in New Zealand and returned to Italy in 1920 taking three sons - Francesco Frank, born Nelson 1907, Dominico born August 1913 and Jack born 1915.  Francesco returned to Nelson 10 years later and. in 1954, his brother Jack arrived.  Neither man returned to Italy.

The Persico name is important in Nelson as Giacomo Persico, who came to Nelson from the fishing village of Massa Lubrense, near Sorrento in 1904, is regarded as being one of Nelson's first Italian tomato growers.

Boy children are usually named after the paternal grandfather, as this is the custom with the firstborn male child. The first girl is named after their paternal grandmother, then the second boy and girl get their maternal grandparents' names. 

Antonio Bagnato

Antonio Wett [ca 1890], Nelson, Nelson Provincial Museum
Click to enlarge

Antonio Bagnato, known locally as Antonio Wett, came to Nelson in about 1866. He was one of the earliest Italian residents.   It is possible that, given the origin of many of the sailing vessels arriving on the West Coast in about 1865-1866, he came from Victoria, Australia, with those pursuing gold on the West Coast and other goldfields. The South Island gold rush of the 1860's was the attraction for the first significant group of Italians.  Nelson profited at this time by selling farming produce to the prospectors.  In 1866, 6,000 people were occupied in gold mining pursuits in the province. This prompted the Provincial Council to spend goldfield revenue on the  "construction of roads and other permanent improvements -  and employing wardens and constables to preserve order  and security of life and property."  A new memorial stone was laid in 2012 to mark the grave.(5)

Pasquale Fiatarone and wife Maria Catholic Church records credit Pasquale Fiatarone with being the first Italian to reside in Nelson, although the few earlier Italians we know of may have simply been less involved with the Catholic Church. Pasquale was born in Viggiano, Italy in 1867 and arrived on his own in Nelson in 1894.  He preceded the later much bigger migrations of his countrymen.  His wife Maria Vincenza and their son Francesco followed Pasquale to New Zealand nine years later in 1903. He was involved in tomato growing.  In the early days, before the glasshouses, land needed to be levelled and cleared.  It was very hard work and all members of the family were involved. Maria was 67 when she died in 1932, and Pasquale was buried (6) next to her when he died at the ripe old age of 80 in 1947.

The Vitettas
Brothers John and Joseph Vitetta, with their mother, Maria Rosa, are buried in an impressive traditional family grave in marble complete with gargoyle and urns and chain fence (7).   Brother Vincent is close by (8). Guiseppe (Joseph) Vitetta was fouteen and his brother Vincenzo (Vincent) was only seven when they first arrived in Wellington from Grumento Nova in Southern Italy in 1889. Fourteen years later they were joined by their widowed mother Maria Rosa and younger brother Giovanni (John) The brothers made a name for themselves as professional musicians and earned money as skilled accompanists to silent movies. The three moved to Nelson in 1915 and continued to earn a living performing throughout Nelson.  Guiseppe played the violin, Vincenzo played the flute; and Giovanni played the harp or the piano.  However, 1927 saw the release of the first 'talking movie"- The Jazz Singer, so the brothers looked to other occupations to support themselves. They branched into tomato growing in glasshouses.

Joseph was the first grower to use a sterilization plant in his hothouse. A boiler from a steam engine driven by coal provided hot steam that was driven through a series of pipes to steel grids placed on the soil. The grids were moved and soil was covered with heavy sacks as the machine worked its way through the glasshouse. He worked with scientists from the Cawthron Institute in experimenting with this new method of soil disinfection.

The Vitteta brothers were able to employ many relatives and extended family members who were new immigrants, such as members of the Gargiulo, Persico, Perrone and Melino families. They in turn bought their own properties in the area known as The Wood, around Grove and Cambria streets. In the spirit of co-operation so noticeable in the Italian community they all helped each other develop and prosper. By the 1950s, 40-50 Italian families ran market gardens in The Wood, which became covered with glasshouses.  They grew mainly tomatoes for the local and Wellington markets. When cheaper Australian tomatoes came onto the market Italian descendants diversified into other ventures, such as property development. This is why so many streets in the area have Italian names, such as Sorrento Way orNapoli Way. The glasshouses, once such a noticeable landmark for the city, have largely disappeared.

The Vitetta family played an active cultural role in the community. John was the first choirmaster at St Mary's Catholic Church in Nelson. Vincent Vitetta was the first president of the Club Italia which started in 1931.  The Club opened its first clubrooms in Trafalgar St and it still flourishes today as a focus for Italian culture and companionship. Of the three brothers, only Joseph married.  His daughter, Maria Rosa known as Rosie and named after her paternal grandmother, cared for all three brothers in their declining years.

Joseph Girardi
Joseph Girardi died in July 1931 aged only 27years.  He was working at the time in the Rai Valley timber mills. The first timber mill in the valley was erected by Hans Fanselow in 1898 and milling soon became an important industry with a large number of mills being used in this, and adjoining, valleys. Small mills followed the larger mills, cutting out areas of bush in gullies and on hillsides which the bigger mills left. By the 1920s the timber industry was in decline, and conditions worsened with the onset of the depression. In 1931 many NZ mills had closed, while the remainder were working at half their capacity. Good timber could be bought then for as little as 8shillings per hundred feet. Small mill owners brought logs from steep hill country using a crawler tractor down a bush tramway, and accidents were common.1 We do not know how Giradi died at work, only that he was buried by his Italian friends and workmates in Nelson (9), as he died before his family could come out to New Zealand.

Antonietta (Netta) Gladstone nee Dalmonte

Netta is buried looking out to sea, marked by a beautiful terracotta marble stone.  She was born in Faenza, near Bologna, in Italy in 1923.  Netta's only sister had died before she was born and her father died in the 1930's. Her mother Lucia made her living selling fruit and vegetables and Netta was a seamstress. During the fierce bombing of their city in World War II , Lucia and Netta fled the city, when they met Arthur Gladstone in December 1944 . Arthur was with 27th New Zealand Machine Gunners batallion stationed for a few days at la Curenazza where the refugees were sheltering in a tiny farmhouse.  It was love at first sight and Arthur kept in contact with the Dalmontes, helping them survive by providing them with food.  Arthur became fluent in Italian and stayed on after the fighting was over, for the clean up and to work in Archives in Senegallia.

Arthur ignored an army directive forbidding him to marry an Italian girl and got permission from the Italian church to marry Netta on 1 September 1945. Appropriately it was celebrated at a charming 14th century church that is also a memorial to those who died in both world wars. Some time later the army accepted the marriage was bona fide and civil marriage documents could be completed. This was quite a bureaucratic experience and required the intervention of the local Mayor to cut through the red tape. The couple finally managed to come to New Zealand on the Tamaroa, arriving in April 1946. 

It was tough for war brides to be accepted initially and it took time for Antonietta and other Italian brides to be accepted into New Zealand communities. The couple lived for a while in Alexandra for this reason, where several of Arthur's former wartime comrades had settled. They moved to Nelson in 1952, when Arthur was offered a good job, and brought up their ten children in their homes in Alton St and Bronte St.  Arthur was very active in the community with the Nelson Rugby Union and swimming at Riverside Pool, whilst Netta was busy with the children, aided by her mother Lucia who came to New Zealand in 1949 to live with them. Antonietta died in 2003 and is buried in the Gladstone plot on Forest Lawn near her mother (11).

Sources used in this story

Most of the the information contained in these stories came from family members.

  1. Leov, L. (1974) Rai Valley Sawmill. Nelson Historical Society Journal,  3(1), p.36
    http://www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-NHSJ03_01-t1-body1-d8.html

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  • Mariano Monopoli (my brother) was 28 years old(NOT 38 yrs)when he died as a Prisoner of War on the "death marxh" in Germany. Ed - I wil amend

    Posted by Gloria Monopoli, 30/07/2015 1:03pm (2 years ago)

  • Hi
    Just wanted to comment on this statement - Pasquale Fiatarone and wife Maria Catholic Church records credit Pasquale Fiatarone with being the first Italian to reside in Nelson, although the few earlier Italians we know of may have simply been less involved with the Catholic Church. - There were definitely Italians in Nelson before the above. Nicholas Vendore (Nicola Venturo) a seaman/stoker from the Napoli area arrived in 1865. Father Garin married him and Frances Clifford in Nelson in 1872. There were also the Mallamo and Brunetti families to name a few.

    Posted by Sheena Boese, 20/01/2015 9:47am (3 years ago)

  • Bill Monopoli died 23 Dec 1986 aged 97. He had retired from the role of Italian Consular Agent some years earlier so he was not 30yrs in that role as stated here. Ed. this has been amended to "over 20 years"

    Posted by Mike, ()

  • I am youngest sister of Joseph and Mariano Monopoli. Joseph had been hit or kicked in the kidney area while playing rugby.
    Mariano was only 28 years of age when he died. (not 38). Article very interesting. Thanks Gloria Monopoli

    Posted by Gloria Monopoli, ()

  • I am the niece of said Giacomo Persico but in fact the grave story in question states George. George's father was named Giacomo and my father who was the oldest son was named Francesco Frank after the paternal grandfather. The C and P on the gravestone stands for Giacomo and Pasquala. The family returned to Italy in 1920 taking the three sons - my father, born Nelson 1907, Dominico born August 1913 and Jack born 1915. My father returned to Nelson 10 years later and in 1954 his brother Jack arrived. Neither man returned to Italy. Jack stated to me prior to his death, that the family had returned to Italy as the climate did not suit his father's health. More inclined to believe that to be the reason for the family return than the fact of how my grandmother was feeling!

    Posted by Yolanda Persico, ()

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