23 May 2023

Beloved Griffith nonna celebrates 100th birthday in Yoogali

| Oliver Jacques
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Santa Dissegna in her garden

Santa Dissegna on her 100th birthday. Photo: Sarah Dissegna Photography.

Griffith’s Santina Dissegna has joined an exclusive century club, celebrating her 100th birthday with family and friends in Yoogali on Saturday (20 May).

“Hard work,” is the two-word answer she gives when asked the secret to longevity.

“Every day, I would get up at 5 am, milk the cows, feed the chooks, take the kids to school. I’d work non-stop until 9 o’clock at night.”

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Known for being a caring mum and nonna [grandmother], excellent seamstress and maker of the town’s best sponge cakes, she has had plenty of brushes with fame in her life – including with American war hero General Douglas MacArthur, Italian opera singer Luciano Tajoli, long-time Catholic Church head Pope Paul VI and a very young Princess Elizabeth, who later became Queen of England.

“It was a 1931 Royal visit, I was about eight and she was five,” she said. “We were lined up in Cairns and she walked through the promenade with her father, King George.”

Mrs Dissegna was born in the North Queensland town of Babinda in 1923, the daughter of recent Italian immigrants who moved to Australia to work in cane cropping.

“They wrote my name as ‘Sunday’ on my birth certificate, because they couldn’t understand Santina in a thick Italian accent.”

But she was fortunate to get to the hospital at all.

“When I was born, there was severe flooding all around my house. Our Japanese friend had a boat, he took my mum to the hospital, otherwise I would’ve been born at home.”

Santa, as she became known, grew up near an American army base in the town of Gordonvale.

“I used to meet and chat with the American troops. They were so intelligent and well dressed. I made them sponge cakes… I remember seeing General MacArthur when he’d fly over us, going from Cairns to Papua New Guinea.”

Her family moved to the Griffith region in 1942, where they bought land near Barren Box Swamp and became rice farmers. Soon after, she met her future husband Ben, with whom she was married to for 40 years until he passed away in 1985.

Ben and Santa Dissegna on their wedding day

Ben and Santa got married in 1945. Photo: Supplied.

“We had the first wedding at the Yoogali church where they actually rang the bell.”

Granddaughter Vanessa recalls growing up near her nonna on the family farm.

“We had lots of chook sheds and a shearing shed. We had duck shooters who’d come from Melbourne who built little huts on our land.

“At one point, the Italian opera singer Luciano Tajoli visited – he was wheelchair bound, so they put him on the back of a ute so he could shoot the ducks.

“Nonna went to Warburn school, on Cunningham Road. It was a one-classroom school. The teacher would live with the farming families.”

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As an adult, Santa developed a close friendship with neighbour Berta Johnstone, who was Griffith’s oldest resident until she passed away earlier this year, aged 106.

“I remember going to her 100th birthday party,” Mrs Dissegna said.

Santa has three children – Joe, Tony and Jennifer – as well as eight grandchildren and seven great-grandkids.

Santa and Zayne with birthday cake

Santa Dissegna and grandson Zayne on her 100th birthday. Photo: Supplied.

Her son Tony said: “She’s always been very busy and active. She did a lot of work at home. Her first washing machine had a kerosine motor, she had to press it with her foot to start it, like a motorbike.”

Only once did she go to her country of origin, Italy. It was in 1966, when the devoted Catholic fulfilled a lifelong ambition.

“I got to see the Pope [Paul VI], he spoke in front of a big crowd… I would never miss mass on Sunday until I stopped driving.”

Having lived a healthy lifestyle, she remains alert and talkative and revels in the company of her large family.

“I’m glad I had three beautiful children, I had a very nice husband, all my grandchildren are doing well, at university and their own businesses,” she said.

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