Former Governor of Victoria Sir James Gobbo AC QC CVO was farewelled by family, friends and civic leaders at a Requiem Mass held on Tuesday 16 November at St Patrick’s Cathedral. He was described as a ‘man of unwavering faith’ with a gentle and wise presence who remains an ‘inspiration to do good’.

Sir James was farewelled by his wife of 64 years Lady Shirley Gobbo, their five children Jeremy, Flavia, Olivia, Daniela and James, grandchildren and extended relatives and friends. A large number of dignitaries were also in attendance including Brigadier Robert Marsh (representing the Governor-General of Australia), HE the Hon. Linda Dessau (Governor of Victoria), the Hon. Daniel Andrews (Premier of Victoria), the Hon. Chief Justice Anne Ferguson (Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria), as well as former premiers of Victoria the Hon. Dr Denis Napthine, the Hon. John Brumby, the Hon. Steve Bracks and the Hon. Jeff Kennett.

Talent, hard work and perseverance

James “Jim” Gobbo was born in Carlton, Victoria, on 22 March 1931, to Italian parents Antonio and Regina. In 1935, the Gobbo family returned to their ancestral hometown of Cittadella in Padua, Italy. There they lived for a few years before permanently migrating to Melbourne when James was seven. Antonio went on to set up a local café where a young James would spend his days assisting his father and getting to know the community. He attended St Mary’s Primary School in West Melbourne, St Joseph’s in North Melbourne and was later accepted into Xavier College. From there he went on to study law at the University of Melbourne and in 1951 was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship – the first known recipient of Italian and Catholic heritage.

Sir James served as the 25th Governor of Victoria from 1997 to 2000. Prior to that, he served as a Supreme Court Judge for 16 years, contributing in lasting ways to issues of law and Australia’s multicultural policies. He was himself the son of Italian immigrants and cared deeply for the immigrant experience.

Speaking before the Mass, the Hon. Linda Dessau described Sir James’ governorship of Victoria as a ‘first’ in many ways. ‘It was the first time that Victoria’s dynamic multicultural community had been able to see themselves reflected in Government House,’ she said. ‘Like Jim, they were the children of parents who had undertaken the long voyage to Australia and toiled hard to give their children the education and opportunities that eluded them.’

Through an exquisite combination of talent, hard work and perseverance, Jim certainly did make the most of the opportunities afforded to him, and went on to achieve much notable success in Australia’s professional and civic spheres.’

The work closest to his heart

Mr Allan Myers AC QC also paid tribute to Sir James’ innumerable professional and charitable works. Sir James was a member, chairman or patron of many bodies, committees and organisations, Allan said, but three in particular stood out as they were deeply connected with Sir James’ cultural heritage and his Catholic faith.

The first was the Palladio Foundation (later renamed the International Specialised Skills Institute), which assists Australian artisans to travel to Italy to develop their skills. The second was Sir James’ tireless work with the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, otherwise known as the Order of Malta, the world’s oldest surviving order of chivalry. Sir James was a founding member of the Australian Association with the Order in 1974 and in 1982 became a Knight Grand Cross of Magistral Grace in the Order for his service to his Church and his community.

‘I believe the heroic 900-year history of the Order had an emotional appeal to him as a person committed to upholding the Christian heritage of European civilisation,’ Allan said.

His commitment to the work of the Order was, I believe, closest to his heart. As the Order requires its members, Jim served his lords: the sick and poor, and upheld the Christian Catholic faith. He undertook his work as a member of the Order with devotion and humility.’

Allan spoke of Sir James continuing to volunteer his time with the sick and homeless well into his eighties, ‘on winter nights with younger companions who knew him only as “Jim”.’

The third organisation was a partnership that Sir James led between the Order of Malta, the Sisters of Charity Health Service (St Vincent’s Hospital) and Melbourne Eastern Palliative Care, eventually forming the non-profit organisation Eastern Palliative Care Association Inc., which is now the largest provider of palliative care services in Victoria.

A man of unwavering faith

Speaking on behalf of the Gobbo family, Sir James’ son Jeremy described his father as an ‘amazing role model and mentor’ and an ‘endless source of pride’. He said his dad lived a long and healthy life full of personal achievement, public service and ‘plenty of laughs and adventure along the way’.

‘The family will remember Jim – a loving husband, a father of five and grandfather of 14 (and a recent great-grandfather) – as a kind and gentle patriarch, a man of unwavering faith ... incredibly hardworking and selfless.’

In his homily, Bishop Terence Curtin, Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne and Chaplain to the Order of Malta, spoke of Sir James’ commitment to the care of the poor:

Jim Gobbo was one of its earliest members in Australia, and he was devoted to it. One of its charitable works is to distribute coats to the homeless. As [daughter] Flavia told me, he would head out late in the evening to do this, with her thinking that he really looked like he needed a coat himself!’

Bishop Terry said Jim’s qualities of hard work, honesty, good manners and religious faith stemmed from his family. ‘For Jim this meant living with courage and self-sacrifice, and a special word in Italian, gentilezza – a natural dignity and courtesy in dealing with others.’

‘The achievements of Jim Gobbo are many, not least that he was Governor of this state. It’s clear to me that none of this would have been possible without the constant love and support of his wife Shirley through sixty-four years of marriage, and the home they had together, blessed with the arrival of Jeremy, Flavia, Olivia, Daniela and James.

‘There is a tiny poem in a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis which reads, “I said to the almond tree, “Sister, speak to me of God.” And the almond tree blossomed.” In Jim Gobbo, in his life of faithful service to others, his gentilezza, we have seen the blossoming. Let us now give praise to the God of whom it speaks.’

Photos by Fiona Basile for Melbourne Catholic.