Giuditta Marson may be 102 years old, but she has ‘the spirit and energy of a 70 or 80-year-old’ according to her local parish priest, Fr Shabin Kaniampuram IV Dei. She’s lived in her Thornbury home for more than 55 years, not far from her local parish of St Mary’s.

With St Mary’s currently celebrating its 100-year anniversary of foundation, it seemed fitting that long-time parishioner Giuditta carry up the offertory gifts to the altar alongside federal member of parliament, Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care, Ms Ged Kearney MP. Giuditta shares with us her inspiring story of forging a fulfilling life in a new land.

Giuditta Marson was born in Palmanova, in the northern Italian region of Friuli, which borders Germany and Austria. She arrived in Australia in 1952, aged 32, having travelled aboard the ocean liner Australia for a month, with her two young children, Elsa and Enzo (4 and 3 years old at the time). Her husband, Tullio, had already been in Australia for 11 months, having found work in the cement and marble industry in Melbourne—a common trade for men coming from the Friulian region.

The young family settled in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, for a number of years, then moved to Moor Street in Fitzroy, before finally buying and settling into their family home of more than 55 years in Thornbury. The move to Thornbury was prompted by Tullio’s desire for a bigger home and more space for a garden. Their new home was also very close to their local church, St Mary’s, which was important for Giuditta.

‘Life was good,’ according to Giuditta. ‘Back in Italy, until I was married, I lived in a casello, the house that controlled the gates along the railway,’ Giuditta explains. ‘Together with my parents, we opened the gates for the trains 24 hours a day. Every night, until the day I married, I had to get up at 2.30am, to open the gates, to allow passage of the trains.’

The casello was located in the countryside, 5 kilometres from the nearest village. This meant Giuditta needed to walk 5 kilometres each day to attend school, and Mass. ‘I loved living in the countryside, among the beautiful hills, but to go to school or Mass was kilometres away, and in those days, you went to school two times a day—school started at 8.30am, then 12.30pm you’d go home for lunch, and then you’d go back to school at 3.30pm. I’d always run those kilometres. I was always running.

So, when I came here, and opened the window, I’d say, “Wow! I’m living in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy! There is the church, there is the school, there are the shops! We had a lovely garden, and everything was so close. I was so happy here because life was so different—I had everything in front of my eyes!

Giuditta’s dream of a new and better life was further realised when they moved to their Thornbury home in 1965. From the outset, the real-estate agent had been briefed by Giuditta to keep an eye out for a home that had space for her own room or office. Giuditta was an accomplished tailor and dressmaker, so having her own space was essential.

When the real-estate agent contacted them about the home in Thornbury, which had a large garage at the back, Giuditta and her husband ‘paid a lot of money’ to secure the home rather than risk losing it at auction. They converted half of the garage into her sewing workroom, with a large changing room in the back, hanging racks and space for her fabrics, sewing machine and assorted haberdashery.

Giuditta recalls that many of her customers didn’t even know her name. She was known only as ‘the sarta’, which is Italian for ‘dressmaker’. Back in Italy, she’d left school at 12 years old and started learning the trade of tailoring. She became very skilled, allowing her to carry on in this profession in her hew home. Granddaughter Tanya recalls that when people first met her, they would often say, ‘Oh your nonna is the sarta!’

Everybody knew her as the sarta; and people came from all over to have her make things for them.

Giuditta was ‘very regimented’ with her work, going out to her sewing room at 9am each day to start work. She’d return briefly to the house at 12pm for lunch, before going back out for the afternoon; after coming back into the house for dinner, she’d return to her sewing machine in the evening, often working until 1am.

‘This was every day,’ says Tanya. ‘I used to love coming when I was little and trying on all the veils and tiaras and wedding dresses.’ Giuditta made wedding dresses and bridesmaid dresses until she was in her 60s. In her 90s, she could still be found hopping on and off the train into the city to find special buttons or zips for her clients.

These days, Giuditta isn’t interested so much in sewing, though you’ll still find her mending shirts for the family or changing a collar here and there. It helps ‘pass the time’, she says, ‘and you don’t have to be clever to do this job.’ Now, Giuditta loves reading and keeping her mind ‘active’. She’ll often go to the local library to collect Italian magazines and books, and she enjoys reading the Italian newspaper, Il Globo.

‘I used to work all the time, but now I read and read and read, to keep my mind active. I really enjoy reading—it’s all I do,’ she says. ‘I’m lucky I have good eyes.’ She recalls that back in Italy, when she was younger, there was no electricity in the casello where she lived, so she’d often do her sewing by the light of an oil lamp . ‘Everybody said, “You’ll ruin your eyes with this light,” but my eyes are still very good,’ she laughs.

At 102, Giuditta still enjoys good health. She doesn’t ‘eat any rubbish’ and enjoys eating fresh foods and salads from her small garden in the back, or fresh produce from Preston Market. Among the family, she’s well known for her brodo (or broth) with tortellini, and for her minestrone (soup), which is a common dish served in her home region of Friuli. ‘Her soups are amazing,’ says Tanya. ‘When we come here, it’s always her brodo with tortellini, the chicken broth with the little ravioli, tortellini and capoletti. The northern Italians aren’t so much into pastas and lasagnes and baking.’ In fact, Giuditta has never baked a cake or anything sweet in her life.

Along with her good health, Giuditta is grateful for her family. Over the years there have been many family gatherings around her dining table. Sadly, her daughter Elsa died in 2009, but she still has dinner with her son Enzo and his family every Saturday night and is often invited to dinner among her grandchildren—she has five grandchildren (two deceased), and seven great grandchildren. Her husband Tullio died of a heart attack in 2004, aged 90.

Throughout her life, faith has also been important to Giuditta. She speaks of having survived World War II and the bombings and shootings that took place around her home. She has a particular devotion to Madonna di Castelmonte, who gives her hope.

I remember during the war, asking la Madonna to save me, and she saved me so much. It was a dangerous time—we were all in so much danger during the war—I’m shocked that I’m still alive. I was so lucky.

Speaking of her nonna, Tanya says, ‘So much has happened to her in life—she’s lost two grandsons, my brother, and another grandson, and my mum. She’s just been the pillar of strength, always. She’s just held everything together. She’s pretty amazing.

‘Her family and work have kept her going. My parents bought a beach house in Fairhaven, and my grandparents would always come up. Nonna would always have her sewing because she wasn’t going to go for a walk on the beach—that was a waste of time.’

Card games, however, are not a waste of time. Giuditta loves playing the Italian card game scopa and dominoes with her grandchildren and great grandchildren. ‘We’re so lucky to have her,’ says Tanya. Giuditta, too, is ‘grateful for everybody’ in her life. And her work, of course, as the sarta. It is this—‘her work’—she says, that has been the secret to a long and good life. That, the love of her family and her faith.