As a commemoration of 75 years since the end of World War 2, Heritage Victoria engaged Heritage Advisor David Helms to research and compile an assessment on the cultural heritage significance of the Italian Ossario. This resulted in the Ossario being listed on the Victorian Heritage Register on the 1st of October 2020 as a Registered Place (VHR Number H2405). The official statement reads: “the Italian Ossario is of cultural heritage significance to the State of Victoria”.
The Italian Ossario is a sacred place and is located in a peaceful setting in the south east corner of the Murchison Cemetery. The Italian word ‘ossario’ translated as ‘old bones’ is a place of final rest for human remains that have initially been buried elsewhere. The Ossario shelters Italian military Prisoners of War (POW’s) brought to our shores and Italian civilians, thought to be a security risk, who were both resident in Australia and allied territories overseas, and passed away during their imprisonment in Australia.
Entry to the Ossario is through wrought iron gates with sculptured relief on pillars either side. The structure of the building is distinctly Mediterranean. It is quite unique as it was built and is maintained by the Italian Community, not the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as other foreign War Grave Cemeteries are in Australia, such as the German War Cemetery at near-by Tatura and the Japanese War Cemetery in New South Wales.
Prior to its construction, the graves of Italian POW’s from Camp 13 Murchison, were located in the Murchison Cemetery. Each year, beginning in the 1950’s, a Mass of Remembrance was celebrated in the open air at a temporary altar draped with flags, until the Commonwealth Government authorized the building of one Memorial on Australian soil.
The Murchison Cemetery Trust handed over a piece of land, fundraising began and Mr. Luigi Gigliotti, a notable community worker in Kyabram collected 25,000 pounds ($50,000) from the Goulburn Valley Italian Community. Negotiations occurred with the Italian Government, Consuls, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and families of the deceased. This resulted in the remains of Italian POW’s and civilian Internees, previously buried in local cemeteries close to the detention camps in all states of Australia, being interred in one place, at Murchison.
The Ossario was built of Castlemaine stone with Roman tile roof and bell tower, open sanctuary and included an altar of Italian white marble. The crypt below ground level held caskets containing the remains of 129 men and one woman. Their names are cast in bronze on the wall of the sanctuary and decorative bronze gates completed the building.
The Ossario was officially dedicated on the 10th September 1961. A memorial to their fallen comrades built by Italian POW’s at Camp 13 Murchison was relocated and placed to the left of the building in 1968.
Following the disastrous Goulburn River floods in the early 1970’s that inundated the crypt, the Victorian Health Commission ordered the caskets to be relocated above ground level. This required extensive alteration to the Ossario in 1974, with the addition of an area behind the sanctuary where the remains now rest. The crypt was then filled in with sand. A memorial on the right side of the forecourt created by Attilo Greco was installed in 1975, dedicated to the armed forces of Italy and funded by the Italian Government. The Ossario is approached by an avenue of Mediterranean Cypresses planted in 1989 each bearing the name of Italian Military Service Organizations.
It is a European oasis in the Australian bush-land, a little piece of Italy.
A remembrance service with speeches, Catholic Mass and choral singing is held annually on the nearest Sunday to Armistice Day in November. Hundreds of Italian relatives, descendants and friends attend each year, coming from overseas and from all around Australia. Italian and Australian dignitaries attend the Service beginning with a procession and the laying of wreaths on the memorials in the forecourt area and then the singing of both the Australian and Italian National anthems. It is a moving and colourful ceremony, with flags flying, music, and Italians from all the Services wearing their striking uniforms.
This year Covid-19 restrictions caused the annual service to be cancelled. Although unable to attend the memorial service and remember those that rest in the Ossario, we can at least applaud and celebrate the listing of this unique place on the Victorian Heritage Register, a fitting acknowledgment of its value to the cultural heritage of our State and of its importance to the Italian community. It also acknowledges the significant history associated with POW Camp 13 Murchison.
Kay Ball, President, Murchison & District Historical Society