From Sicily to Riverstone, a migrant’s dream comes true

Vale Giombattista ‘John’ Cannata (6/3/1928 – 2/12/19)

Giombattista (‘John’) Cannata grew up in Comiso, a small town in the province of Ragusa on Sicily, a long way, geographically and culturally, from Riverstone in north-west Sydney, where he would spend the greater part of his long life.

In the 1950s, Australia was almost another planet for a young Sicilian who had lost his father at the age of two and never ventured beyond the island. John’s care was shared by relatives, and in a country on the losing side of the conflict, every opportunity for a better life was worth considering.

In his early 20s, with little money and no contacts in the foreign land, the young man – yet to be known as John – embarked on the journey he knew was most likely to be one-way, at least for a long time.

His life is recounted by Gaetano (‘Guy’) Boncardo, Sydney-born but of Sicilian heritage, some 25 years younger, who became a close friend and would deliver the news that his late countryman, as he considered him, had left a generous bequest to the St Vincent de Paul Society NSW and to St John the Evangelist at Riverstone.

Guy had little knowledge about John’s financial affairs but was aware he had lived frugally and put money away for most of his years in the new country.

“John settled in the suburb of Ashfield and worked various labour jobs and as a night-shift worker cleaning school classrooms,” Guy says.

“By the mid-1970s he had saved enough money to buy a block in Riverstone and build a tin storage shed and workshop. He also built a very basic three-room house made of concrete bricks which he made himself. It had a brick floor and a tin roof supported by recycled timber from which John also made his furniture.”

True to his Italian roots, John was a keen gardener and got around town on his Vespa motor scooter. By 1990 he was ready to retire.

A lifelong Catholic, John was well known to the local parish priest, Fr Eugene Stockton, as was Guy who took up the priest’s suggestion that he visit the elderly Sicilian.

“It was then that I came to know him well,” Guy recalls.

“He was a simple and very sincere man. He read his Italian bible often. He would enjoy a glass of wine and we would talk in our Sicilian dialect.”

One day, his friend gave him the surprise of his life.

“He said he had some savings and showed me his bank book. The balance was substantial and I realised he could afford to have a proper house built and purchase new furniture.”

In 2018, on his 90th birthday, Giombattista Cannata received a Papal Blessing from Pope Francis, a highlight of his religious life.

Familiar with the support Vinnies offers community members, Guy has followed the example of his friend and promised to gift the Society in his Will.

“It gave John great comfort to know his bequest was going to good causes, Vinnies and St John’s, that he trusted,” Guy adds.

“We will all remember John very fondly because of his simplicity and sincerity,” Guy adds.

“It has been my privilege to have been his friend.”

The St Vincent de Paul Society NSW is deeply appreciative of all donations received through its Wills and Bequests program, which benefits our charitable works with a wide variety of families and individuals in need of material and emotional support.