Towards the end of the nineteenth century a few Maltese had found their way to the Pacific Coast of the USA The report issued by the Emigration Committee of Malta on November 26, 1910, claimed that the Maltese in California numbered about two hundred. One member of that Committee, Dr. Charles Mattei, wrote that by 1911 he had helped five hundred emigrants to settle in North America, most of whom had told him that their final destination was to be California.
Applicants who had received financial help from the V. Bugeja Fund between 1909 and 1911 had numbered about sixty-six men. Some of these intending emigrants had applied to emigrate to California.
Two eminent members on the Emigration Committee, Professor Lawrence Manche' and Dr. Charles Mattei, were both strongly in favour of encouraging Maltese to settle in California. Mattei preferred the Golden State because that State was then going through a period of robust development where jobs outnumbered workers, particularly on the railroads. In 1910 there were Maltese employed by the North Pacific Railway at four dollars a day. Dr. Mattei had been to California to see for himself and on one of his visits he said he met some sixty Maltese who had been in the State since 1900. These men also said that since they set foot in California they had never been out of work.
The Royal Commission of 1911 had favoured emigration to British possessions within the Empire. The Commissioners however, mentioned California as one favourable exception to this rule and wrote encouragingly about prospects for intending Maltese emigrants to that part of the world. Most Maltese preferred San Francisco where they settled in the areas of San Bruno and Butcherstown. In 1911 the Maltese population there was estimated at about two hundred.
In 1914 the Maltese community in and around San Francisco welcomed a Maltese priest to work there on a permanent basis. This was the Rev. Andrew Azzopardi who soon organised his people into an ethnic parish. In 1915 the archbishop of San Francisco bought a hall which had been built in 1874, and gave it to the Maltese to use as their own church. The hall was situated in the Bay View District. Eventually, the Maltese pastor also offered his services to other immigrants living in the area, especially to the Italians.
After the retirement of the Rev. A. Azzopardi in 1919, another Maltese priest took over the running of the parish. This was the Rev. Theophilus Cachia who had been living previously in a nearby parish. Both priests belonged to the Maltese Franciscans.
Father Cachia modified and enlarged the hall. On February 12, 1922, the hall was consecrated as a church by the archbishop of San Francisco and was given the official title of St. Paul of the Shipwreck Maltese Church. The parish was situated at 1509, Oakdale Avenue.
"The Monitor" was the official organ of the archdiocese of San Francisco and on January 4, 1919, the editor published the obituary of a Maltese Jesuit who had died at the beginning of that year. The priest was the Rev. Vincent A. Testa who had been pastor of the Mission Church of Santa Clara. Father Testa was born in Malta in 1841 and emigrated to the USA when he was in his twenty-third year. He did his studies in Woodstock, Maryland, and was ordained in the USA in 1874. He taught for twenty years in Saint Ignatius University in San Francisco. He died in Santa Clara and "The Monitor" described him as "one of the best known and most highly respected priests in California".
By the late twenties the Maltese population in and around San Francisco was about 5,000. When, during the Depression, emigration from Malta to the USA not only dwindled but also a number of Maltese decided to return to their country, the Maltese in California stood their own and were not as badly hit as their countrymen in Detroit and New York. According to Mr. Francis Grech, who was responsible for the Maltese Club of San Francisco, the Maltese in California were in a stable condition, even if some were out of work. That same club was busy with philantropic work in the Maltese community. Mr. Grech claimed that the Maltese mixed well with other people, some men had married American women and most of them had decided to opt for American citizenship.
Mr. Grech was himself a highly intelligent emigrant who had done his studies in engineering before he left for the U. S.A. He had worked on the Golden Gate Bridge and had been officially commanded for his work. He was also very active within his ethnic community. He had opened the Maltese Club of San Francisco on February 1, 1930. The Club was first located in a spacious hall on 1648 Oakdale Avenue. An Inauguration Ball was held on opening day. Mr. Grech himself served as the first president.
According to Mr. Grech, on the day the Club was inaugurated, most Maltese living in the Bay Area wanted to get inside. It was not possible for everybody to be accommodated and many had to be turned back.
In his opening speech the President regretted the fact that some people had to be turned back but he assured his hearers that his association was willing to cooperate fully with local authorities to help further the welfare of the Maltese living in the Bay Area. Mr. Grech also reminded those present of the importance of learning English if they wanted to be successful. He promised to organise classes so that those willing to learn English would be given the opportunity to do so. The President concluded his speech by auguring a bright future for the Club.
In less than five years the Maltese Club of San Francisco had seven hundred and fifty enrolled members thus making it the major Maltese organisation in the area. The Club worked in cooperation with the Parish, and although Mr. Grech and Father Cachia did have their differences, they always put the well-being of their community above every other consideration.
In October 1930, eight months after the opening of the Club, a Maltese Band was set up. The bandsmen, twenty-five of them, posed for their official photograph, resplendent in their new uniforms. The director of the Band was Mr. Charles Fenech. When the bandmaster presented his first public performance, Father Cachia, the pastor of the Maltese parish, presented him with a Maltese flag. According to an observer from New York who happened to be visiting the Maltese community in San Francisco, the new band was the pride of the Maltese living in California. In March 1940 the Maltese Band celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the creation of the Parish. That same year was also the tenth anniversary of the Band and it was thought fitting to commemorate the two events.
Charles Fenech wrote that the Maltese Band was popular with the Maltese and with the Americans. It was being invited for municipal, State and County engagements. In later years Maestro Fenech also set up a String Orchestra which played a number of hits which were in demand at the time.
Besides the Band and the Orchestra, the members of the Maltese Club decided to organise a dramatic company which they named as "Vittoria". The director was Frank Cutajar. Plays like "Othello" were produced in Maltese transla-tions because Frank Cutajar thought that there were many good dramatic companies in the area which were capable of presenting theatrical works in English. Only his "Vittoria" was able to give good entertainment in Maltese. Mr. F. Cutajar was also of the opinion that while integration was necessary there was no reason why the Maltese should lose their language and their identity.
In 1930 Mr. Joseph Borg wrote a special play which dealt with the victory of the Maltese over the Turks in 1565. When the Club of San Francisco held its festivities on Malta's National Day, September 8, the play written by Joseph Borg formed an added attraction. The company "Vittoria" also presented three more plays in Maltese:
Il Kuncert ta' Teatrin
Il Prinioli Misteriusi
Mr. P.P. Vella was asked to give a lecture on the significance of the victory of 1565. When the talk was over, the curtain was raised and a panorama of the Grand Harbour appeared. That scene was ably painted by Mr. Lawrence Camilleri. Then a boy dressed as a Knight of Malta, appeared on the stage to hoist a Maltese flag. This was greeted by a tremendous applause. Next followed the mystic prayer by the poet Dun Karm which was later io be adopted as the National Anthem of Malta: "Lil Din 1-Art Helwa" which in English could be rendered as "To this Fair Land". The prayer was sung by the children's choir under the baton of Maestro Charles Fenech. The boys in the choir were dressed as Knights of Malta whereas the girls were in the traditional colours, white and red.
Miss Esther Sherry sang her solo part which was enthusiastically received. She was asked to sing the "prayer" again and again. Twelve tableaux vivants were presented. Three of these were received with great applause. The three depicted:
- "Triumphant Malta Saluting the Blessed Virgin" with Miss Esther Sherry singing the Ave Maria accompanied by Mr. Charles Scicluna as violinist and Mrs. C. Frendo on the piano.
- "La Valette Exhorting Malta" was presented by Emmanuel Falzon helped by his troupe called "Int Sabieha 0 Malta taghna". (You are so fair, Our Malta) .
- "Malta Mourning the Brave" which came as an epilogue to the raising of the Great Siege and the subsequent Christian victory of September 8, 1565.
In November 1930, Mr. F. Grech, president of the Maltese Club of San Francisco, wrote to Malta to complain about the fact that his Club received no official recognition from the Maltese Government even though they did what they could to publicise Malta. He also mentioned the fact that his members had contributed a substantial sum towards the Malta War Memorial for Children. This they had done in spite of the hard times which were being experienced by most people living in America. Mr. Grech reminded his readers in Malta that Maltese immigrants living in the USA were working people who had to strive hard to earn their living.
Mr. Grech also said that he and his members offered their assistance to those Maltese who arrived in San Francisco. He also pointed out that it was the policy of his Club to teach the children of Maltese migrants something about their culture and history. This they did by getting together on special occasions which were dear to the Maltese in Malta. Finally Mr. F. Grech mentioned the activities which were being done by the "Vittoria" dramatic company, the Band and the String Orchestra and by their soccer team. He hoped to open a small lending library which would make available books in English and Maltese, to those who wished to find good books. The library would also help to combat illiteracy which was such a major drawback hindering the progress of a number of Maltese.
Source: The Great Exodus by Fr Lawrence E. Attard. (C) P.E.G. Ltd - 1989.