The Maltese in Detroit

A prominent Maltese within the community in Detroit since 1920 was the Rev. Michael Borg who had arrived in that city to work among the Maltese in December 1920. The Maltese greeted their priest with enthusiasm. The "Detroit News" of November 13 had already received the news from Malta that a priest was going to Detroit to be put in charge of the Maltese living in that city. Under the heading: "Native Comes to Countrymen Here" the newspaper reproduced a photograph of the thirty-four-year old priest who had seen active service during the Great War and who was due to arrive shortly in New York from Cherbourg on the ship "Olympic".

The Rev. Michael Borg was to be installed as the first pastor of a Maltese ethnic parish in Detroit. He had arrived in the USA from his own parish of St. Lawrence in Vittoriosa, Malta, where he himself had been born. The bishop of Malta had agreed to send Father Borg to Detroit as the Maltese in that city had expressed their desire to have a priest of their own. When he arrived in Detroit, he said Mass in the Knights of Equity Hall where he preached in Maltese. After Mass a meeting was arranged at the head-quarters of the Detroit Maltese Association, 434 Michigan Avenue.

The bishop of Detroit, Mgr. Michael J. Gallagher D.D. had agreed to the appointment of the Rev. Michael Borg to work among the Maltese on a permanent basis. The priest from Vittoriosa was to hold the position of pastor of the Maltese parish in Detroit for seven years. Bernice Stewart wrote about the new pastor on December 12, 1920: "Father Borg is a quiet smiling man in his early thirties, very gentle and concerned about his people and very interested in the city in which he finds himself. He knows so little about the secular side of our industrial life that it is difficult to see how he will be able to give his parishioners the advice about material ways and means they so patently need".

Although Father Borg was a newcomer to the American way of life he was not unaware of the trials which beset anybody trying to start a new life in a foreign country. Moreover a number of his parishioners were poor and lived in unhealthy lodging houses. He also knew that in his community men heavily outnumbered women and created an imbalance in the social and moral state of his parish. In January 1921 he wrote a warning to a Maltese newspaper: "Tell the Maltese not to come over here at the present because there are many out of work ... next March or April will be a good time to come".

A smiliar advice had been given on November 26, 1920, by a certain Antonio Agius who was then the assistant secretary of the Maltese Association of Detroit. Mr. Agius had warned that work in Detroit was very slack at that time and he thought it inadvisable for intending emigrants to leave their home at that time.

According to Bernice Stewart, Maltese men often wanted their wives and children with them even though at that time they were out of work. The public welfare department of Detroit was helping the unemployed to alleviate their problems, but she thought it unwise to send for dependants when money simply was not available. She cautioned her readers that most Maltese in Detroit at the time were a problem to the city.

Bernice Stewart noticed that in 1920 the Maltese had already banded themselves together in an association and that they had rented rooms at 434 Michigan Avenue which served as a meeting place for their association. It was in those rooms that the Maltese held their meetings, presented plays and organised musical entertain-ment. Bernice Stewart wrote that some time before, the Maltese had put on Shakespearian plays in Maltese. This was a marked improvement from former days when most Maltese men had nowhere to go and therefore they wasted their time in walking up and down the streets, gazing into windows stacked with products which they knew they could not afford.

Less than a month after his arrival Father Michael Borg called a general meeting of all his parishioners. During that meeting he gave an account of the money collected and also said that more cash was needed if the Maltese in Detroit wanted to build their own church as many ethnic Catholics had already done. Those who attended the meeting accepted with enthusiasm the priest's appeal for a Maltese church in North America.

Present at that meeting was the Rev. Doyle who was then the chancellor of Bishop Gallagher. He was there to represent American church authorities. The chancellor stated that if the Maltese wished to build a church of their own in Detroit, it was necessary for them to achieve unity of mind and purpose. Rev. Doyle reminded the Maltese that his bishop had already helped them by letting them use the Knights of Equity Hall. He also assured his listeners that Bishop Gallagher was willing to help the Maltese to the limits if his powers. It seemed that the chancellor was not unaware of some dissident voices within the Maltese community because his intervention ended on an ominous note. He warned those present at the meeting that no club was to be greater than the parish.

Another prominent guest at the meeting called by the Maltese pastor, was Mr. Thompson who had been mayor of Detroit. Mr. Thompson still possessed considerable influence both in Catholic and in political circles. He was also a practical man who was liked by the Maltese. The fact that Mr. Thompson was himself a Catholic endeared him to the Maltese who put him in charge of the scheme for building a Maltese church. It was the opinion of the ex-mayor that Father Borg was a very hard-working priest.

That important meeting, called by the Maltese priest on January 23, 1921, ended on a positive note. The parishioners liked their pastor and the priest was in good standing with the Detroit diocesan authorities. Mr. Thompson was an asset to the community because of his valuable contacts. At that meeting it was also announced that the Societyof Saint Vincent de Paule was ready to proceed with welfare work among the needy of the Malteseparish.

Father Borg knew that his was no affluent congregation and he must have had some hesitation in asking for contributions from people who found it quite difficult to survive. The plan to build a church was ambitious and eventually it was going to create dissensions by those who were quite willing to be counted as members of the parish but who did not cherish the idea of contributing from their own pockets.

The Maltese pastor had to cultivate his relations with Bishop Gailagher who was then the highest church authority in the whole diocese. Bishop Gallagher liked having the Maltese living within his territorial boundaries as they strengthened the numbers of Catholics living in the area. Moreover, the Maltese had already earned for themselves the reputation of being strong and steadfast in their faith. The bishop was willing to help the Maltese community, but the presence of his chancellor at the meeting of January 23, 1921, showed that his was to be the final word in whatever Catholics planned to do in Detroit. The warning delivered by Rev. Doyle about the clubs was to be seen in the perspective of the bishop's overall jurisdiction.

The clubs referred to by Rev. Doyle were the secular centres of gravity of the Detroit Maltese community. The priest was welcome in such premises but he exercised no authority as he did within his church. As Bernice Stewart noted, in 1920 there was already functioning a Maltese Association. This association had come into existence before the advent of Father Borg.

The Maltese Association of Detroit had began to consider itself as the secular authority, capable of speaking in the name of the community. In 1920 the Association had an erudite secretary in the person of Mr. Paul T. Olivier.

Mr. P. T. Olivier had been living in the USA since 1909 and had originally settled in San Francisco where he studied law. He later moved to Michigan where he practised as an attorney. In 1920 he was also a notary public for the county of Wayne. He was also deputy collector and inspector in the U.S. Customs Service for the port of Detroit. It was obvious that both Borg and Mr. P.T. Olivier had to cooperate if there was to be harmony within the Maltese community.

During Lent of 192 1, the Rev. Michael Borg organised a mission for the Maltese. He invited two other Maltese priests to Detroit, the Rev. George Caruana, who was soon to be made bishop of Puerto Rico and whose prominence was a great asset to the Maltese, and the Rev. James Baldacchino, who was a Capuchin friar working in New York. The three priests had known each other for some time and their work among the Maltese immigrants had caught the attention of james L. Devlin of the "Detroit News".

Devlin wrote on March 20, 1921: "In order to accommodate the immense number of worshippers, additional services are being held daily. Salvatore Pulis Felice erected an altar, helped by artisans many of whom are out of work. The altar is in simple Roman style and furnished in old ivory".

Some five months after the mission had been concluded the Maltese in Detroit heard that their friend the Rev. George Caruana was to be consecrated bishop of Puerto Rico. The consecra-tion took place in Rome on August 5, 1921. After his consecration the new bishop left Rome for Malta where he stayed till November 13. He was back in Puerto Rico on January 25, 1922 and remained stationed on that island for three years.

Before taking up residence in Puerto Rico, Bishop Caruana had been in contact with Detroit and it seemed that his friend Father Borg was thinking of leaving Detroit to take up the duties of secretary to the new bishop as soon as a substitute from Malta was found. Father Borg never took up his new appointment, but his friendship with Mgr. Caruana lasted for many years.

When Bishop Caruana visited Detroit he was met by many Maltese. He said Mass and delivered a sermon in Maltese. The choirs of Holy Trinity and Holy Rosary churches, under the baton of Professor R. Magnam, sang during the Mass and rendered the occasion more memorable by the Greeorian music which had been selected by the Professor himself. Father Borg presented Bishop Caruana with a golden pectoral cross on behalf of the Maltese community of Detroit.

The pastor had taken up residence at 1267 Baker Street. He still served his community at the Knights of Equity Hall which formerly was a Grace Episcopal church. Two years after the arrival of Father Borg, the site on which the Hall stood was put up for sale and the Maltese were hoping for a better church before they were told to leave the place. According to the "Michigan Catholic" of November 14,1922, the Maltese were intending to collect 200,000 dollars to achieve their wish. Pledges were made payable to Bishop Gallagher and sent to Father Borg at his residence in Baker Street or at the Maltese American Printing Company which was situated at 1402, Third Street.

Source: The Great Exodus by Fr Lawrence E. Attard. (C) P.E.G. Ltd - 1989.

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