Maltese Publications and Dissent

It was at the Maltese American Printing Company that the first weekly Maltese newspaper came to light. This was the official organ of the Maltese American Association and it carried its name in Maltese: "II Malti-American". The first number came out on March 10, 1922, and was sold at five cents. It was bilingual, in Maltese and in English, and the editor declared that it was his intention to provide the Maltese Ethnic Community with a voice of its own just as other communities in Detroit had their own news-papers. The "II Malti-American" contained news about the Maltese in Michigan and in the rest of the country. It also printed news from Malta and a short novel. There was also religious information and instruction and some advice on ,good behaviour.

The man who was behind "II-Malti-American" was Mr. Joseph P. Attard. He was the editor of the Maltese publication and he was also the founder of the Maltese Association of Detroit. Mr. Attard had organised food distribution to the needy members of the Maltese colony before the Rev. Michael Borg had arrived in Detroit in 1920. Together with the secretary of the Maltese Association, Mr. P.T. Olivier, the founder and editor saw himself as the very pillar of the community.

However, while the Association founded by Mr. Attard prospered, the venture into the world of newspapers was not very fortunate. Mr. Attard's publication lasted only a few months as the last her came out on November 5. The Maltese ethnic group did not number more than five thousand at that time and the number of Maltese unable to read English must have been consider-able. Those who were able to read Maltese did not always bother to buy their ethnic newspaper.

Although the "II Malti-American" did publish notices of religious activities in the church and the there must have been some misunderstanding between the editor and the pastor. Mr. Attard considered himself as the civil spokesman for the Maltese community and at times he and Father Borg did not see eye to eye. The priest was very much committed to the project of buying or building a new church for the Maltese, as the church which was on loan to them had been put up sale.. Later on this important issue was to drive a wedge between Mr. Attard and his pastor and division was to become evident within the community when some thought that the Maltese were not in a financial position to buy or build a new church, as Mr. Attard was claiming, or ask for contributions for the project as the pastor was then doing.

Such difference of opinion did not in any way hamper the religious unity of the Maltese parish. Officially it was recognised by American church authorities as "St. Paul Maltese Parish". By March 10, 1922, the Rev. Michael Borg had per-formed seventy-four baptisms, seven weddings, and registered twenty-one deaths. The pastor said daily Mass at 9.00am and on Sundays and holidays he celebrated an early Mass at 5.00am and a later one at 9.00am. On Saturdays he was available for confessions in Maltese for three hours, from 3.00pm to 6.00pm'

The Knights of Equity Hall served the Maltese community as their church. Under the hall there was a basement which Father Borg named as "Domus Melitensis" or "Maltese House". Social activities were held in the "Domus" while other organisations held their meetings in the base-ment. That basement was also used as a theatre and in April 1922 the "Melita Dramatic Company" presented there a number of plays and sketches. On April 8, 1922, that Company carried the following programme:

  • in Maltese:
    • Culhatt ghal basement
      tad-Domus Melitensis.
      Il Cumpannija Filodrammatica "Melita"
      It-Tebgha fil-familja.
      Dramm sociali bi 3 atti.
      Farsa brilliantissima.
      Cuncert cbir canzonisticu.
  • In English:
    • Calling everybody to the basement
      of Domus Melitensis.
      The "Melita" Dramatic Company
      A Stain on the Family's Name. Social Play in 3 acts.
      A witty comic sketch.
      Song Festival.

The programme looked ambitious enough and Bernice Stewart did write in 1920 that Maltese actors even ventured to offer to their audience some of Shakespeare's plays translated into Maltese. Later on the Domus Melitensis housed the Detroit String Orchestra, The Maltese Band, The Melita Athletic Club, The Maltese United Club, The Melita Football Team and the popular Sons of Malta F.C.

All these bodies were constituted by the Maltese immigrants and their activities showed that the Maltese colony in Detroit, in spite of its limitations, was very active. The pastor was supported by many of his people when he said that a new church with a new centre attached to it would bolster the community and help to preserve its identity.

On May 27, 1922, the Rev. Michael Borg initiated a new drive for collecting more money for the church project. Up to that time the parish had agreed that a new church would be the best solution for a Maltese Centre. But it was at this particular moment that a different proposition was made by the priest himself. An old church in Fort and Plum Street came up for sale. Since there were not sufficient funds to start work on a new church, Father Borg thought it was a better idea to buy this old church. But Mr. Attard disagreed with the pastor and in the "II Malti-American" of June 3, Mr. Attard told his readers not to support their pastor because the priest was disgregarding the wishes of the Maltese community when he opted for an old church.

On February 23, 1924 Father Borg officially announced that he was buying the old church. He considered the building to be in a sound condition because it had a new roof put on only the year before. The church was heated by steam and it had a basement which was larger than the "Domus Melitensis". The church seated eight hundred worshippers and was situated close to the area inhabited by the Maltese. The owners were asking for forty thousand dollars with a down payment of twelve thousand.

The Maltese eventually bought that church, but hostility to the pastor never completely died down. Attard's newspaper never approved of the transaction and anybody who did not like either the church or its pastor availed himself of the "II Malti-American" to say so. Eventually, the Maltese in Detroit had allowed a certain amount of anti-clericalism to seep into their ranks.

At this time the Maltese in Malta were seriously divided into two opposing camps: Reformists and Anti-Reformists. The apparent reason for such a divide was the Language Question. That was a thorny problem caused by the ancient supremacy of the Italian language in Maltese culture. Pro-British politicians were clamouring for the supremacy of English instead.

Under the banner of Reform there were those who not only opposed the Pro-Italian Party, but also harboured Leftist tendencies and clashed seriously with the Catholic hierarchy in Malta. The newspaper edited by Mr. Attard, "II Malti-American" was a completely orthodox publication but its political sympathies lay with the Reformist elements in Malta. When Mr. Attard asked Juan Mamo to be his correspondent in Malta, the Rev. M. Borg must have had his suspicions because the author of "Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-America" was a well-known Socialist. Juan Mamo was then popularising his Radical political creed and in a letter dated April 8, 1922, to the "II Malti-American" he decried the political situation in Malta.

Father Borg wrote a letter in Italian to the editor of "II Malti-American" which pointed to an obvious rift between priest and editor and that rift was not solely due to lack of agreement on the Church Building Fund. The pastor warned Mr. Attard not to take his inspiration from what other newspapers were printing in Malta and thus reflect the polarisation which was causing deep divisions among the population of Malta. He warned that if Mr. Attard persisted in reflecting certain ideas imported from Malta no parishioner of his would buy his newspaper.

The priest also complained that very often religious notices in the "II Malti-American" were not reproduced correctly. He insisted that Church notices carried by the newspaper should be signed by himself. If the editor failed to make such a reference Father Borg threatened to complain about this publicly in church. He went a step further; he put a notice by the church door in which he repeated his complaints about the "II Malti-American". This notice brought out a public reaction from Mr. Attard.

Mr. Attard protested in the name of the Maltese Association and asked the priest to remove that notice if he wanted to safeguard the unity of the parish. The clash undermined the financial situation of Attard's newspaper. As from June 17, 1922, the "II Malti-American" ceased to be the official organ of the Maltese Association, and Attard complained that many Maltese were leaving him.

On May 28, 1922, Mr. Attard admitted in a meeting of the Maltese Assocation that the organisation's membership had gone down to a mere three hundred. Other speakers suggested that the Association should stay out of the dispute between Mr. Attard and Father Borg. They also wanted to have no connection whatsoever with the newspaper "II Malti-American".

Other members deplored the fact that the voice of the Maltese in Detroit was no longer one. They felt that there were very urgent matters which called for the attention of the Association. They urged the parish and the Association to work together to alleviate the hardship suffered by the Maltese who were out of work.

"Il Malti-American" ceased publication on November 1922. It had survived for eight months. Its place was taken by another weekly publication which was sold on Saturdays. The first number appeared on November 11, 1922, and it bore the title in Maltese: "L'Ecu Malti fl'America" (The Maltese Echo in America). The editor proclaimed that his aim was to bring useful knowledge and information to the Maltese worker in Detroit and to help in the search for a solution to the rift which was tearing apart the Maltese community in Detroit. The editor also hoped that his style would raise the standard of journalistic etiquette which had been allowed to sink to a low ebb by the now defunct "II Malti-American". The editor also declared that he was in favour of the Church Building Fund and that he wanted to defend the Catholic heritage of the Maltese living in Detroit and to help his readers in their process of Americanisation.

"L'Ecu Malti fl'America" of December 16, 1922, commemorated the two years since Father Borg had been in America. The editor informed his readers that their pastor had had his photograph taken and that Father Borg was willing to distribute a copy of his picture to all his parishioners on Sunday, December 24, 1922, in the morning. In that same issue the newspaper published the programme the parish had prepared for Christmas, 1922:

    Midnight Mass.
    1.30am-5.30am Dancing Party in the basement.
    6.00am Tombola (Kino Party) in aid of the Church Building Fund.
    Men - 50cents. Women - free
    Protestants not allowed in.

A further note added that the programme was drawn in such a way as to keep men and young people off the streets at Christmas Night. Before such activities were held many chose to loiter around and sometimes got into trouble.

The editor of the "L'Ecu Malti fl'America" was Frank Borg. At first the newspaper was printed at the printing press which had belonged to the Maltese Association of Mr. joseph P. Attard, but in July 1923 John Maistre bought the printing press. After ten months Frank Borg resigned because of differences with the owner of the printing press. John Maistre was opposed to the parish priest and Frank Borg decided to leave him and join the pastor in trying to publish another newspaper for the Maltese. On November 24, 1923, John Maistre wrote in the "L'Ecu Malti fl'America" that although he was Maltese he decided not to have anything to do with the pastor of the Maltese parish in Detroit because the priest had labelled Maistre as a Freemason and an Anti-Clerical. In effect this sounded the death-knell of the second Maltese publication in Detroit.

"L'Ecu Malti fl'America" ceased publication in March 1924. A distinguished contributor to its pages was an Augustinian friar, Father Aurelio Ciantar who had been in Detroit since 1921. In December 1923 Father Ciantar had received orders to leave Detroit and proceed to New York. Before he left Detroit he tried to mediate between the opposing factions led by Father Borg on one side and Joseph Attard and John Maistre on the other.

In January 1924 the Rev. Michael Borg and Frank Borg brought out another newspaper which they named "Malta Press". Again the "Malta Press" was short lived but it served its purpose to carry on with the feud between the two Borgs on one side and Attard and Maistre on the other.

In a letter to the editor of the "L'Ecu Malti fl'America" which appeared on December 8,1923, the Rev. A. Ciantar confessed that he had done all he could to heal the rift within the Maltese community, but now that he had been told to leave Detroit he was severing his connection with the community. Joseph P. Attard was sorry to see Ciantar leave and he described him as "a patriot who could have done a lot of good to the Maltese if he had been allowed". Attard also said that he was losing a friend and the loss was being felt by most Maltese who used to approach Father Ciantar rather than go to their parish priest. Attard suggested that the Maltese who liked Father Ciantar should contribute a donation which would be offered to him before his departure from Detroit. When Father Ciantar heard of Attard's suggestion he made it clear that he would refuse any donation offered to him.

The "Malta Press" appeared on January 5, 1924. Only a few numbers were published and the lack of general support for one Maltese newspaper meant that the community was left without one single strong voice which could have commanded any attention from the world outside. Petty parochial polemics and squabbles were not unknown in small ethnic communities encircled by the great American way of life. The Maltese had their differences within a community which did not exceed a total of 5,000 people. However they had no choice but to seek security from each other and gather around their church and pastor. The parish organised picnics which were significant events for people who had few friends outside their ethnic group.

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

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