Activities within the Maltese Community

On August 21, 1922, the parish organised an outing to Bob-lo Island. There they had a football match which was followed by a tug-of-war. They also had sack races when fat men and fat women provided their hilarious version of running. Others preferred to go for a swim while others danced to the tunes of a hurriedly improvised orchestra. Most participants were Maltese but they had some American and Mexican friends with them. The party had left Detroit at 8.30am from Bates Street. Tickets cost 50 cents each.

Another excursion was organised on Ascension Day, 1923. This time the destination was Sugar Island. There were about six hundred people in all, most of them members of various Maltese organisations in Detroit. The soccer team of the "Sons of Malta" were given a silver trophy for their performance during the season.

The parish also published its own bulletin which gave detailed information about the functions and activities held in the church and in the basement. In Christmas 1922 some Maltese immigrants, inspired by nostalgia about the way they used to celebrate Christmas back at home, decided to set up the traditional crib. This crib was put up inside the church and those who saw it described it as beautiful and artistic.

As the community settled down it was felt that a Maltese doctor would be a great asset. The Armenians and the Poles had doctors who spoke their language, why not the Maltese? In a letter to the "II Malti-American fl-America" of October 7, 1922, a correspondent suggested that the Maltese Government and the Church in Malta should select a doctor and send him to practise among the Maltese in Detroit and support him financially. The writer suggested that every parish in Malta should contribute 25 towards this aim. This should bring in the total of 1, 700. The writer also suggested that every diocesan priest in Malta would be invited to give up a day's stipend so as to help in augmenting that total.

It is hard to say if that suggestion was meant to be taken seriously. Most Maltese in Malta thought of their friends in the USA as well off and loaded with cash. The last thing they would have dreamt of was to support their friends in America! Moreover an annual income of more than 1,700 in 1922 would have meant an uncontrolled exodus of Malta's medical men, eager to enjoy the comforts of an American way of life. In Malta, that suggestion was nicknamed an "Americanata" or an American joke.

Malta's own Superintendent of Emigration, Henry Casolani, was more practical. He had always held that a priest and a doctor were two indispensable men for the success of any Maltese colony abroad. At that time the majority of Maltese migrants were unable to speak English and a priest and a doctor who could communicate with the Maltese in their own language would be a valuable asset not only to Detroit but to any Maltese community in any part of the globe. When Henry Casolani read the letter which had appeared in the Maltese newspaper of Detroit, he wrote back to the editor and asked two very pertinent questions:

  1. Can the Maltese in Detroit guarantee a fixed salary?
  2. Are Maltese medical degrees recognised by State authorities?

The answer to both questions was in the negative. It was stated that if a Maltese doctor emigrated to Michigan he had to start life from scratch like any other immigrant. When it was rumoured that there was the possibility that the Government of Malta was contemplating sending a doctor with a fixed salary paid by the Maltese Government, some Maltese in Detroit had already alerted their relatives and friends who were in the medical profession and encouraged them to apply for the job.

Such manouvres came to an end when Casolani made public the correspondence he had with the authorities for the State of Michigan concerning the qualifications of aliens who applied to work as doctors in that State. The State of Michigan put down three conditions before an alien doctor was given the permission to practise in the State:

  1. He must be examined by the Board of Registration.
  2. His degree must be from a university which was recognised as having the same level as that of the University of the State of Michigan.
  3. He must have studied English for at least three years.

Only if an applicant satisfied the second and the third conditions would he be examined by the Board of Registration. The Board sat in June in Arm Arbor and in October in Lansing.

One particular aspect of Maltese life in Detroit was the managing of migrants' money. When in Malta few of the migrants had any worry what to do with surplus cash. They simply did not have it. In Detroit, the People's Bank was the favourite financial institution with the Maltese living in that city. One Maltese newspaper carried advertisements encouraging its readers to put their money in the People's Bank which it described as a solid and reliable institution.

The Maltese American Finance Corporation was an ethnic body which showed a certain degree of sophistication. It was situated in the building which housed the First National Bank. On November 25, 1922, this Corporation had a meeting called by the secretary, Mr. Anthony Vella, who explained the running of the orgnisation and distributed copies of its rules to those who attended the meeting. The minutes taken by Mr. Vella showed that then the Corporation had 541 shareholders. Another Maltese, Mr. Charles Camilleri, was the treasurer of the Corporation. In his report, Mr. Camilleri wrote that the Corporation was doing well and that its transactions had been showing a commendable profit.

The Maltese American Finance Corporation dealt in land contracts which were guaranteed by the U.S. Government. A special service to the Maltese immigrant was rendered by the Corporation when the immigrant decided to go back to Malta, either for an extended stay or to retire there. The immigrant was able to leave all his assets with the Corporation to be looked after by experts.

With more money to spend, most immigrants started eating in restaurants. Moreover, most Maltese men were either single or else had their wives still living in Malta and therefore they had to cook their meals themselves, unless they decided to eat out. There was one particular restaurant patronised mainly by the Maltese. This was a place with an unusual name: "So Different Restaurant". It was situated at 972, Michigan Avenue, corner with Fifth Street. The "II Malti-American" of May 22, 1922, claimed that this restaurant offered excellent food taken in the company of other Maltese. The advertisement was carried in Maltese and English:

  • In Maltese:
    • L'Ahjar post Ghal ichel
      "So Different Restaurant"
      Patronizzat mil Maltin.
  • In English:
    • The best place to eat
      "So Different Restaurant"
      Frequented bv the Maltese.

Later on the Maltese opened their own eating places. One such place was given the patriotic name of "Melita Lunch". This was followed by the " Melita Bakery" which was to be found at 2511 Fifth Street. The bakery was especially popular with the Maltese in Detroit because it offered special bread baked in Maltese style.

Other Maltese tried to run small businesses. Grech and Brincat opened a thriving shop in Howard Street which bore the name of "General Grocers". John Vella opened his School of Dancing. This school was at 1355 Howard Street. In July 15, 1922, Vella claimed that he taught dancing in Maltese and American styles. Anthony De Guara was a tailor and he also cleaned and pressed clothes at Sixth Street and Porter Street. De Guara changed his name slightly to make it look more impressive, but his advertisements made it clear that he was Maltese and that he hoped that his countrymen would patronise his shop.

Some Maltese immigrants did alter or change their family names in an attempt to sound thoroughly American. William Farrugia changed his name into Farr. He was a watch repairer at 1385, Trumbull Avenue, Highland Park. Maltese surnames went through a complete metamorphosis. Camilleri became Miller and Mizzi was changed into Mitchell. Others changed their names completely or adopted Anglo-Saxon names. This they did under the pressure to Americanise themselves. It must be said however, that the majority of Maltese living in Detroit and in other American cities respected their origins and proudly retained their family names.

Most Maltese Americans came from a working class background, but in the late twenties, Detroit was attracting men and women from other social strata as well. The "Malta Daily Chronicle" of March 10, 1927, referred to a certain Maltese lady who had emigrated to Detroit in 1926. Before she left Malta this anonymous lady was a well known person in the higher echelons of Maltese society. On February 13, 1927, she attended a lecture at the Orchestra Hall in Detroit.

The lecture was on Malta and the Maltese. It was delivered by Mr. Newman who also illustrated his talk by a film he himself had shot while he was on a visit to Malta. The impressions made by the talk and the film on the audience were recorded by the lady in question to Mr. Henry Casolani who passed her letter to Maltese newspapers.

In her letter, the writer said that the Orchestra Hall was one of the largest cinemas in the city of Detroit and that only activities which were bound to attract large audiences were held there. On February 13, 1927, one such activity took place. Most men and women present were Maltese settlers who had flocked to the Orchestra Hall to hear Mr. Newman and see familiar scenes recorded for them on film. The film showed magnificent views of the historic cathedral of St. john's in Valletta. Also shown were the various palaces which housed the famous Knights of St. John during their long sojourn in Malta.

Mr. Newman also showed various shots of Strada Reale, the main street of the Maltese capital, Valletta. In Strada Reale, the lady recognised the politician Enrico Mizzi, passing in front of the Court House completely unaware of Mr. Newman's camera. Other views of the eastern side of Grand Harbour brought tears to those migrants from Cottonera who had worked in the Dockyard before they left their country.

There were also some pretty girls who posed for Mr. Newman. One of them was so shy that she kept lowering her eyes every moment that the camera was aimed at her. Her companion tried to keep serious but at the end she burst out laughing.

1926 was an important year for American Catholics because the International Eucharistic Congress was held in Chicago in that year. The Maltese representative was Bishop Michael Gonzi of Gozo. While in the USA Bishop Gonzi visited a number of Maltese communities both in the USA and in Canada. The Rev. Michael Borg, the pastor of St. Paul's Maltese Parish in Detroit, organised a mission and he also invited another Maltese priest, Father Michael Z. Cefai, to preach to the Maltese in preparation for the International Congress.

The visit to Detroit by Mgr. Gonzi was awaited with eagerness. He arrived on June 26,1926. Many Maltese from Michigan, Ohio and Canada con-verged on the Maltese church to meet the first ever Maltese bishop to visit them as a representative of the Maltese Church. The Rev. Michael Borg welcomed Mgr. Gonzi. Bishop and pastor had known each other as they were born in the same town of Vittoriosa. More than 3,000 migrants greeted their distinguished visitor as he arrived at the railway station from New York.

Two little girls spread roses in the path of the bishop as he walked from the station to his car. Soon after his arrival in the parish the bishop confirmed two hundred children and adults. After the confirmation a reception was held in the Knights of Columbus Hall. The mayor of Detroit, John W. Smith, welcomed the distinguished guest as did Mr. William Devlin of the Detroit Council of the Knights of Columbus.

On June 27, a Grand Concert was held in honour of the Bishop of Gozo. Many of the musicians were Maltese. A one-act play was performed in Maltese.

The visit by Mgr. Gonzi to the Maltese in Detroit was an outstanding success. The pastor felt proud that he was able to show to his important visitor how well organised St. Paul's Maltese parish was. Yet early in 1927 Father Borg lost his parish and was replaced by the Rev. Michael Z. Cefai. His replacement was sudden and unexpected. He had had his disagreements with a number of parishioners, especially with joseph Attard and John Maistre, but most parishioners liked him.

Although the Rev. Michael Borg had to leave his parish which he served for more than six years as its first pastor, he stayed in Michigan and never lost contact with his community. In 1928 he was working in the parish of St. Paul in Grosse Pointe Farms. At the same time he used to offer his services to the church of St. Ambrose in Detroit. Father Borg died in Detroit on April 18, 1963, when he was seventy-seven years of age.

The final point about the Maltese community in Detroit between the two World Wars refers to the complicated world of politics. At that time the scare of Bolshevism was running through America and the Maltese community had been touched by it. The case of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants, was the talking point of most discussions. The two men, one a shoe-mender and the other a fish-monger, were accused of a double murder. They were also suspected of harbouring Radical political beliefs. They were executed in 1927, but many believed them innocent as they denied the charges against them up to their last breath.

One Maltese from Detroit who caught the public eye because of his Socialist leanings was Joseph Borg who had emigrated from Hamrun, Malta, and arrived in Detroit in 1922. Like most of his countrymen in Detroit, Joseph Borg found his first job with Ford's Motor Company. It was on the shop floor that Joseph Borg met other European Socialists and was converted to their creed. He soon gained a reputation for his eloquence and for his dedication to the cause of the rights of the working class and his name began appearing in American newspapers not only in the Middle West but also on the East and West coasts.

In 1932 the city of Detroit was going through intense industrial unrest and at one particular demonstration four workers were killed and more than fifty wounded when a crowd of some four thousand unemployed staged a demonstration outside the Ford factory at Dearbom. The reaction of the police was ferocious. Despite the inflammatory placards carried by some of the demonstrators, their sole intention was to send a small deputation to seek an interview with Mr. Ford.

Unemployed workers throughout the country numbering some 25,000 organised a hunger march to the city of Washington. The march was called the "Bonus Army". The marchers were dispersed as they approached Washington, but Joseph Borg, who was one of the organisers of the Bonus Army, was one of the few who escaped control and managed to encamp on the grounds of the White House.

In 1932 Joseph Borg was in California where he was imprisoned because he was accused of spreading seditious propaganda. When other Socialists heard of Borg's imprisonment they organised protest meetings in many industrial towns and cities in order to demand his release. As soon as the Socialist from Malta regained his freedom, he was again in trouble, this time in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The steel workers of Pittsburgh were on strike and Joseph Borg was again in the news because he helped to organise that strike. One newspaper of the time described him as "a storming petrel of industrial unrest on the eastern seabord of the USA".

Wherever there was industrial agitation Joseph Borg's name was frequently featured in the American press. Very often he was simply referred to as the Socialist. During the textile strike he was chosen by the strikers as their spokesman. He was also one of a delegation chosen to enter into arbitration with President Roosevelt's committee to settle the textile dispute.

He travelled to San Francisco to make a broadcast on behalf of the textile strikers. However, as the USA slowly recovered from the Depression and prosperity came back to most workers of the American nation, the voice of Joseph Borg, the Socialist leader from Detroit, became less strident as he slowly disappeared from the public stage.

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

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