The Maltese in New York

Although the Maltese in New York City were not as numerous as those in Detroit, their first settlements in that city were older. The American writer, Jean Piper, wrote about the Maltese colony in New York. According to Jean Piper the first Maltese known to have settled in New York was a certain Carmelo Caruana who was also known as "The Merchant Prince". Caruana was born in Malta in 1808 and when only twenty-one years old he set foot in New York as an energetic entrepreneur.

Carmelo Caruana's motives for arriving in New York were purely commercial, but it was probable that he had an eye for beautiful girls and was also very ambitious. The young businessman from Malta met a certain Miss Coxe whose father was attached to the American diplomatic service. Caruana and Coxe got married and they made New York their permanent home. Caruana died in New York in 1893 when he was in his eight-fifth year. Jean Piper claimed that Carmelo's son, John Coxe Caruana was living in Woodhaven, Long Island, in August 1925.

Jean Piper referred to another prominent Maltese immigrant in New York. This was Dr. Lorenzo Ullo who emigrated to Brooklyn in 1873. When he arrived in New York, Dr. Ullo carried with him a letter of introduction to General

Sherman and to Chief justice Davis. Dr. Ullo established himself in New York as a lawyer and as the years went by he cultivated very influential connections in the city. In fact he became a renowned Admiralty lawyer.

The first wife of Dr. Ullo was from Malta, but when he became a widower he married a girl from New York. The second wife was named Monica, and her brother, George Ryan, was a member of the New York City Board of Education. According to jean Piper, Monica Ryan Ullo lived in Jackson Heights, N.Y., after the death of her husband. A daughter of Dr. Ullo was still living in 1925. She was born in Malta of his first wife. In 1925 this daughter was living in St. George's Hotel on Clark Street.

In an article bearing the date of August 16, 1925, jean Piper wrote about "the quaint life of a famed little Mediterranean Isle which was transplanted in New York by industrious Maltese who had settled in the city". Jean Piper was referring to the Maltese in New York, particularly those living in Brooklyn whom she knew very well. She inter-viewed a few of them and claimed to have spoken to many of the immigrants from Malta whom she met on the streets of Brooklyn. Jean Piper thought that in 1925 there were some 2,000 Maltese living in Brooklyn. She also met Maltese scattered from the Bronx to Bay Ridge, wedged as they were between Jews and Italians. Jean Piper wrote that there were Maltese families in Flatbush and out in Long Island. In Manhattan the Maltese mixed freely with the polyglot communities which lived between Fourteenth and Twenty-Third Streets, between Seventh and Eight Avenues. There were also a few living near Times Square.

The Maltese colony in the Bronx gravitated towards the church of St. Simon on 183rd Street and Valentine Avenue. There they found a Maltese priest who worked among immigrants who spoke Maltese, English and Italian. The priest was the Rev. Elias Vella of the Carmelite Order who had arrived in New York in 1919 when he was thirty-four years old. He spent thirteen years working in the Bronx and was held in high esteem by those who knew him. He was recalled to Malta in 1932.

Another priest working among the Maltese was the Rev. Nazzareno Formosa who was born in Gozo in 1901. He went to New York in 1927 and was stationed at Sacred Heart church on East 33rd Street. For ten years he mingled freely with the Maltese in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Astoria and was chaplain to many associations formed within the Maltese community in New York. He died on July 22, 1937 at Columbus Hospital. At his funeral there were about eight hundred mourners.

The impressions made by the Maltese on Jean Piper were very positive. Her judgement was objective because she was an American observer with no special reason for hiding the defects of the Maltese living in New York. According to what she wrote, she knew very few Maltese who willingly lived on charity. Most Maltese impressed her as being industrious, thrifty, sober and peaceful. They preferred to stay out of industrial agitation. The Maltese were eager first to obtain American citizenship, then they worked hard to put a roof over their heads and to be reunited with their families.

A well-known Maltese at the time was Mr. Alphonse Bonavia who was a contractor in the painting business. He employed a number of Maltese. Bonavia lived in Astoria, N.Y., and one of his major contracts was the painting of the house of the Travelers Insurance Company on Remsen Street. Alphonse's brother, Angelo, married a Maltese, Miss josephine Debono on June 12, 1926. The marriage was significant in that it was recorded by most newspapers circulating in New York State because the Bonavia family was very well known in business circles.

Mr. M. Busuttil lived with his family in Manhattan. After the Great War he emigrated to New York. He brought to America his love for the delicate Maltese lace. Jean Piper noted: "Stored away in his house are many fine pieces of Maltese lace and there is no danger of having the wrong thing foisted on you there 5 for the Maltese are noted for their honesty as well as for their extreme courtesy".

The Maltese in New York took on varied jobs. Paul Cassar had a group of donkeys which he worked at the Luna Park on Coney Island. The donkeys carried passengers on what was supposed to be a mountain trail. Paul loved his donkeys and there was no danger of his maltreating them. Jean Piper described Paul Cassar as "very calm, brown-eyed, with a kind face". In 1925 Paul Cassar had been thirteen years on Coney Island. He had been with the American Army in France where he took care of the Army's horses.

The last Maltese to be mentioned by Jean Piper was perhaps destined to be the most famous: Joseph Spurin Calleia who had arrived in New York in 1919. He settled in Brooklyn where he sold pianos and where he soon became district manager of his firm. In 1925jean Piper described Joseph S. Calleia as "an outstanding Maltese tenor who established an enviable reputation when he made his debut in the Town Hall last winter when he starred in "The Broken Wing". Eventually Joseph Calleia became known as a film actor not as a singer. In 1935 he was given the role of gangster Tony Mako in the play "Small Miracle". His brilliant performance earned him a two year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer thus providing him with a chance to make a name for himself in the very competitive world of film making.

Joseph Calleia enjoyed a string of successes, but he did not like the idea of being tied down by contracts. He preferred to be a freelance. As a freelance he starred in the film "Algiers" with Hedy Lamarr and Charles Boyer. His performance as Police Inspector won him the Critics'Award in the USA

Calleia was a talented film actor. In spite of his international acclaim he never ignored his roots. Among his many friends he counted Mgr. George Caruana, bishop of Puerto Rico, and Mr. Joseph E. Doublet who was very active among the Maltese in New York. Calleia was a member of the Maltese Benevolent Society founded by his friend Doublet. At the first anniversary of the Society in 1935 Calleia was pressed by the ladies to sing for them a popular Maltese song. He obliged by singing a funny song which every Maltese knows as it forms part of the popular folklore of their Island:

  • 0 lilek tal-gallerija,
    Idhol gewwa ahseb dnubietek!
    Hutek koroh kollha izewwgu,
    Int sabieha hadd ma riedek.
  • Listen you girl at the balcony,
    Get inside and ponder on your sins!
    Your sisters, though ugly, got married,
    While you, though beautiful, stay single.

February 20, 1936, the Maltese held a Dommerr at the Cornish Arms Hotel, New York, to pay tribute to Joseph Calleia. According to Joseph E. Doublet, editor of The Maltese journal, the Maltese community wanted to pay tribute to a beloved son of Malta who had successfully placed for the first time in history the little island's name map of the Movie World. Joseph Calleia was to show his patriotism during the Second War when he worked very hard with his friend Doublet to raise money and collect clothes and food for the Malta Relief Fund. At sixty-five years of age he left the USA and retired to Malta he lived till he passed away in 1975.

A lesser celebrity than Joseph Calleia was an immigrant from the village of Zebbug, Malta, who had emigrated in 1885. He was Joseph Muscat whose fame reached Malta from the USA at the beginning of the twentieth century. The news-paper "Risorgimento" of September 1901 mentioned Joseph Muscat as "a famous Maltese tenor who for many years has been living in America, where he is a noted celebrity". According to "Risorgimento" an American newspaper called "The New Democrat" of August 10, 1901, reproduced a picture of tenor Muscat with an article about his life.

Joseph Muscat visited Malta in August 1925. He had been in the USA for about forty years. Newspaper reports of the time refer to him as a tenor of a high calibre with a brilliant career in America. Besides singing, Muscat had opened a Singing Academy in Cleveland, Ohio.

It seems that Muscat also interested himself in astrology. He had a special interest in President William McKinley as that Republican politician had been governor of the State of Ohio where Muscat had been living. Muscat claimed that he had predicted a violent end to the life of President McKinley. In fact McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgosz on September 6 and he died of his wounds on September 14, 1901.

Reference has already been made to another prominent Maltese living in New York: Joseph Edward Doublet. Joseph E. Doublet was born in Msida, Malta, on February 13, 1901. He decided to leave Malta for the USA when he was only nineteen. By that age he had already acquired a good education which was to be a great asset to him and to those who sought his advice and aid. Joseph Edward Doublet arrived in New York on June 24, 1920, after a journey which lasted twenty--one days. His first job on American soil was with the Pennsylvania Rail Road. His good command of the English language helped him to advance until he was put in charge of thousands of workers, most of them refugees from war-torn Europe.

In spite of a difficult employment situation Doublet managed to find jobs for many immig-rants from Malta. In 1921 he provided work for two hundred and fifteen Maltese. When the Great Depression set in more than six hundred Maltese sought help from him. In 1920 he had rented a large house with fifteen rooms in jersey City to lodge immigrants he himself had sponsored. Doublet continued to sponsor immigrants from Malta and provide accommodation for them till 1950.

In thirty years Doublet had sponsored about 2,000 Maltese. Although many of these immig-rants eventually settled in New York City and State, others were helped to settle in New Jersey, Detroit and San Francisco.

A close collaborator in the philantropic field was Mgr. George Caruana. Years before this good priest was elevated to the see of Puerto Rico, he had worked hand in hand with Doublet. The two men collected money, food and clothing for needy Maltese. This collaboration lasted till the death of Bishop Caruana in 1951. Together they had founded the "Malta Society of New York" with Father Caruana as its first president and Joseph Doublet as the first overseer of the Maltese Community in New York.

Another creation of Joseph Doublet was the "Maltese Benevolent Society" which he established in 1930. Although Doublet himself was to live to a ripe old age, his Society fortunately outlived him. When asked the reason for the Society, Doublet said that he meant it to preserve natural human pride in case of sickness. This he proposed to do by helping to pay doctors' bills and to provide a decent Christian burial for the members of the Society.

Another significant contribution community in New York was the newspaper founded by Joseph Doublet. "The Maltese Journal" appeared in June 1935. Its original name was "The Maltese Benevolent Journal" and was at first distributed free to Maltese living in New York, Detroit, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Toronto. The journal was a successful venture in that it reached many Maltese both inside and outside North America, attained a high standard of journalistic quality and survived for eleven years. Doublet was keen on accurate reporting especially during the war years 1940-1944. His responsible account of Malta's ordeal under continuous Nazi bombing earned the sympathy not only of his Maltese readers but of many others,: and this helped Doublet in launching his Malta Relief Fund which was instrumental in alleviating the terrible hardship which the Maltese in Malta had to undergo during the war years.

"The Maltese Journal" survived till November 1946. Doublet gave up his publication very reluctantly but it became very onerous on him as the newspaper depended on him completely. The office of "The Maltese Journal" served as a place for free legal aid to many troubled Maltese. He helped about a hundred and twenty cases, mostly concerned with domestic problems. Although he had never studied law formally, he realised the utility of legal knowledge when he got to know of a Maltese who had been given a life sentence and of whose innocence he was convinced. Not only did Doublet study law but he was able to win the freedom for that unfortunate man. Later Doublet served for twelve years as Assistant Domestic Court Judge.

During a long and active life Joseph Edward Doublet made many influential friends. Such contacts were applied to make Malta and the Maltese known and respected throughout the USA In 1939 Cardinal Hayes, Alfred Smith, Governor of New York, and Mr. Grover A. Whalen, commissioner of the 1939 World Fair in New York, visited Doublet at his own house wherein he showed the three important men his 'Melitensia" library which contained two hundred books, a collection of historical minutes dating from the time of the Knights of St. John in Malta, a coin and stamp collection and other items related to the history and culture of the Maltese. Cardinal, Governor, and Commissioner were greatly impressed and they encouraged Doublet to organise an exhibition to show the American public his unique collections and thus to publicise his country of origin.

Doublet accepted the suggestion and an exhibition was held on the second floor of the the British Empire Building in Radio City, New York. The exhibition remained open for six weeks.

Joseph Edward Doublet died at the age of eighty-six in Huntingdon, N.Y. Although all but nineteen of his years were lived in the USA he retained his love for his country of origin and he expressed his patriotism in concrete ways by helping his countrymen living in the U. S.A. and by providing significant help for the Maltese in Malta during their siege of 1940-1944. Undoubtedly he remains one of the most prominent figures in the history of Maltese emigration to the USA

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

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