The Rev. William C. Bonett

One very valid conclusion arrived at by Mr. Henry Casolani after having accomplished his mission to London in 1922 was the pressing need for representatives of the Maltese Government to live and work in countries where considerable colonies of Maltese immigrants were to be found. The problem was that Malta was not an independent country and it was difficult to find the proper persons who would be also acceptable to the authorities where the Maltese had settled.

One possible solution to this problem was to appoint priests who were already working in areas of Maltese immigration as unofficial spokesmen for the Maltese. The priests could also keep in touch with the Maltese Government and enrol the support of the local Catholic Church in favour of the Maltese.

The Rev. William Bonett was one of these priests who while he worked as a minister of religion very often acted as a representative of the Maltese living in Sydney. Bonett was born in Gibraltar on February 12, 1884. He was born of Constantine and Concetta nee Chircop, both of whom were Maltese immigrants living in Gibraltar. William received his early education in that British colony, and like most educated Maltese he was fluent in at least three languages: Maltese, Italian and English. The Bonett family had returned to Malta in 1904.

In 1916 William Bonett decided to emigrate to Australia. Although there was a war going on and the sea was not the safest place to be on, Bonett left on the ship "Osterley" which he described on the back of a postcard he sent to his family as "a very fine ship". He arrived in Sydney on September 18, 1916. Six days before Australian papers had printed stories about the hapless Maltese caught on board the ship "Gange". When he learned about the story Bonett left for Melbourne.

In Melbourne Bonett asked for an interview with Prime Minister William Hughes who admitted that the cause of the Maltese on the "Gange" was a just one. Father Bonett insisted that the Maltese should not be sent back to Malta as they had done nothing wrong. In a letter he wrote at the time Bonett felt that he had saved the Maltese from being deported. Although he wrote his letter in Italian, when he came to describe the way Mr. Hughes received him he changed into English and described the Prime Minister as "very very nice and friendly".

The part played by Bonett in solving the affair of the "Gange" did not go unnoticed. In a letter to another Maltese priest in Malta, G. de Piro, he wrote:

"During the three months I have been in Lewisham, I have met several priests from all parts of Australia. As soon as 1 tell them who 1 am, they all say: We hear so much about you, Father. The Maltese priest who saved his countrymen".

Again, to emphasise his point, Bonett departed from his Italian and wrote the final sentences in English.

Soon after his arrival in Sydney Bonett realised that the Maltese colony in that city was beset by many problems, the most serious of which was neglect. The Maltese authorities worked hard to be able to send the emigrants to Sydney, but once they arrived in the receiving country they were left on their own. In November he wrote to Malta to see if it was possible to obtain more Maltese priests.

His contact in Malta was Mgr. G. de Piro who was then working hard to set up a society of priests and brothers who would in future volunteer to work among Maltese emigrants. In a letter written in June 1917 Bonett urged de Piro to send more priests to Australia as the need there was very pressing. The letter was written in Italian with English and Maltese interpolations.

It seemed that he had encountered some opposition to his ministry from a few Maltese. There were a few who did not like the presence of the priest among them and who had every interest to keep Bonett away.

Although Father Bonett is never specific in his letters, it comes out clearly from his correspondence that at least two Maltese had created a lot of trouble for him. He complained to de Piro:

"I suffered in silence from two evil men who call themselves Maltese. I had to endure patiently a satanic persecution from the two Maltese who had been in Australia for about five years. They did everything, possible to destroy me. They made false reports about me to the Australian Government; three times they told lies about me to the archbishop. They threw mud at my face. Mud at me, 1 who am the most respected by the Australians because of my excellent conduct when 1 give the best example to all. Thank God those satanic falsehoods came to nothing as my priestly character emerged purified and embellished. 1 did not take legal action against those two who smeared my name only because the archbishop asked me not to do."

Prudence on the part of Father Bonett did not allow him to mention the two Maltese who had caused him so much trouble, nor does he specify what they actually said or did to him. The two men had been in Australia sometime before 1916 and therefore were not among those who had arrived on the "Gange".

The mud thrown at Bonett did not stick. Although he normally corresponded in Italian he did reproduce in English the exact words the archbishop of Sydney used when he heard of the accusations made: "Do not worry, Father Bonett, we are fully satisfied with your behaviour, and if we had a good idea of your character, we have a better one now ."

When Bonett set foot on Australian soil he was a young priest of 32 years of age. His intervention on behalf of the migrants who had arrived on the "Gange" greatly enhanced his prestige and his good education made it possible for him to establish important contacts with civil and ecclesiastical authorities. At Lewisham he worked as an assistant parish priest and he was also chaplain to Lewisham Hospital which he described as one of the best in the world. That hospital had connections with Malta, as the sister-in-charge, Mother Francis Xavier, had been to Malta when her Congregation, popularly known by the Maltese as the Blue Sisters, were taking charge of another hospital in Malta.

Although his clash with the two unnamed persons must have soured his relations with some of the Maltese, Father Bonett never ignored the needs of the Maltese and Gozitans. Many of them lived in the area known as Wooloomooloo and knew him by the Maltese appellative of Dun Gulierm or Father Willie. He was an energetic priest and during his initial years in Sydney his patience must have worn somewhat thin with some of his countrymen who did not agree with everything he did or proposed to do.

In a letter written in June 1917 Bonett's condemnation of some of the Maltese living in Sydney was very vehement. He was addressing Mgr. de Piro and he wanted to impress his friend with the urgent need of sending more priests to Australia. His fervour to convince de Piro might have made him exaggerate the attitude of some of the Maltese and Gozitans then living in Sydney. Bonett wrote to de Piro:

"Our Maltese 'gentlemen' ignore their religious duties. The situation is desperate. May it please the Lord that all Maltese depart from Australia as soon as possible. The Maltese in Australia have made a very bad name for themselves. 1 am sure that those who have come here are the worst type that could have arrived from Malta".

Again Bonett was writing in Italian but to emphasise his point he changed into the Maltese vernacular: "Hallini, ahiar, ghax jech nibda ma niekaf katt". (I had better stop, otherwise I will never stop).

Bonett did not stop. He spared neither Gozitan nor Maltese: "Shame on the parish priests of Gozo for the type of Gozitans they send us. 1 have suffered so many humiliations because of them. They carry their possessions in those accursed flour-bags with those blue letters printed on them".

Then Bonett turned his fury on the Maltese: "If the Gozitans who have arrived in Australia are so backward, the sort of Maltese living in Australia are even worse. Their way of life is intolerable. We in Australia do not need these people, nor do we want them. I felt very happy when I suggested to the Australian authorities that they should suspend the entry of the Maltese".

Bonett was unjustly harsh in his complete condemnation of all immigrants who hailed from the Maltese Islands. In later years he was to mature and his approach was to be more constructive.

However, even in 1917, he was capable of offering a very sound suggestion. He urged the authorities in Malta to set up an organisation to prepare intending migrants for life in a foreign country. Bonett was against haphazard emigration and did not want his own country to get a bad name because of the type of emigrants sent overseas. That was why in 1917 he exclaimed that if all the Maltese were to leave Australia they would do that country a favour.

Bonett also suspected that most of the Maltese immigrants he knew were not interested in learning about the Australian way of life and they despised the good advice given to them by those who knew better. Bonett told de Piro that what he had written were hard facts. Young priests should not stay in Malta but should go and serve the Maltese who were living abroad, especially those in Australia. In fact Father Bonett had given the example and he was to work among the Maltese in New South Wales till his last breath.

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

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