Maltese Visitors to Australia

For a number of years Bonett had to toil, practically alone, to improve the lot of the Maltese immigrant in New South Wales. In 1922 he founded the Melita Social Club which had its premises at no. 8, William Street, Sydney. Three years later the founder welcomed a distinguished Maltese lawyer and politician, Dr. A. Bartolo who had long been interested in Maltese emigration to English speaking countries within the Empire. In 1927 Bartolo was to serve under Lord Strickland as minister responsable for emigration.

Bartolo was in Australia on September Ist, 1925. He paid a visit to Canberra which was then being built as the nation's federal capital. Unfortunately Bartolo arrived at a time when work was at a standstill because the area had been ravaged by mighty floods which had brought havoc and destruction through the valley of the Murrumbidgee river.

The reason for Bartolo's visit to Australia was to attend the Empire Press Conference which started on September 29. Lord Strickland had asked his colleague Bartolo to enquire about the state of the Maltese in Australia and it was for this reason that he wished to meet the Rev. Bonett and the members of the Melita Social Club.

The distinguished visitor from Malta was welcomed at the Melita by Bonett on September 12. That date happened to be the third annual reunion of the Club. There were about 300 people present, most of them Maltese. Later on Bartolo said that the Maltese immigrants he met at the Melita Social Club were people able to hold their place among the working class anywhere in the world. He was impressed by the way they dressed, by their manners and by their general attitude.

Bonett, the founder of the Club, gave a speech in honour of Bartolo. In his speech Bonett said that he had founded the Club for "the social, intellectual and moral betterment of our people". That epoch also showed a significant change in the attitude of Father Bonett from that expressed in 1917. Eight years had worked a marked difference. Bonett assured Bartolo that "we never regretted the day we landed in this great Commonwealth, the best country on God's earth. Our people have done well in Australia. We pay our taxes, we are law-abiding citizens. We love Australia first".

The founder and members of the Club offered a gift to Bartolo. He was given a pair of Australian cuff links made up of a miniature map of Australia within a boomerang. Bartolo was also given a golden pen. The president of the Melita, Mr. Paul Grech, aided by his secretary, Mr. M. Bezzina, told their visitor that when Father Bonett had started the Club they had to raise the sum of 250 to pay as rent. Eventually they bought two billiard tables for 600 and also secured the service of a piano player. They had spent another 100 to acquire the necessary furniture. According to the president the Club's yearly income amounted to 500 a year. The money came from direct contributions and from those players who used their billiard tables.

As a footnote to Bartolo's visit to the Melita Social Club it was noted that the Maltese in Sydney, unlike those in other areas, enjoyed the fruit of a good leadership provided by Father Bonett. One person told Bartolo that the priest was idolised by the Maltese.

Within eight years Father Bonett had achieved important and significant results within his community. The Maltese had a centre which provided social and cultural activities. They had their own priest who looked after them and acted as a vital link between them and the Australian authorities. Yet in 1925 he had only four more years to live, even though he was still in the prime of life.

Three years after the visit by Bartolo another prominent Maltese visited Australia. He was Mgr. Paolo Gauci who went to Australia as Malta's representative at the International Eucharistic Congress held in Sydney between September 5 and 9. Gauci wrote a pamphlet about his visit to Australia and that booklet is another interesting source about the Maltese in Australia in 1928.

Gauci left Naples for Sydney on board the "Orama" with 600 passengers who were mostly English-speaking. There were also many emigrants on board, mostly Maltese and Italians. The Pope's Legate, Cardinal Cerretti, was also on the ship and when he was told that the emigrants on board were mostly Catholic he went to speak to them and said Mass for them.

The "Orama" made a favourable impression on Gauci. He called her "un palazzo gallegiante" or a floating palace. The monsignor was a prominent person in Malta and had shown keen interest in the welfare of emigrants as he had been a member on the Board of Emigration and a senator representing the clergy in the Maltese Parliament. Whenever the "Orama" entered a port of call, Gauci contacted the Maltese community. This he did in Port Said, Fremantle and Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.

At Fremantle Gauci said that they had to undergo a rigorous medical check-up. He arrived in Perth on August 20 and was received by Bishop Clune who himself had been to Malta in 1913. Perth impressed Gauci as "a city which is experiencing a magnificent growth in the construction of buildings and in the expansion of trade".

Gauci was in Melbourne on August 27, and his comments on that city were: "Melbourne is a very big city, well planned, beautiful and clean. The streets are long, with public and private buildings which compare well with those of any modern city".

On August 30, 1928, the "Orama" finally entered the harbour of Sydney. Gauci was present when the cathedral of St. Mary's was opened again to the public after it had been extended. Cardinal Cerretti opened the main door with a golden key. Sydney impressed Gauci with its size and the quick pace of its life. He thought that the people of Sydney were friendly and frank and their general behaviour was like that of Europeans. The streets could hardly cope with the traffic because there were many private cars while blue and yellow taxis were to be seen in their hundreds. Gauci calculated that in the State of New South Wales there were about 180,000 private cars.

In his correspondence Gauci stated: "Sydney is the marvellous city of a marvellous country. It is more so now during the magnificent celebrations for the Eucharistic Congress. I have come across and have been approached by many of our countrymen settled here and I hope, during my stay, to be able to do something for their spiritual welfare".

In another letter Gauci wrote: "Everybody here speaks well of the Maltese both from a religious as well as from the labour aspect. When I arrived here, many with Fr. Bonett came aboard the "Orama" with the Maltese flag to welcome us. Afterwards they gave me an evening at the Melita Social Club. We are now about to have a week's mission. They also took part in the procession of the Eucharistic Congress with the Maltese Flag and were cheered all along the way. 1 am going from here to Melbourne, then to Adelaide, then to Broken Hill. 1 will look after the spiritual needs of our fellow countrymen who are so much in need of a Maltese priest".

An interested eye-witness of what was going on in Sydney at the time was Mr. Paul Attard who lived at 190, Bourke Road. Mr. Attard was an articulate observer who had been living in Australia for some time. He also kept a regular correspondence with his contacts in Malta, particularly with Mr. Henry Casolani. His correspondence with Mr. Casolani is very relevant to the situation of the Maltese immigrants in New South Wales. On September 12, 1928, Mr. Attard wrote the following letter to Malta's Superintendent of Emigration:

"Dear Mr. Casolani,

The Eucharistic Congress concluded on Sunday 9th September with an impressive ceremony in which over three quarters of a million people of every denomination witnessed Cardinal Cerretti imparting the benediction. The participation of the Maltese in the procession was a splendid idea and Fr. Bonett, who was the organiser, deserves every credit for the success. The white and red banner of Malta was so proudly and prominently carried, with over a hundred Maltese marching behind it in the most orderly manner.

A few weeks before the Congress Fr. Bonett called a meeting at the Club and a committee was formed to organise the participation of the Maltese in the procession. Among those present were Dr. Mattei and Mgr. Gauci. A photo was taken".

Fortunately the photograph referred to by Mr. Attard has survived and is reproduced in this book. Bonett utilised to the full the visit to Sydney by Mgr. Gauci. He knew that the distinguished prelate from Malta had a lot of influence in Maltese politics and with the Church authorities. He invited Gauci to a meeting at the Melita Social Club to discuss the needs of the Maltese in Australia. That meeting took place on September 23, 1928. At that meeting Gauci took an active part and the proceedings were recorded by Mr. E. Castaldi. Dr. Mattei was also present.

Mgr. Gauci asked those present to tell him in clear terms what they expected from the Maltese Government so that he could present their suggestions as a Senator and as a member on the Board of Emigration. It was generally agreed that the Maltese urgently needed a representative of the Maltese Government to live and work in Australia and to act as their spokesman with the Australian authorities. Most of those present felt that Captain Henry Curmi was the ideal candidate for that office.

The discussion then turned on the actual situation of the Maltese in Australia, on their relations with the Australian authorities, the conditions of work then available and whether it was then prudent to encourage further emigration from Malta to Australia.

That last point generated arguments for and against further emigration to Australia. Present at the meeting were some who had already petitioned Dr. A. Bartolo, the Maltese minister responsible for emigration, to restrict the numbers of Maltese emigrating to Australia because of the adverse economic conditions then prevalent in the country. It seemed that the majority favoured those who had asked Bartolo to discourage further emigration to Australia because jobs were hard to come by.

Father Bonett and Mr. P. Attard contested this statement and while they admitted that employment in the cities was slack there were plenty of jobs awaiting those who were prepared to move out to the country. But Gauci intervened when he thought that the kind of people who were unemployed in the cities were not fit to work in the country.

The meeting ended with a repeated call for a permanent Maltese representative in Australia and for more Maltese priests to be sent to Australia to work among the Maltese immigrants.

The meeting organised by Bonett did have one lasting effect. Less than six months after September 23, 1928, Captain Henry Curmi was on his way to Australia to take up his post as the official representative of the Maltese Government in Australia. The other request to send more priests did not produce immediate results. Indeed, less than six weeks after the meeting held in William Street, Sydney, the Maltese in that city were mourning the loss of their beloved Father William Bonett.

In October Fr. Bonett complained about an ailment he felt in his throat. In 1917 he had been operated on and had his tonsils removed. He had to stay at Lewisham hospital for three weeks. He was now back in the same hospital which he had served as a chaplain. At first the doctors did not diagnose anything serious, but his throat turned septic and he was anointed by his friend Mgr. H.M. MacDermott of Leichhardt where Bonett had served as an assistant.

At twelve o'clock, November 9, Mgr. MacDermott recited the Angelus with his patient. When Bonett and MacDermott had finished their prayers Bonett looked at his friend and addressed him in a firm voice: "Now let me go, 1 am dying". As Mgr. MacDermott pronounced the last rites Fr. William Bonett expired.

Mgr. MacDermott described his assistant as "a perfect priest, a credit to his native land, to his seminary and to his professors". At his funeral Mass, the preacher, the Rev. P. Dunleavy, paid tribute to the memory of Bonett who, Dunleavy said, had answered God's call to go and teach all nations. Bonett had obeyed the call and for twelve years he laboured in Australia where conditions were not always ideal. He spent his last seven years in Leichhardt among many immigrants from his own native Malta, from Italy and from other nations as well.

Mr. Paul Attard was one of the many Maltese who went to Bonett's funeral. He was present at the solemn High Mass which was held at St. Fiacre's Church. Dr. Sheehan, co-adjutor to the archbishop of Sydney, was present. Father William Bonett was forty-four years old when he passed away on November 9, 1928. He was buried the next day at Rockwood cemetery. The funeral consisted of about twenty cars, half of which were occupied by Maltese.

The visits by Dr. A. Bartolo and Mgr. P. Gauci had helped to consolidate the bond of brotherhood between the Maltese in Australia and those who had remained in their native islands. The hard pioneering work done by Bonett was acknowledged by both Bartolo and Gauci. It was also a fortunate coincidence that the two visitors had been prominent men involved in the plans to further develop Maltese emigration to Australia.

When Bartolo became Minister for Emigration and Labour under the Strickland administration in 1927, he was ideally suited to understand the needs of Maltese living abroad and he himself had visited Maltese living in Canada and in Australia.

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

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