The Arrival of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Malta
God is Providence and it is in His Divine Providence that the first Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd of Angers arrived in Malta in 1859.
After the establishment of the Generalate in 1835, the expansion of the “Good Shepherd” around the world was prodigious, indeed miraculous. In 1838 the Sisters arrived in Rome, Italy; then came Munich in Germany, followed by London in Gear Britain. On the 24th April 1843 the Sisters arrived in Mustapha, close to Alger and by October 1843 they settled in El-Biar, Algeria. Writing to them, Mary Euphrasia addresses them as “My children of the kingdom of Africa” (1). She was profoundly attracted by Africa and was ready to face all obstacles in order “to save souls” and ransom the poor little black girls who were cruelly sold at the markets of North Africa.
In 1845 the “Good Shepherd” arrived in Cairo, Egypt to help Fr. Gian Battista Olivieri, the great missionary priest from Genoa who used to travel back and forth to Alexandria and Cairo “ to buy” little children thus freeing them from slavery. It was at the sight of such misery that Mary Euphrasia had decided to open a House in Egypt where these “little one” could be taken care of and be spared the long painful voyage to Europe where, very often, at their arrival, they died out of exhaustion and hunger.
Encouraged by the flourishing mission in Egypt, Mary Euphrasia, in 1846 sent her Sisters to Tripoli, Libya. (2) Due to insurmountable difficulties in this Islamic environment this mission did not last more than ten years. They were compelled to go elsewhere and settled in Oran and Constantin in Algeria. They also moved eastward towards Asia-Minor, in Smyrna, Turkey, where they arrived on the 21st June 1849. This foundation was made possible at the request of the local Bishop, Mgr Anthony Mussabini.
In Smyrna they opened a small boarding-school and an orphanage, just as they had done in Cairo at the request of their Bishop. However, they soon realized that, just as in Tripoli, they would have never been allowed to accept “penitents”, which was the primary goal of their mission. The Turks would have burnt their House if they had dared to accept a local young woman or a girl. Faced with hostility from both Orthodox and Moslems, the community returned westward along the Mediterranean and settled in MALTA.
How did the Sisters of the Good Shepherd come to Malta? Who invited them? How were they known by the local Church? Was their mission common to other Orders or Institutes in Malta?
According to an 1859 Circular Letter of the Mother House in Angers, the Sisters always stopped in Malta on their way to Egypt or elsewhere, if they travelled along Mediterranean. It so happened that Canon Calcedonio Falzon (4) encountered these Sisters of the Good Shepherd on their way to Cairo and inquired about their specific mission. He was so impressed that he proposed this vocation to one of his penitents who already attracted to the religious life. Grazia Sammut, from Gharghur, liked the idea and though only 18 years old, travelled to Angers, with a companion, for the Novitiate at the Mother House in France. The Foundress, Mary Euphrasia admires the young Mediterranean girl whom she used to call “my little Maltese girl” (“ma che̕re petite Maltaise”). She could already envisage in these Maltese postulants a new foundation on the Island of St. Paul.
In 1849 Grazia received the religious habit and the name of Sr. Mary of the Holy Name of Jesus. With a special permission she was sent to Smyrna for her second year of Novitiate where, at the end of the term, she pronounced her Profession. Aware of the difficulties, particularly financial ones, that troubled the Sisters, the young Maltese Sister used to repeat: Let us go to Malta; there we shall be welcomed with open arms and the mission will flourish”. Shall we call her a young prophetess? Certainly God availed Himself of His little Maltese instrument to open new horizons and call others to follow Him (5).
It is obvious that Mary Euphrasia had been contemplating a foundation in Malta. In 1851, according to Alphonse Maria Galea, when Can. Anton Vella visited the Mother- house in Angers in 1851, there were four Maltese novices. On the 12th March 1854 Sr M. of St. Felicita Busuttil made her Profession in Angers and was missioned to “Holy Cross” in Rome.(6)
In 1856, in a letter to the superior Provincial of Egypt who was preparing her trip to Angers for the coming General Chapter, Mary Euphrasia writes:
“Oh, you could help us. Could you not stop for few days in Malta? There are some excellent Subjects (candidates) who are waiting; then you will go to Toulon…” (7)
By 1858 the sisters realized that their mission in Smyrna was no longer possible. On the 25th May 1858, Mary Eupharsia obtains the written authorization from Cardinal Patrizi, our Protector, for the transfer of this community to Malta. On the 2nd June 1858 she writes to the community to announce the good news: “…You are going to make a beautiful House in Malta! From now on you can let all the Sisters who are left behind at Smyrna to go carrying with them all that belongs to you…”(8)
Mother M. Dosithe̕e Joseph and Sr. Sammut came to Malta to make some preliminary contacts and look into the matter more closely. They visited the new Archbishop, Fra Gaetan Pace Forno who welcomes them very graciously but knowing the sentiments of the local people, suggests that they move slowly and prudently before undertaking a new foundation. (9) Can. Sammut, who had received the two Sisters whole-heartedly, accompanied them to the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition at 5, Federico Street, Valletta. In the meantime the French Consul, brother-in-law of the French Vice-Consul in Smyrna, offered them his house in Valletta because the Sisters of St. Joseph happened to be moving to Cospicua just during that time. Meanwhile, he transferred with his family to their country house in Sliema. (10)
After unsuccessful research, the Sisters moved to a convenient house, Casa Testaferrata Bonnici Ghaxaq in Casal Lija, which later become the State of Primary School and at our times, the seat of the Local Council, Social Services and Post Office.
The Sisters left Behind at Smyrna were told to join the Sisters in Malta. Two of them went to Patras where they opened a new foundation on the 28th October 1858.
Those who came to Malta on the 25th September 1858, brought along with them two small black girls. The “Good Shepherd” was thus officially founded in Malta on the 14th October 1858. The community was composed of French, Polish, German, English and Maltese Sisters:
Mary of St. Dosithe̕e Joseph, Superior, professed at Angers
Mary of St. Agle̕e Vaudier, ibid.
Mary of St. Francis of Sales Dunne, English, ibid.
Mary of St. Elisabeth Ledoulx, professed in Smyme
Mary of the Holy Name of Jesus, Maltese, ibid.
The Sisters also managed to carry with them most of the furniture, iron beds, choir stalls, church doors, linen and many other items which are still being used. Certainly at those times custom duty bureaucracy was not exigent. Moreover, the presence of Sr. Elisabeth Ledoulx (11), daughter of the French Vice- Consul in Smyrna, must have facilitated all transaction. Many of the local authorities had attended her Profession in 1857 and it may be assumed that help was not lacking for this missionary voyage.
Malta was indeed a stepping-stone to the Sisters of the Good Shepherd who were travelling in those times. From a letter of Mary Euphrasia, to Mary Euohrasia of Mary Delaporte, Provincial of Egypt, written towards the end of March 1859, we know that his Sister stopped in Malta on her way back to Cairo. Mary Euphrasia tells her: “You did well to stop in Malta”. Indeed, there was already a Maltese Sister, Mary of the heart of Mary Natagno, who had made her profession in the community of Cairo. (12)
From Lija to Balzan
In 1868(13) the Archbishop sent a Franciscan Father, Joseph da Pelagonia, O.F.M., to preach the retreat to the Sisters at Lija. He learned about their desire and need of having a regular Monastery and more space for the apostolate. He took the matter to heart and started looking for a building plot. It so happened that one day, while walking along Idmejda Street, Balzan, he saw on the ground just by a magnificent building site, a small medal of Our Lady. For him this meant a heavenly sign. He went around asking for contributions. The Sisters made a loan of one thousand pounds and Catherine Sammut, Sr. Grazia’s sister contributed generously towards this new foundation.
Without wasting any time, he found a master manson who started the project and he himself supervised the work and urged the workers. By 1870 the building was completed and on the 4th April the new chapel, dedicated to St. Joseph was blessed. Later the Sisters felt the need of bigger chapel which was built during the years 1898-1901 and was dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On the 7th of February 1901 it was solemnly blessed by the Archbishop, Mgr. Peter Pace. Among those present for the occasion there were also the Superior of Messina and Acireale.
It is to be recalled that in 1897 the Balzan foundation was made a Provincial House with four dependencies in Sicily, namely 2 Houses in Palermo (Casa Emenda and Corso Calatafimi), one in Acireale and another in Messina. The first Provincial Superior was Mother M. of St. Philomena Biancardi, the first vocation stemming forth from the Boarding School run by the Sisters themselves.
Other male Religious Orders, at the time, were linked with her respective communities in Sicily until World War 1 when due to political reasons, the two Islands separated. The Balzan community was put under the direct dependence of the Mother House and the Sicilian communities passed to the Roman Province where shortly afterwards, Mother M. Celestine Kesseler, Assistant in Malta was named Superior Provincial and in the 1940’s and 50’s, another Maltese Sisters, Mother M. Aloysius Bonavia was her successor. (14)
But let us return to the very first year of foundation. The first thing that the Sisters did was to install the grills; then they prayed “for souls”. They divided the House in three sections: for penitents for the little ones of the “Preservation” and one for boarders. Penitents did not delay in coming. Her mother brought the first one. Both had arrived from Alexandria, Egypt and had been sent by the Daughters of St. Vincent de Paul. The boarding school was closed down in 1912 with the arrival of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart who opened a College at St. Julian’s.
Vocations also did not delay in coming. In 1886 the Monastery in Malta had 26 Sisters, 44 penitents, 54 small ones and 30 boarders.
Gratitude is the memory of the heart. Two benefactors to whom the Sisters owe much gratitude are: Mr.V.Busuttil, the architect of the chapel who never accepted any fee but contributed in the best of his ability to embellish God’s house and Commendatore Alphonse Maria Galea, the “the father of the poor”, who flew to heaven from this Convent on the 30th July 1941. Before breathing his last, the children passed by him, one by one, to kiss his hand as a last gesture of their profound gratitude.
From his “Memoirs” we know that in 1904, Alphonse M. Galea had visited the Mother-House, with his family and Mgr. Anton Vella whose sister was a Good Shepherd at Angers. He recorded how Mgr Vella celebrated Mass at the Convents big chapel.
Letters, M.E. P. Volume V, Letter n° 871 (8 Volumes prepared by Sr.Odile Laugier, RBP and the Spiritually Centre, Angers- 1996)
The Sisters of St. Magdalen (the present Contemplative Sisters of the GS) accompany the Sisters on this difficult mission where they had to put on secular clothing. For this mission Mary Euphrasia had consulted a specialist of this Islamic country. He had warned her that the mission would be extremely difficult and the Sisters would have to visit homes and prisons and not to be established monastically as in Europe.
Archives of the Archdiocese of Malta, Floriana, dossier “Srs of Mercy”.
Vella, Marjanu, O.F.M., Glorija tal-Kleru Malti, TAU edizzjooni. Can.Falzon was a zealous priest who had been ordained on the 23rd September 1826. He was Treasurer of the Cathedral, a missionary, a catechist to foreigners, particularly with British sailors and soldiers. His brother, the deacon BI. Ignatius used to catechize and then bring them to him for Confession. Can.Falzon used to travel regularly to Rome to contact the missionary offices of “Propaganda Fide”. It could also be that he met the Sisters of the Good Shepherd while in Rome and not in Malta.
Grazia Sammut was born in Gharghur on the 7th May 1832. She received the religious habit in Angers on the 13th March 1852 and made her Profession in Smyrne on the 2nd September 1854. She died in Malta on the 19th August 1918.
Letters, Letter n° 1457, 29th November 1854, Volume VII
Letters, Letters n° 1538, 3rd November 1856, Volume VIII. In this letter Mary of the Conception Mortier was also asked to go to Jerusalem to look into the possibility of a foundation. She did go in April 1857 but realized that no foundation was possible there because girls were well taken care of (“bien encadre̕es) by their families. This good Provincial became Provincial of France in June 1857.
Letters, Letter n°1587 Volume VIII, op.cit.
The Archbishop belonged to the Monastic Order of Hermits of St.Augustine, a Roman Practice, Domestic Prelate of H.H. the Pope, Archbishop of Malta and Bishop of Rhodes.
Annals of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition.
Daughter of the Vice- Consul of France in Smyrna, she joined the Good Shepherd in this city and received the religious habit on the 20th October 1854. She professed on the 6th January 1857 instead of October 1856, postponed to permit the Archbishop of Smyrna, Mgr Mussabini preside the ceremony. The Consul of Austria was also present. Sr. Elisabeth came to Malta with the first founders but did not stay long. She accompanied M.M. Dosithe̕e to Angers were they arrived on the 25th September 1859. She remained at the Mother House until 1863 when she is sent to found Port Said and Suezin 1865. She was Assistant General in 1919 when her nephew, M. Louis LEDOULX, was the French Consul in Malta and was helpful to our Sisters.
Letters, Letter n° 1604, 22nd March 1859, Volume VIII, op.cit.
According to the 1958 edition of this history , Fr. Joseph da Palagonia came to preach retreat in 1866. This good Franciscan Religious belonged to a rich Sicilian family. Due to political turmoil in his times, they found refuge in Malta.
The House of Malta was annexed to the Province of Rome in 1960 at the time of Mother M. Rose Virginie Warnig as Provincial and subsequently Procurator and General Councillor for the English-speaking region.
In 1973 Malta became a District with Sr. M. Regina De Felice as District superior. “Little Flower” in Floriana was opened in 1974 and in 1978, “Mustina” in Mosta was inaugurated, half of the property having been donated by the heirs of Alphonse M. Galea.
Equally so is the apostolate with Refugees who land on our shores. In the late 1980s the Sisters understood the urgent need to help these helpless people. In the early 1990s the “Good Shepherd” offered its vacant premises to the Church authorities who were looking into the matter, co-joint with the Government. In 2003 more space was allotted for them and State employees were assigned to assist the hundreds of Refugees who arrive on our shores, very often in miserable conditions from Tunisia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, etc.
The Arrival of the Sisters of the GOOD SHEPHERD in Malta
We manage d to obtain some extra information regarding the transfer of the “Good Shepherd” from Smyrne, Turkey, to Malta arrived. A research done by Max Roche, Education, Assistance et Culture Française Ottoman (1784-1868, pp.196-197) was sent to use by Fr. Alphonse Sammut, OFM Conv. in January 2006.
We do know that after the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks in 1920, valuable documentation was lost, hence it is difficult to have more information about our Sisters there. However, we do know that they were five, living in a small house without a garden nor courtyard and they started a small school hoping to be able to ransom “small slaves and baptise them publicly” (56). They had no means of livelihood and initially, the Archbishop Mgr Mussubini, was most friendly and tried to help them even in their petition to Propaganda Fide for financial help. Thus they got a subsidy of 3,000 F annually. In 1855 there was an added donation of 2.000 F.
A controversy arises in 1857 when the Sisters expressed their desire to build a new convent. The Cardinal Protector, Card. Patrizi supported the official petition forwarded by the Provincial residing in Algérie.
The Sisters were unhappy because of their inability to exercise their fourth Vow “of conversion of wayward women”. They learnt about a beautiful property of 2 hectares, by the sea, close to a hospital and also new a silk- weaving factory 300 young girls, Greeks or Catholics, were employed. The property in mind was put on sale for 26.000 F and the community thought they could also build the new monastery. A disagreement arose between Mgr Mussabini’s estimation of the building (100.000 F) and the Provincial who was not happy with the Sisters’ small house.
In the meantime the Sisters were twelve and they were paying 4,000 F rent. The Archbishop consulted Propaganda Fide explaining his disapproval of a huge project (59) adding that, after all, “the city has no need” for this institution for wayward women”. The Sisters, he thought, would never have more than three or four of them. Besides the Daughters of Charity were already running schools and that was enough. There was no need o the Good Shepherd’s school where they had about fifty pupils in the small house they had rented.
The Archbishop’s hostility was evident. He appealed to Propaganda Fide who wrote to Angers asking that the Sisters be gradually withdrawn. The Sisters asked the Prefect to be transferred somewhere else “in a nearby city”. Mgr. Mussabini was once more in disaccord insisting that they would encounter the same difficulties as in Smyrne (61). That is how the transfer was decided for Malta.
56. Archives Propaganda Fide Lyon Proces- verbaux August 1850
57. idem Scr. Rit Smime no6 Patrizi lic Barnabo from 30th June 1857 Fol. 579
58 idem Scr. Rit Smime no6 It Barnabo from 2nd August 1857 Fol 581-583
60. Arch C. Prop. Scr.rif Smirne no6 a Barnabo; 61 Mussabini to President of the Council of Lyon 2.08. 1858