A eulogy to Joseph De Piro (Mgr Enrico Bonnici – 1933)


It was befitting to find a church where children from all the orphanages, together with the friends of Monsignor De Piro and all who knew him, could gather. Because of its size, this could not happen in the small church attached to St Joseph’s Home, Hamrun. In this bigger venue, and with our prayers, after its grief, our heart finds rest in the holy peace coming from the union God created, uniting the living with those who have gone to his house.


We thought it best to print this tribute, because it is not right that the achievements of a good person should be buried with him. Rather, they should be remembered, and if necessary even inscribed on a bronze plaque, as an inspiration for others, and in gratitude to God who has given us such an individual that attracted everyone with his love of neighbour.


This was indeed Mgr De Piro! He was renown in Malta since he lived his life at the service of others. Although he spent much of his time working in the offices he had in the orphanages under his administration, his heart and his pocket were always concerned about, and available to, the poor and all those who approached him for assistance.


If you observed him from a distance, walking down the street, you would have thought he was a man of no concerns in life. Carrying an umbrella under his arm and with a book in his hand, he gave the impression that he was never in any hurry. Yet, if you approached to speak to him, you would have had to call out to draw his attention. The look in his eyes indicated a multitude of thoughts chasing through his mind. As soon as you started talking to him, you noticed that he endeavoured to clear every thought from his mind, in an effort to recollect himself and concentrate on what you were sharing with him. As he did this, he rubbed his eyes and clutched his forehead, as if just having been woken from a deep sleep. He would then listen to you without interrupting. If you asked for something he could help you out with, he would smile like a little boy; if you spoke to him about some trouble in the world, he would let out a deep sigh; and if you made him happy with some good news, you would see his eyes shining with joy. To encourage you and to urge you to continue working for the benefit of others, he would pat you on your shoulder and say, “God be with you.” When he spoke about the current world situation, he looked as if his eyes and his thoughts were visualising all that was in store for us. He had the ability to synthesise past events with current ones, and explain why things were this way and not any other way. Indeed, Mgr De Piro was a person of great wisdom and experience.


Undoubtedly, anyone reading this, would like a brief outline of Mgr De Piro’s life.


He was born at Mdina, on the 2nd November 1877, the son of the noble Alexander De Piro and Ursula Agius. The following day he was baptised at the cathedral.


As a child he was intelligent and had a heart of gold. As he grew older, he dedicated himself to his studies. He became an officer in the Malta regiment and considered studying to become a lawyer. God had other plans for him. At the age of 21, he went to Rome and enrolled at the Capranica College to start preparing for the priesthood. He was ordained priest on the 15th March 1903, at St John Lateran Basilica, Rome. He had always wanted to return to Malta and join Mgr F. Bonnici at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Hamrun. Two weeks after his ordination in Rome, he celebrated his first Mass in Malta at the Mdina cathedral. He was assisted by Mgr F. Bonnici and Mgr A. Mifsud.


On the 5th of April he returned to Rome to finish his studies, but had to change his plans because his health deteriorated. Instead, he was sent to Switzerland to regain is health. He stayed in Davos for eighteen months and, with God’s grace he recovered – as he shared with everyone and as he wrote in a small book that the author came across.


Mgr De Piro wrote, “During my time in Switzerland, amidst the ice-capped Alps, away from my own country, I nourished in my mind the wish to return to Malta and reside at St Joseph’s Orphanage. With me I only had my prayer; and I prayed, prayed and prayed.”


He returned to Malta on the 2nd of March 1904 and was sent to minister as a priest in Qrendi parish. A few years later, when the Franciscan friars left Fra Diegu Orphanage, Mgr Pace, Bishop of Malta, called him, and entrusted him with the administration of this orphanage. He started on the 2nd of August 1907, and remained in that position until the day he died. He did everything he could for this orphanage. Assisted by the Franciscan sisters, he looked after everything. When the Franciscan sisters were asked about their relationship with him, they all confirmed that they never lacked anything. He provided them with anything they asked for. No one knows where he acquired what was needed or how he got them.


He never tired of teaching and preaching to the girls. He endeavoured to teach them how to love God and how they could and should live after they left the orphanage. He was concerned when, for any reason whatsoever, one of the girls left the orphanage. He would have preferred to continue looking after the girls even after they left the orphanage. He often tried to gather the young women who had left the orphanage to offer them help as they faced life outside the orphanage. He emphasised that these young women, who after being so lovingly cared for in the orphanage had to face the world, encountered great dangers.


In 1922, when Fr Joseph Bugeja returned to the Father, Mgr De Piro was appointed to the ‘Bonnici’ Orphanage in St Joseph’s Home. He knew the place well, because he had often been asked to act as director of this Home, where today 140 boys reside.


At St Joseph’s Orphanage there was enough work for more than one person. It is easy to understand how much work was involved to provide for the daily spiritual and physical needs of all those boys. During his time as director, he extended the building, he renovated the chapel and extended the building to be able to welcome more boys. He felt sorry when he was faced with so many requests and petitions from people who wanted to place their boys in the orphanage, but he had no place to welcome them.


When they left the orphanage, he hoped to find the boys a suitable employment according to the trade they had learnt at the orphanage. He bedecked the boys with a full set of clothes, and handed them the sum of money he would have saved for them during the time they had been working and had behaved themselves.


At this orphanage, Mgr De Piro was not only concerned about the boys. He was often in the confessional, celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation with anyone who requested it. Many other people looked out for him with a variety of requests. His work was never-ending. He welcomed everyone. Regardless of whether he could help or not, everyone left reassured, because his words were like a soothing balm for the soul. He was compassionate and supportive of anyone burdened with life’s troubles. When one of his friends asked him, “Monsignor, in all your work, what troubles you most?” he looked at him and answered, “People’s griefs and sorrows is makes me sad.” His response is witness to the goodness of his heart; he suffered when he heard and saw the daily sufferings of people around him.


He felt the need to open a residence near St Joseph’s Orphanage, where he could care for young boys from their birth until they were old enough to reside in the orphanage. He succeeded in this venture and today, in 1933, close to St Joseph’s Orphanage, there is another residence under the care of the members of the congregation of Miss Curmi, from Zejtun – may God grant her eternal rest. This house can welcome twenty-three boys between the ages of three months and seven years, and there are plans for a bigger building to welcome more children who would have no future unless someone saved them from their troubles.


Miss Josephine Curmi, who I have referred to earlier, the foundress of the Jesus of Nazareth Orphanage, Zejtun, died suddenly on the 27th Decmeber 1931. Mgr De Piro had already been working at this orphanage for some time, and was of great help to those who lived there. He worked hard to help these women set up their congregation of sisters of Jesus of Nazareth, be recognised by the Church and be better able to run their orphanage. His dream had almost been achieved when he died. (What Mgr De Piro worked so hard for has been achieved, and this congregation still exists today.) The orphanage in Zejtun today in 1933 looks after one hundred girls, who are being well and lovingly looked after. After the loss of their mother, Miss Curmi, the girls are now mourning the loss of Mgr De Piro, whom they looked up to as their father.


In Birkirkara there is another orphanage for girls, founded by Miss Josephine Psaila, named after St Francis de Paul. Mgr De Piro helped this orphanage upgrade their facilities to suit their needs. With the help of many other people of good will, this orphanage is growing and welcomes twenty-two girls.


In Birkirkara, Mgr De Piro also accepted to look after the Oratory, where boys can come together and be prepared to go to evangelise in missionary lands.


Despite all this work, it seemed that the Maltese island was far too small for Mgr De Piro’s mind and heart. He also reached out to the island of Gozo where, in 1925, he founded another orphanage named St Joseph’s Home. Here he housed twenty-four boys who are now being cared for by the Society of St Paul.


The Society of St Paul we just mentioned was Mgr De Piro’s most treasured dream. He is the founder of this society. He wanted to educate good young men and prepare to send them to overseas missions. He had this idea in his mind since before he became a priest. He often said, “Let us not forget our sisters and brothers overseas.” He took the idea from Mgr F. Bonnici, a dear friend who died before him. He continued working on this idea until it succeeded.


One can understand how hard he struggled to plant this tree and to see it grow. From his own pocket, he rented a small house in Mdina, and, some time later, he wanted to acquire the church dedicated to St Agatha, Rabat. He bought land around this church and started building a house for his society. He sweated blood until he was finally able to see the building started. God granted him the grace of being able to see the first section of this house ready to be occupied. This happened in June of this year, 1933. That day he was so happy. He lived his life in poverty and in sacrifice together with these missionaries of St Paul, always wanting to live with them as a religious. When Mgr Pace, Bishop of Malta, wanted to appoint him Coadjutor to the Dean of the Cathedral Chapter, De Piro asked him not to give him this honour, but he accepted in obedience towards the bishop.


Part of Mgr De Piro’s work was to assist the missionaries in Abyssinia, where he had sent Br Joseph, who today does so much good work in that place. De Piro planned to go to Abyssinia this November, to encourage and support the missionaries there. He also helped them by bringing together a group of men and women to help him collect clothes and other necessary items to send to this mission.


He was also director of the Association of Priest Adorers, and used to organise their meetings at St Calcedonio’s, encouraging them to live a holy life in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.


When Mgr Caruana was appointed Bishop of Malta, he immediately asked De Piro to be his secretary. He stayed in this role for three years. From October 1918 to November 1920 he was rector of the Major Seminary, where he was highly regarded by all for his goodness and his holiness. More recently, the bishop chose him to represent the Maltese clergy on the Senate. In this small book I cannot pretend to provide a complete biography of Mgr De Piro. Our wish was only to give a few indications about this great benefactor of Malta, to print it in a booklet and to hand it out during his memorial at the university chapel, Valletta, on the 23rd October 1933. We wanted to honour him who, though born and bred in a noble family, lived as a poor man, as his mother called him. May God console his mother. Whenever she was told that he was visiting her, Mrs Ursula De Piro used to say, “Here comes my beggar.” Her beggar and the beggar of many orphans.


He died at a very solemn moment. At the conclusion of the procession of Our Lady of Sorrows, he entered the church dedicated to St Cajetan, Hamrun, and, from the pulpit spoke to those gathered about the death of the parish priest Fr Cajetan Mifsud. He felt sorry for this great loss suffered by the parish.


Later, kneeling in front of the Blessed Sacrament, before Benediction, he felt unwell. Everyone tried to help. They called Professor Ellul and some other doctors and, after they examined him, they took him to the Central Hospital in Floriana. A life lived in such great poverty ended with those who were in need, in the hospital. He died on 17th September 1933, at 9:00 in the evening.


Before concluding these few words, we must quote from his will, which he wrote on the 15th March 1932, and were he really demonstrated his kind heart.


In article ten of his will he wrote, “I ask forgiveness of all those who could have felt offended with anything I did in the many roles I occupied, and I ask them to blame human misery and weakness and not an act of hatred.”


In these few words, among many other counsels that we find in his will – the greatest witness to his life – everyone can see and understand who Mgr De Piro really was.


Today he is in God’s glory, praised by everyone.


It is our duty, we who have survived him, to continue helping, to the best of our abilities, his many works, chief among these, the one closest to his heart, the Missionary Society of St Paul, from where he hoped to gather so much help to our missionary sisters and brothers.


I conclude hoping that his kind heart, that knew how to be compassionate with everyone, is also sympathetic with these few words, with which we wanted to thank God and to do some good among our sisters and brothers.

Short biographical note about Mgr Enrico Bonnici, author of this eulogy.

Mgr Enrico Bonnici was born in Floriana, Malta, on 27th April 1891. He studied at the University of Malta and graduated in canon law and as doctor of theology. He was ordained priest in 1915 and was appointed parish priest of Christ the King Parish, Paola, in 1916 and of St Paul’s Parish, Rabat, in 1922. Between 1928 and 1937 he was the first editor of the Catholic newspaper Lehen is-Sewwa, from 1931 to 1937 he was rector of the major seminary, and in 1937 he became Chancellor to the diocesan Curia. When Joseph De Piro died in September 1933, Bonnici was asked to step into his role as administrator of the various orphanages and was also as the bishop’s superior-delegate of the Missionary Society of St Paul. He stayed in these roles until 31st January 1934. In 1940 he was appointed director of St Joseph’s Orphanage, founded in 1893 by his uncle Mgr Francesco Bonnici, and stayed in this role until his death on the 5th of August 1961.