In his teaching Jesus said, ‘Beware of the scribes who like to walk about in long robes, to be greeted obsequiously in the market squares, to take the front seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets; these are the men who swallow the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers. The more severe will be the sentence they receive.’
He sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the treasury, and many of the rich put in a great deal. A poor widow came and put in two small coins, the equivalent of a penny. Then he called to his disciples and said to them, ‘I tell you solemnly, this poor widow has put more in than all who have contributed to the treasury; for they have all put in money they had over, but she from the little she had has put in everything she possessed, all she had to live on.’
The gospel message is a very challenging message; Jesus invites us to be totally committed to the kingdom. The Servant of God Joseph De Piro lived this gospel value in many aspects of his life, as can be seen in the dissertation ‘The Incarnational Aspect of the Spirituality of Joseph De Piro.’
As Director, De Piro never put any limits on the number of boys or girls that could be admitted in an orphanage; he did his best to welcome all who wished to enter any of the orphanages under his care. Br Felix Muscat mssp spoke about the extensions De Piro wanted to build at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Malta. When, in 1922, the Servant of God accepted the direction of the Jesus of Nazareth Orphanage, Zejtun, he immediately started building of a new residence. De Piro’s insistence on not limiting the number of children in his orphanages almost led him to not accepting to establish and direct St Joseph’s Orphanage, Gozo. In the original statutes Bishop Michael Gonzi had limited the number of boys to twenty-four. De Piro thought that this condition had “… little in common with charity … by which the charitable institution under study needs to be inspired.” Only after Bishop Gonzi agreed to change the statutes De Piro accepted this ministry.
Five years after opening the orphanage in Gozo, De Piro started planning for a new building to house the orphanage. Unfortunately, this plan could not be realised, due to the opposition by the farmer who cultivated the land where the new building was to be built.
Moreover, De Piro did he not limit the orphanages under his care for any particular type of children. In Malta there is an orphanage, which already existed at the time of Joseph De Piro, where the directors reserve the right to decide who to accept. Dr Alexander Cachia Zammit said that, “De Piro accepted everyone, even boys not accepted at this other orphanage” Cachia Zammit, a medical doctor, also said that, “… apart from coming from poor backgrounds, in many cases these children were dirty and carried a number of infections.”
“With regards to children, De Piro did his utmost. My father used to say that he knew of four unfortunate boys who lived in very bad conditions, without food or clothes, or any spiritual care. The boys’ mother was dead and the father was too busy at work at Saint Lucian’s Tower, Marsaxlokk. My father spoke to Mr Alphonse Maria Galea about these boys, and Galea asked De Piro whether he could accept them at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Malta. Unhesitatingly, De Piro took three of the boys under his care at the orphanage while my father looked after the fourth boy.”
Nazzareno Attard, who as a child lived at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Malta, said that he accepted at the orphanage even though he had a disability, while Loreto Rapa said that De Piro admitted a boy with a disability at the orphanage in Gozo.
De Piro’s unlimited love for the disadvantaged boys and girls at the orphanages was witnessed in the untiring patience he showed towards them. He also insisted that those looking after these children practiced the same level of patience. Mother Cleophas Bondin, a Franciscan Sister working at Fra Diegu Orphanage, said: “When I spoke to Joseph De Piro about the girls’ behaviour, he told me, ‘We should be grateful to God that they are here at the orphanage and not elsewhere.’” “I have never heard him shouting at the girls; he always treated them kindly and always gave them anything they needed. He went out of his way to make them happy.” Sr Assunta Galea said that, “Whenever Joseph De Piro visited Fra Diegu Orphanage and a girl standing in the corridor as a punishment for her bad behaviour, he said: ‘Poor girl, what did she do? Please forgive her, Mother.’ He would then turn to the girl and tell her: ‘Will you promise Mother never to do this again?’”
Mother Pacifica Xuereb said that the Director always instructed the Sisters not to shout at the girls but to be always patient with them.
“In those days, children were mischievous, and whenever a girl misbehaved the mother superior brought her to De Piro and told him: “Father, I brought this girl to you to correct her.” “Yes, bring her in,” he would answer. He never shouted at the girl, rather, he spoke to her gently and warned her not to repeat her actions again. He never punished any girl for her behaviour. When he spoke to the girls about their behaviour, he never used any harsh words.”
The Servant of God wanted the Sisters at the Jesus of Nazareth Orphanage to behave in the same way with the girls at their orphanage. “Once he saw me, Sr Pia, shouting at a girl. He corrected me saying, ‘Please be gentle with the girls.’ I answered him: ‘They do not learn, it is useless telling them anything.’ ‘Well, then, repeat what you have told them, as if you had never told them before,’ he replied.”
Fra Diegu Orphanage was founded in 1886, in a small house in Birkirkara. It was then moved to a house in Hamrun and later to a second house in the same town. In 1907, when De Piro took over the administration of this orphanage, it was providing for the basic needs of the girls. The Servant of God examined the girls before their First Holy Communion. Carmena Mallia, who had lived at the orphanage, spoke about the devotion to Our Lady of Pompei, which had been introduced by the Servant of God. Mallia said that although at the orphanage some trades were already being taught before De Piro became Director, he added more trades. He also invited people from richer levels in society, to visit the orphanage to purchase artefacts produced by the girls. The girls were given some of the money made from these sales. Sr Pauline Cilia and Sr Eletta Sant, who worked at Fra Diegu Orphanage at the time of the Servant of God, and Elena Refalo, one of his nieces, spoke about to the introduction of the Christmas Tree at the orphanage.
At the Jesus of Nazareth Orphanage, the situation was different. Although the Foundress Guzeppina Curmi had started looking after the girls in 1913, she never had a proper place for them. When, in 1922, Archbishop Caruana asked De Piro to take over the direction of the orphanage, he immediately started helping Curmi to construct a new residence. Looking at the documents, one can conclude that he was looking after the building works. When the construction was completed, De Piro helped organise the daily needs of the girls.
De Piro’s limitless dedication for the disadvantaged boys at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Malta, pushed him try to find work for the older youths in the United States of America. When he saw the letter Costantino Gatt, an expatriate, wrote to Fr George Bugeja, he immediately wrote to Malta’s Prime Minister and asked him to subsidise the expenses to assist the boys who wanted to emigrate.
The house for babies, at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Malta, was another of the never-ending list of projects De Piro initiated in favour of the orphans.
The Servant of God did not limit his charity to those living in the orphanages but also reached out to their families. Carmena Mallia said that: “Parents of children at the orphanage also benefited from De Piro’s generosity … he offered financial aid to the families who needed it.” Mother Pacifica Xuereb confirmed: “De Piro was a man of great charity. When some of the children’s mothers came to visit their children, he gave them the money he was going to spend.” Moreover, in the Petty Cash Book ‘Casa di San Giuseppe Istituto Bonnici. Piccola Cassa ‘A’, 1926-1932’ the Servant of God noted various donations he made to the families of the boys who were at the orphanage in Hamrun.
While the boys were at the orphanage, they were not paid any money for any work they did there. Nazzareno Attard said that some money was put aside for them was given to them when they left the orphanage. Carmena Mallia said the same with regards to the girls at Fra Diegu Orphanage.
“His care was not limited to our stay at the orphanage but followed us even when we left. He bought bales of cloth to make clothes, and when we reached the age of fifteen, he told Mother Superior to prepare a parcel of clothes we needed when we left the orphanage. He also regularly put some money aside to be given to the girls when they departed.”
The Director continued to follow the boys and girls even after they left the orphanages. He often assisted financially those who had left St Joseph’s Orphanage, Malta. He also wrote several petitions to the Archbishop, on behalf of the girls who had been at Fra Diegu Orphanage, in the name of the old girls of Fra Diegu Institute requesting money from legacies administered by the bishop’s office. On the 25 anniversary as director of Fra Diegu Orphanage, De Piro invited all the girls who had been at the orphanage. In his address he showed that he was still their father: “If you need anything, come to me, do not hesitate. The fact that you have left the orphanage should not hinder you from coming to me.”
De Piro’s limitless creativity, inventiveness and initiative in favour of the girls, especially those who had been at Fra Diegu Orphanage, made him found the Sacred Heart Workshop, Valletta, in 1927. Here girls could learn a trade, practise the same trade and get paid for the work they did, thus earning a living. The Servant of God came up with the idea, lobbied the government of the day to lend him the place and worked to get the money to rent the place. He also needed instructors to teach the girls, so he sought the cooperation of Maria Assunta Borg to look after the daily running of the place. Unfortunately, this did not work out as planned!
Although De Piro never spoke in the Senate of the Third Maltese Parliament, when it dealth with those who had been in the orphanages he made a memorable speech in an effort to keep these young adults from living on the streets.
De Piro was not only interested in the work the employees did at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Hamrun; for him they were not mere workers but human beings. He was sensitive to their needs. He was courageous enough to take money from the orphanage, money needed for the boys and for the building extensions at the orphanage, and gave it to the employees or their families. George Wilson, a bookbinder at the orphanage, said that the Director paid the workers himself and gave extra money to those who needed it, without letting anyone else know. He gave money to Nazzareno Attard who was injured at work at the orphanage.
In 1911 Joseph De Piro was appointed by Archbishop Peter Pace as Canon of the Metropolitan Cathedral. The Servant of God did not want this, but accepted in obedience to the Archbishop. He was appointed coadjutor to Monsignor Vincent Vassallo, Dean of the Cathedral Chapter, and, when Vassallo died, he succeeded him in this role. This meant that De Piro had to be involved in a large number of Church and state committees, commissions and councils. He was the first representative of the Metropolitan Chapter on the National Assembly called by Sir Filippo Sceberras, 1918-1921. During the second session of the National Assembly, De Piro’s openness towards the needy made him accept to intervene on behalf of the Maltese to obtain their basic rights from the British authorities during the Sette Giugno riots. Since during the riots four Maltese men were killed and several wounded, he accepted to become the treasurer of the Committee set up to assist the families of those who had died or had been injured.
De Piro’s limitless dedication to the needy could be noticed most clearly even in his zeal to catechise. Christian Scerri said this to the Ecclesiastical Tribunal, “When I used to meet him (the Servant of God) on the bridge going to Mtarfa for the catechism classes, because he taught catechism there… Yes, when he found out that the children of this area did not learn any catechism he started going there himself. And he was a Monsignor already!”
The above testimony meant that the Servant of God did this evangelisation when he was already burdened with a lot of responsibilities! We do not know for which specific years Scerri was referring to, but if we were to take into consideration even the very first year of De Piro’s Monsignorate we find out that by that time he was already Director of Fra Diegu Institute. This had something like 138 girls in it and the Director there had to go as far as running here and there begging alms for the girls and the nuns who took care of them. Also, a year before becoming Monsignor, in 1910, he had just started his missionary Society. Its members depended on him for all the aspects of their life, whether human, academic or spiritual. And, De Piro went to Mtarfa on foot. This meant a half hour walk! Not to mention the fact that especially in those days the Maltese would have never imagined a Monsignor teaching catechism to small children. More and more was this not conceived by the Monsignori themselves. It was considered a lot downgrading for these dignitaries! Besides, this, Monsignor came from a noble family, and therefore himself a noble!
In the Church’s charitable institutes the Director was not satisfied with only providing for the basic needs of the poor boys and girls who lived there. He himself checked their preparation for their first holy communion and confirmation.
When it came to his Society, the Servant of God wanted that even its members would be unlimited in their availability towards the needy; the Founder introduced them even to the catechetical evangelisation.
At the beginning of the Society the catechism imparted in Rabat, Malta, was many a times given in the parishchurch for all ages together. According to Christian Scerri, De Piro and his Society were not satisfied with only gathering together the boys; they wanted to have something more organised according to ages, or at least according to stages, “… in order to gather together the boys for catechism. After a while there were added another two classes, one for the First Holy Communion and another one for Confirmation. His first attempt was to gather together the boys after the First Holy Communion.”
Paul Sammut, another witness in the Diocesan Process of the Cause of Canonisation of the Servant of God, confirmed that De Piro and his Society formed separate classes for the children of different ages.
As time passed De Piro and his Society entered St Joseph’s, Malta. There the boys were provided with catechetical formation. Even here this was given according to age group.
At the time of the foundation of the Society the teaching of catechism was restricted to the preparation of the children for their first holy communion and their confirmation. De Piro and his Society gave this, but since the very first years of the Society even more was offered. Joseph Tonna said to the Ecclesiastical Tribunal that, “There we were prepared for our first Holy Communion and our Confirmation and there was also another class for those who wished to continue after that. There were therefore classes for the youngest ones, those preparing for their first Holy Communion and those more advanced.”
The fact that at St Jospeh’s, Malta, there were four separate classes, according to the ages of the boys, signified in itself that the Director and the members of his Society followed the boys further than their confirmation.
The limitless charity of De Piro and the members of his Society towards the needy made them offer a catechism more organised than that found in other places. Joseph Tonna confirmed this:
… at Rabat … lessons … could hardly say that they were very well organized. On the other hand in the house of the Society in Mdina things were very much better run and organized. So much so that every Wednesday the advanced class held a special service known as ‘Massime Eterne’. Brother Joseph Caruana, who was responsible for the teaching of catechism would read the ‘Massime’ while they sat around a table on which stood a crucifix and a skull. Then again every Sunday we would meet for Mass, generally at the Cathedral, and we also had every facility to go to Confession.”
This was also a time when the teaching of catechism was synonymous with memory work. Paul Sammut testified that the Servant of God and the members of his Society did not stop at this; they offered something further than memorising:
Memory work became limited. More emphasis was laid on deeper learning of things already known; they even introduced meditation. This was often held in a special room where, in addition to the benches, there used to be a table with a skull and cross on it. The room was dark with only a candle or lamp for a light. Often, the teacher encouraged us to use our imagination and make use of daily material things to remember God, and other spiritual things – a kind of ‘memorial exercise’.
At St Joseph’s, Malta, there were four catechism classes. As regards the first and the second, the catechetical moment was known as “istruzione religiosa”. Instructions are not memory work! As regards the fourth class the moment of catechism was known as “spiega catech., e memoria”, which means that there was the distinction between catechism and memory work. Therefore the Director who sat the timetable, and the members of the Society who imparted the teaching, knew that there was memory work and they did give it. At the same time they also gave catechism which they presented as distinct from memory work.
The Founder so much wanted that the members of his Society impart more than memory work that in the Constitutions he put down these words, “Ove è possibile perciò nelle nostre case … verrà istituita una Congregazione … i quali oltre chè colla pratica di vari esercizi di pietà, si potranno anche aiutare con qualche utile e santa attrattiva come sarebbe una sala da studio.”
Although the Piccola Casa San Paolo was in Mdina boys came even from Rabat for their catechetical classes; De Piro and his Society’s members did not put any geographical bounderies for their catechetical service. Joseph Tonna was quite explicit about this, “I may say here, that these classes were not exclusively for us Mdina children, but children from Rabat were also accepted…”
De Piro was so much limitless in his selfgiving in evangelising the Maltese in Malta that he was not satisfied with his own catechising activity mentioned just above. Nor was he contented with having the Society doing this same apostolate. Nor was he satisfied with his own frequent preaching on many topics in the various parts of Malta. In 1921 the Servant of God set up the first edition of his “Saint Paul: Almanac of the Institute of the Missions” for the year 1922. He continued compiling it until 1932 when he prepared the one for the year 1933.
When De Piro started publishing the Almanac he had been director of Fra Diegu Institute since 1907. In 1910 he had founded his missionary Society, the members of which depended absolutely on him. He had been made Monsignor of the Metropolitan Cathedral in 1911, and its dean in 1920. In 1921, the National Assembly, of which Monsignor had been member since its beginning in 1918, had just finished its drafting of a constitution for Malta. Without doubt, all these activities were already a lot for one person. Imagine adding to all these the publication of an almanac. And Fr Augustine Grech testified to the Ecclesiastical Tribunal that it was the Founder who wrote most of the material of this yearly publication.
And De Piro continued this particular evangelisation even when his work increased considerably with his being nominated director of the Jesus of Nazareth Institute, St Joseph’s, Malta, St Joseph’s, Gozo, the House for Babes and St Francis de Paul. In 1927 the Servant of God, after a lot of efforts, succeeded in sending the first missionary to Abyssinia, a project that implied a lot of work even after its being initiated, including the St Agatha’s Laboratory and the Somalia Museum in order to support this same mission. In 1928 he founded the Sacred Heart Laboratory for the old girls of the ecclesiastical charitable institutes. During these same years he did not abandon his Society. On the opposite he introduced in it such new elements as the aspirandate at the Oratory, B’Kara, and the novitiate for the Brothers at St Joseph’s, Malta. In 1932 Monsignor was chosen as one of the two representatives of the clergy in the Third Maltese Parliament. Not to mention the many committees, commissions, boards, etc., of which De Piro was a member.
And what about the financing of such an evangelising initiative as the Alamanac? The Servant of God had been the source of income for all the needs of his Society, let alone of the Almanac. There could have been some benefactors who gave small donations for its publication. But were these enough?
The contents of the Almanac continued proving De Piro’s limitless selfconsecration for the Maltese in Malta who were in need of strengthening the various elements of their faith. On the one hand the Servant of God did not restrict himself to only a few topics about which he felt himself comfortable to write. Rather, he presented material that had to do with most of the elements of the christian life of the Maltese who lived in Malta. But Monsignor was not satisfied with this; he also treated another two topics in the Almanac: the Maltese migrants and the ad gentes people.
With his writing about the Maltese migrants De Piro helped the Maltese around him be informed about their brothers and sisters who lived away from their country. He encouraged the Maltese at home to pray for the migrants. De Piro also encouraged the Maltese in Malta to pray for the youths so that after being gifted by God with the priestly or religious vocation could go to their migrant brothers and sisters and help them with their second evangelisation. The Almanac was also accessible to already ordained priests and prefessed religious. With its publication the Servant of God could encourage these priests and religious to leave Malta and Gozo in search of an apostolate among the Maltese in far away countries.
Writing in the Almanac about the ad gentes missions the Servant of God helped his conationals to be informed about the missonary activity of the Church and also to be formed in the missionary spirit. The Maltese had already been very generous in their help for the missions. With their reading about the Church’s activity in these countries they could pray more for the missions and become more enthusiastic and generous financially. Even here De Piro expressed his wish that more priests and religious would go to mission countries and do first evangelisation.