Historical Foundations of Teatru Salesjan
By the early years of the twentieth century, the formal theatre had established itself as a popular means of entertainment within the Maltese people. The improvement in public transportation meant ease of access even though many people preferred to go to theatres in their own neighbourhood.
‘Performances in Maltese, along with cheap admission fees charged by the teatrini (small theatres) meant that theatre was accessible to most of the population.’
One week after the arrival of Fr Antonio Urso, on 7 November 1906, Alfons Maria Galea invited Fr Patrick O’Grady (first rector of St Patrick’s School), Fr Urso and the Salesian Provincial of Malta and Tunis, to his house for dinner. The main topic of conversation centred around the need for a club for the intellectual and professional young workers on the island. The provincial, Fr Angelo Lovisolo, agreed with the idea and promised to pass on this proposal to the rector Major, Fr Michael Rua. Historical documents show that Alfons Maria Galea was ready to establish the theatre building as a café chantant instead of a club, had the proposal been refused by the Salesian superiors.
Work on the site started four months later. The land and the money for the work were donated by Alfons Maria Galea. The complete building, known as the Juventutis Domus, consisted of; ‘a good sized theatre, one of the best on the island, a well equipped library and a games room.’ Fr Antonio Urso, as the Salesian in charge, gave the Domus a powerful impetus.
It might seem that this work with the upper class youth was a diversion from the original charisma of the Salesians, to work with poor and abandoned youth. Yet, it was approved of from the early days of Salesian work in Malta. Taking example of John Bosco himself, the Salesians understood the need of establishing a healthy and formative relationship with the intellectual and future political leaders of society. Only in this way could the needs of the whole of society, including the working class be seen to. Furthermore, the work with the upper class youth did not hinder the work with the poor working class population. Only one month later, on the 7 June 1908, the much needed Festive oratory (nowadays the Youth Centre building) was opened just across the road of the Domus. It consisted of a large playground, room for administration, rooms for religious instruction and a games room. The Oratory was termed as Festive since the primary intention was for it to open during feast days and Sundays for Holy Mass, catechism and recreation.
From the very beginning, the Salesians tried to run the Oratory and the Domus within a family atmosphere, which was at the heart of their Preventive System. The two sections catered for children and young people coming from different social classes, which would not easily integrate in daily life. Yet, as early as on the 2 August 1910, we find reference of a combined theatrical performance in honour of Alfons Maria Galea. During this festive evening, members of the Domus, the Oratory and even St Patrick’s participated.
Although class distinction continued to exist between the two sections, theatre events helped to start bridging the gap. Fr Vincenzo Allegra, who succeeded Fr Urso, set up a ‘philo-dramatic’ society (amateur drama group) at the Oratory, which gave its first performance in Italian on the January 16, 1910. Gradually the theatre which was originally used only by the Domus, was taken over by the ever increasing activity of the Oratory drama society which Fr Allegra entitled the San Genesio company.
During these early years of development, the Salesians aimed to set the work on the same footing as that of John Bosco in Turin. Together with theatrical activities, catechism classes were immediately given priority. They were entrusted to catechists chosen from among the older and more sensible members.
The life and enthusiasm which accompanied the lifestyle of the newly established Salesian work did not, however, represent an ideal paradise on earth. Throughout the development of the Oratory, the grey clouds which often gathered over Maltese society always created turbulence within. Coupled with this external influence, the journey towards an adequate response to the needs of Maltese society, was also sometimes delayed by internal difficulties within the Church’s Curia.
On June 19, 1908, Fr Patrick O’Grady wrote to the Archbishop of Malta, Mgr Pace, asking him very strongly to revise most of the conditions which the Maltese Curia had established for the running of the Oratory and Domus.
Among his requests Fr O’Grady demanded that the bishop removes four of the six restrictions. The first one had prohibited any form of discussion concurring religious themes. Another condition was that no lay person could give talks without the Curia’s “preventive censorship”. Two others prohibited women and non-Catholics from using the premises. Fr O’Grady went as far as asking the bishop to change these conditions or else “declare publicly that he doesn’t want the Sons of John Bosco to charge in his Diocese […] according to their constitutions, as approved by the Holy See.”
The Bishop agreed to alter the requested conditions, but this initial firm stand which Fr O’Grady took could have created an excuse for the Archbishop to watch the work very closely and come down heavily on any divergence from the Curia’s real expectations. In fact on the 5 August, only two months from the opening of the Domus, the bishop once again wrote to Fr O’Grady, this time complaining about the activities of the Domus and the Salesian who was running it.
The Archbishop denounced Fr Urso’s actions for turning the Domus into a “stimulus of modernist ideas”. He also refers to conversations in which Fr Urso himself had expressed ideas which favoured the “modernist movement”. He continues that the same priest also filled the library with books and periodicals which were not approved by the Church.
As a result, Fr Urso had to leave Malta on August 24, 1908. This move caused great pain and sacrifice both to the Salesians and the members of the Domus in Malta. Fr Urso’s vision of creating on one hand a centre of intellectual, academic and cultural achievement and on the other an educational environment for the children of the working class, was abruptly disturbed. And he was not the only one who shared this vision. Alfons Maria Galea who had dedicated so much money, time and energy to see the Domus and Oratory grow alongside St Patrick’s, certainly shared the disappointment.
Replacing such a man as Fr Antonio Urso must have been difficult. In fact before coming to Malta, his friend and successor Fr Allegra spent some time with him in Messina, where they had some very fruitful conversations. When he arrived in Malta, Fr Allegra worked hard to resume the work started by Fr Urso even in accordance to Fr Urso’s instruction. But the Domus was never to be the same again.
The boys at the Oratory, on the other side of he road, were coming in ever increasing numbers. They also demanded more and more time and energy. Fr Allegra tried to cater for the needs of both sections, but he gradually found himself dedicating much of his time to the Oratory rather than to the Domus. The resulting situation is clearly described in a letter by three of the lay leaders of the Domus, sent to Fr Michael Rua (1st successor of Don Bosco) on August 20, 1909.
In their strong appeal, the signatories explain how in spite of his good will and excellent work, Fr Allegra could not give the necessary time for the care of the Domus. They go on to suggest that two more Salesians were needed to work in the Domus in order to give it the dignity it deserved.
The two Salesians never arrived. Fr Rua had none available. As a result, the Oratory which continued to grow tremendously eventually took over all activities which had earlier belonged to the Domus. The effect of this choice was that the Salesians eventually lost a valid dimension of their apostolic work. Efforts at keeping the Domus alive were certainly made. In November 1913 the new director Fr Pappalardo held his first meeting with Alfons Maria Galea, where they talked of reform in the Domus. This reform clearly defined the essential role of lay people in the running of the Domus. The committee responsible for its daily running was made up of not less than seven lay members, who were accountable to a council made up of three other lay members. The Council was also responsible for facilitating the use of the premises by the Oratory and St Patrick’s.
The almost total handing over of responsibility to lay people was partly the necessary result of a lack of Salesian personnel. But it was more than that. It was also an effort at creating a family atmosphere where people were at ease and could feel respected. However, formal activities at the Domus eventually faded out. First through external restrictions, and then as a result of internal choices, the Salesians were unable to cater for the needs of this section of society. The Domus never regained the dynamism which Fr Antonio Urso had so enthusiastically injected in it, whereas the Oratory continued to grow and develop at a steady pace.
Even though the stability in Salesian leadership was established again with the coming of Fr Virsi who, as director, gave the Oratory the elements with which it regained life, the Domus did not benefit so much from this revival. In February 1915, Fr O’Grady issued a circular by which the Domus was to be taken over again by the Salesian community for management. The problems within the Domus had sunk too deep. The Salesian director was no longer seen as a pedagogue, always willing to help, but as an outsider. As a result, Fr O’Grady went to talk to the provincial in Sicily. The next mention of the Domus in the House Chronicles pertaining to the Salesian Community of St Alphonsus (the Salesian Community of the Salesian Oratory of Tas-Sliema) is just a one line entry on June 28 1915, where the Domus opened again with about twenty members. The time between August 1915 and September 1919 is a mystery. While no other documentation is available, the pages of the House Chronicles of these years were neatly cut out many years ago. The reasons are not clear, but what is certain is the fact that the Oratory and the Domus went through moments of great crisis which started to emerge with the return of Fr Allegra as Director.
A strong revival was given to the Domus in 1931. The rector of the Oratory at this time, Fr Scraviaglieri, brought a Sicilian cleric, Antonio Rocca, and a Maltese lay brother, Carmelo Galea, who was to dedicate the rest of his life to the Oratory work giving particular attention to theatre. By that time, cinema was slowly taking over Malta. Tas-Sliema was playing host to a number of ‘talkies’ theatres with the Juventutis Domus (Teatru Salesjan) being one of them.