Juventutis Domus

By the early years of the twentieth century, the formal theatre had established itself as a popular means of entertainment within the Maltese people. ‘Performances in Maltese, along with cheap admission fees charged by the teatrini meant that theatre was accessible to most of the population.’ The improvement in public transportation meant ease of access even though many people preferred to go to theatres in their own neighbourhood. One week after the arrival of Don Urso, on 7 November 1906, Alfons Maria Galea invited Fr. O’Grady, First rector of St. Patrick’s School, Don 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.

The original facade of the Juventutis Domus building

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.’ Don Urso, was the Salesian in charge, who gave the Domus a powerful impetus.  It might seem that this work with the upper class youth was a diversion from the original charism of the Salesians, to work with “poor and abandoned” youth. And 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 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. Don Allegra, who succeeded Don 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 Don 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 boys. An important activity which started to flourish almost from the very start of the Oratory was the Salesian Boy’s Brigade (S.B.B.). This organisation which included band marches, military style drill, camping and other group activities, grew very rapidly. The brigade which included practically all the members, gave the Oratory scope for moving beyond its four walls. 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.

Gala dinner in the auditorium (circa 1930s)

Fr. Patrick O’Grady, as rector of St. Patrick’s was also ultimately responsible for the Oratory and the Domus. He was the one, therefore who on June 19, 1908, wrote to the local bishop asking him very strongly to revise most of the conditions which the Maltese Curia had established for the running of the Oratory. 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 local bishop 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 Bishop denounced Don Urso’s actions for turning the Domus into a “stimulus of modernist ideas”. He also refers to conversations in which Don 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, Don 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. Don Urso’s vision of creating on one hand a centre of intellectual, academic and cultural achievement and on the other hand 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 Don Urso must have been difficult. In fact before coming to Malta, his friend and successor Don Allegra spent some time with him in Messina, where they had some very fruitful conversations. When he arrived in Malta, Don Allegra worked hard to resume the work started by Don Urso even in accordance to Don Urso’s instruction. But the Domus was never to be the same again. The boys at the Oratory were coming in ever increasing numbers. They also demanded more and more time and energy. Don 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 Don Rua on August 20, 1909. In their strong appeal, the signatories explain how in spite of his good will and excellent work, Don 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. 

San Genesio philo-dramatic company

The two Salesians never arrived. Don 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 Don 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. 

Adapting to the situation – cross dressing for female roles was the norm

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 Don 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, 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 Don Allegra as Director.

A strong revival was given to the Domus in 1931. The rector of the Oratory at this time, Don Scravaglieri, 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. 

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