The need for a Salesian theatre in Malta

Alfons Maria Galea was by far the most important figure in establishing the work of John Bosco in Malta. Although he is remembered as a great philanthropist by many institutions on the island, his most renowned work is the setting up of Salesian work in Sliema. Born in 1861, when John Bosco’s work was making a name even among the Maltese people especially through the Bulettino Salesiano, Galea first learnt about the priest in Turin from his father. When he was still very young, his father had written to John Bosco, asking him to send his Salesians to work in Malta.

Group photo at St Patrick’s School

In 1878, Galea was studying at the De La Salle College in Marseilles, where he met Bro. Joseph Emiliani who knew John Bosco well. During this time Bro. Joseph even took Galea and his brother Francis to visit the Salesian House in Marseilles. A year later, on September 17, Galea went with all his family to visit John Bosco in Turin. Unfortunately they never met as John Bosco was away. But his dream to see Salesian work in Malta did not fail. In fact, in 1891, three years after John Bosco died, he went back to Turin, to meet John Bosco’s successor, Don Rua.

His first written request to Don Rua, asking him to send his Salesians to Malta was written on the January 23, 1893. Speaking of himself he mentioned ‘… an admirer of John Bosco’s achievements who seeks the spiritual good of this island, would like to establish within easy reach of Valletta a festive oratory.’ After describing how he envisaged it all, he went on to emphasise, ‘… this Oratory is so necessary. So many would be saved especially in such newly established township to which so many are flocking, souls that would otherwise be corrupted by the nearness of the big city.’

In the meantime Alfons Maria Galea asked Don Rua for all the relevant details and for a draft sketch that would give him some indication of the area and the site required to build the festive oratory which on completion would be handed to the Salesians of John Bosco. Alfons Maria Galea was the one who finally made it happen. Poverty was a major problem facing the Maltese society. Numerous beggars, male and female roamed the streets of Valletta and the harbour towns. The British authorities made several attempts to control them but they were mostly unsuccessful. The problem of poverty was rooted in the instability of the country’s economy and in its rapid demographic growth. According to the 1911 census, a good number of Maltese were leaving the islands to seek residence and work in other Mediterranean countries. In spite of the emigration of workers and extremely high mortality rate as a result of lack of hygiene on the islands, the Maltese population continued to grow. At the same time there was a shift from the rural areas to the cities, where work could be found. As a result the population of the newer suburbs and settlements such as Sliema was growing steadily, which was similar to the situation in Turin.

And it was here that people who like Alfons Maria Galea, were concerned with the welfare of society, felt that the Salesians of John Bosco could be helpful. Seeing how John Bosco’s system had managed to achieve results in Turin’s society – which was in even greater need – these people felt that the same system could help to alleviate the problems of Maltese society. Primary education was free of charge and books could also be obtained free by those who could not afford them. Still, many parents preferred to see their youngsters start working at an early age. Many helped their parents in agriculture or else worked in the city with a tradesman or in an office. The children’s help and income was often necessary for the maintenance of their poor and large families. The decision to choose Sliema was based not only on the needs of the society, but also on the fact that Alfons Maria Galea was working to see it through. It was also ideal since the Protestant Church was at the time paying people to attend their services, which was arguably seen as threatening by the Roman Catholic Church.

Alfons Maria Galea wanted university students to find a space where they could meet other young people and develop their cultural knowledge. In a society where class distinction was widely accepted, he saw the need of a healthy space for recreation and cultural stimulus, away from the negative influence, which was present in other more worldly entertainment circles. Furthermore, he believed that a Salesian Festive Oratory would also cater for the needs of lower class children, who were becoming ever more numerous in this town. Sliema had begun to develop as a residential area in the mid-nineteenth century. Situated only six and a half kilometres away from Valletta and surrounded by rocky beaches, it was at first known as a summer resort for the higher class, mostly those residing in Valletta. Sliema’s population continued to experience rapid growth so that by 1901 it had reached 12,015. Of these a large number were children, many of whom came from poor families, who needed a place where they could play and learn catechism. In 1889, the Sliema parish priest had also asked Don Rua to initiate the Salesian work to Malta. Alfons Maria Galea belonged to the same parish and he had the land, the money, and above all, the vision to see a dream, which inspired so many people, become a reality.

The political situation in Malta was increasingly overshadowed by the economic gloom that hung over the islands. The state of affairs had been steadily deteriorating for a long time. Despite significant improvements in the harbour and dockside areas, Malta was facing increasing competition from other well equipped ports in the Mediterranean. Government revenue from the diminished activity in Malta’s port fell steeply. Despite increase in military defence expenditure, unemployment soared. It was already clear that Malta’s dependance on Britain’s military spending was a severe handicap. The fact that Malta had no proper system of taxation further contributed to the Government’s inability to balance its accounts. In such a difficult economic situation Alfons Maria Galea was hoping to convince the Government to dedicate funds for the setting up of the Salesian work in Malta. He knew very well that without the Government’s support this could never happen, especially since the Salesians were an Italian congregation and Malta was under British Rule. Galea tried to work around the system, and proposed the setting up of a Salesian Industrial School, which would educate the poorest of the poor. The funding of the building would be aided by the government, calling for the setup to be built in memory of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Works eventually started, and St. Patrick’s school was inaugurated in 1904, thus having the first Salesians living in Malta and managing a local home.

The St Alphonsus House is home for the Salesian community of the Oratory

The Juventutis Domus, which translates to a ‘place for the young’, was officially inaugurated on 7 May 1908. The Rev. Mgr. S. Grech, representing the Bishop in Malta, blessed the Domus. Even though it was not a festive Oratory, it was a fulfilment of a part of Alfons Maria Galea’s dream. It was a centre for cultural, intellectual and religious refinement for the elite among Maltese youth. In it, young elite, among whom there were Galea’s sons, found a healthy environment where they could be better prepared to be the leaders of Maltese society. Two years earlier, the Salesians at St. Patrick’s School had already started to extend their educational activities to university students who derived from the upper class. With the encouragement of Alfons Maria Galea, the Salesians understood the need to participate in the intellectual development of Maltese society. They believed that their system of education based on reason, religion and loving kindness, was a very valid contribution to the growth of a society which was still at the early stages of intellectual development. The new aspect of Salesian work gained momentum with the arrival of a new Salesian, Don Antonio Urso. This dynamic and open minded priest came from Tunis where he had already been a director of a Salesian House and before that in charge of a seminary, even though he was still “around thirty”.

Original plans of the Juventutis Domus, signed by Alphons Maria Galea on the 4th of March 1907

Subscribe to receive the latest updates