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 The Servant of God Fr. Giuseppe De Piro (1877 - 1933)

Chapter I
Joseph De Piro : His Life

The life of the Servant of God, Joseph De Piro, can be easily divided in two.  The first  phase covers the years in between his birth, on 2 November 1877, and the months he spent in Switzerland for his recovery from sickness after his ordination to the priesthood, in 1902.  The second phase starts with his returning to Malta from Switzerland, on 2 March 1904, and ends up with his death on 17 September 1933. 

 Part I          His Private life (1877-1904)

From birth to first two years of priesthood

This first phase of the life of Joseph De Piro incorprates his birth, primary, secondary and university education in Malta, his studies of philosophy and theology in Rome, ordination to the priesthood and the eighteen months he spent in Davos, Switzerland, to recuperate his health.  Compared to the second phase of his life, this first part of Joseph’s life can be considered as relatively hidden.

His birth, childhood and youth. 

Joseph De Piro was born on 2 November, 1877, at Mdina, the old city of Malta.  His father was the noble Alexander dei Marchesi De Piro, and his mother, Ursola Agius, also of noble blood.  He was the seventh child of a family of nine.  According to the baptismal certificate  Joseph was baptised at the Metropolitan Cathedral, the day after his birth.

 He was brought up in a really Catholic family and gradually grew up to be a noble child not only because of his ancestry but also because of his character. It is very hard to say anything about Joseph’s early childhood.  As one may expect the only evidence we can have is from the way the noble families generally reared their children in those days, and from the interviews we made to people who lived at Monsignor's times.  All these agreed that both Alexander and Ursola tried to give to their children the best christian formation. The mother considered it her duty to pass on to her sons and daughters the basic christian truths.  Besides this, the family was often seen going together to the Cathedral, at Mdina, for the mass, or for some other liturgical celebration.  The De Piro family gave the first schooling to its children at home.   To add to this it was not considered by the De Piros as downgrading that the children learn some trade or craft.  The girls used to be instructed by the maids and learnt sewing, embroidery, and lace-making,  while the boys learnt carpentry, etc. Joseph got the tinsmith trade.  Over and above this, all the testimonies mentioned above  confirmed that the parents were a strong example of both the human and moral virtues to the offsprings.

At almost eleven years of age Joseph began his secondary education at the Malta Lyceum in Valletta, Malta’s main city.  Fortunately we still have the many exercise books on which he used to put down the notes of the lessons he had.  From these same records one can say that De Piro was very diligent in his work at school.

In the year 1894 he passed the Matriculation examination and entered the Royal University of Malta.  He studied Arts and Sciences for the first three years.   Having finished this course he started reading Laws, and this he did up to 1898, that is for just one year. 

Member of the Royal Malta Militia.

Schooling was not the only activity that Joseph was involved in during these early years of his youth.  Soon he joined the local Militia. It is worth saying that the Maltese were never keen on having their sons enrolled as soldiers.  It was very hard to persuade Maltese youths to serve their Country by doing this type of work.  To encourage them the noble families on the Island decided to send their own sons for some time as members of the military corps.  Joseph, not even fifteen, was one of the youths who did this.  In fact from the registers of the Royal Malta Militia one can know that he began his term of service on the 11 October 1892, and served up to the 23 February 1896.  .  His discharge certificate attests that his conduct and character were unimpeachable.  On the physical side Joseph at the age of eighteen was 5 feet 7 inches (1.75m) tall, his eyes were bright brown, his hair light brown and his general features were pleasant.

Without doubt this military training strengthened the formation Joseph got from his parents, such as discipline, order, determination, comradeship, a sense of loyality ... and a love for his Country.

Member of the Congregazione degli Onorati. 

A few months after leaving the Militia, Joseph was accepted as a member of the Congregation of the Onorati, an association having the Assumption of our Lady as Patroness.

A Talent for Painting. 

Joseph showed an artistic inclination from his early years.  At the Lyceum he distinguished himself in painting for which subject he gained a number of prizes.

A number of his childhood sketches still survive.  His preferred medium was the pencil and he practiced by sketching details from such masters as Michelangelo, Raphael and Perugino, paying particular attention to shading.  The sketches were often carefully signed "G. De Piro".  Although some of Joseph’s’ sketches are undated, they must have been carried out between 1889 and 1898.

A particular picture, a one in colour, seems to have been painted for some church or chapel.  Entwined with flowers of all shapes and colours there are painted the words Indulgentia Plenaria and the picture is signed in full: "De Piro-D’Amico Joseph. Lyceum, 1892”.

In 1893 Joseph took part in a painting competition orgaised at the Governor's Palace.  Joseph was rather late in handing in his painting and had to be reminded on the very closing date by Mr. Baden Powell, the Governor’s Secretary.  Joseph won first prize and received the following congratulatory letter:

The Palace

Jan. 93

             My dear Joseph,

Herewith I send you a little prize for your beautifully painted Fire Bucket.  Yours was by  far the best of the 12 sent in for the competition, and I congratulate you and thank you for having done it so well.

Yours truly,

R. Baden Powell  

Joseph seems to have needed pushing to meet competition deadlines.  On 4 July 1893, a certain G. Calleja wrote to him reminding him of a painting competition that was to close on the l5th of the same month.  Joseph was to present two portraits which had been sketched at the Lyceum.

Joseph also participated in other activities at the Lyceum.  For example, in an extant letter he is reminded by a certain Julia S. Gatt that he should take part in tableaux vivants.

His call to be a priest. 

Providence, however, was planning otherwise; he was going to continue neither the Law studies, nor his military activity, nor painting.  At the age of fourteen, Joseph had felt drawn to the priesthood.  His father seemed to have considered him immature for such a responsible decision and his health was giving rise to some concern.  Moreover with his University studies leading him to a different profession altogethor, Joseph must have undergone anxious moments of goal searching.  The legal profession, he felt, would enable him to help materially the poorer sections of the population, but the call for the priesthood remained undiminished within him.

Joseph felt the need to open his heart with his father who, he was sure, could help him reach the best decision.  Alexander tried his best to dissuade him.  Joseph was the favourite child of the De Piro family.  In addition he was extremely sociable and loved company, and he was considered to be a most eligible bachelor with his good looks and family background.

In order to test the sincerity of Joseph’s vocation, his father convinced him to spend some time in Florence with some friends of the family but, on returning to Malta, Joseph insisted that he still had not changed his mind.  Events were soon to make Joseph’s strong desire possible.

Death of Joseph’s father. 

Early in 1898 Alexander and Ursola went of a trip to Italy.  Alexander had a rather delicate constitution and suffered from poor digestion.  On 10 January he was suddenly taken ill in Rome and died soon afterwards, aged forty-nine.

A the end of the same year, 1898, Joseph, reflecting on the sudden death of his father, wrote to his mother and his brothers and sisters:

”According to our judgement, this past year has been most unfortunate for us.  I say ‘according to our judgement’ because God does nothing that is not perfect and His works cannot be but extremely good.  On that occasion we received such a great consolation that, I say without fear of being mistaken, the consolation we were granted was far greater than the grief of our sad loss”.

Joseph felt deeply his father’s loss, but these words seem to indicate that he saw in it God’s way of levelling his way.  Meditating on death, as a result of his father’s passing away and the grievious illness of his brother Berti, Joseph came to the conclusion that he could serve God by becoming a priest.  In the summer of 1897, his confessor had told him not to give up.  Now with his father’s death he could review his position.  He himself put down into writing what made him think about his vocation:

1.  The fact that I felt this vocation since I was a child until I was 14.

2.  The fact that the wish for this vocation remained in me continuously except for a short while.

3.  The fact that I strongly felt it again at the beginning of last summer, when I shared my thoughts with my confessor.

4.   Meditating about death.  I feel this is the state to which I am really called.

5.  My wish to give myself completely to God, he himself having suffered so much for my sins.

6.  My wish to live perfection and in this way prepare myself for death, that which leads to eternal felicity.

7.  The fact that I have read in St Alphonsus Liguori that while he abandoned the world at 26, he wished he could have done it before.

8.  Having after reflection found that this is the state most consonant to my nature.

9.  The sickness of my brother.      

10.  The death of my father.

11.  The feeling I have that I be happy in this state ...

      And in fact

      12.  On 8 May 1898, after a novena to our Lady of Pompei, in which I had asked her to help me discover the true will of God for me, I felt the strength to decide for the good, that is in favour of the priesthood.

He immediately exposed his ideas to his spiritual director  and to his mother.   Knowing him quite well the latter was not surprised at all at the sudden news.  And being a really Catholic mother, Ursola encouraged her son to begin without delay his studies of philosophy and theology.  Coming from a rich noble family, money was not a problem at all.  Therefore it was thought that Joseph should be sent to Rome for his studies.  His father having died, there intervened his uncle who consulted the Bishop of Malta, Mgr. P. Pace, about the idea.  His Excellency fully agreed.  Joseph De Piro was going to stay at the Capranica College and study at the Gregorian University.  Bishop Pace even wrote a letter of recommendation to Cardinal Rampolla, the Protector of the Capranica, and to Mgr. Coselli, the Rector.  In his letter to the Rector, the Bishop presented his impression about Joseph.  But he also wrote a few words about the De Piro family:

“This young man has led a good life, in a close family circle, whence he receives only virtuous example”.

To Rome for his studies of philosphy and theology.

 On 9 July 1898 Joseph collected the certificate of his studies from the Director of Education.  This certificate once again attests to Joseph’s exemplary character.

Joseph's stay in Rome is well-documented thanks to the regular correspondence he kept wíth his mother.  On her part Ursola treasured and preserved all the letters she received.  These letters províde precious glimpses not only of the events Joseph passed through, but also of the development of his character. 

Joseph left Malta by sea on 10 July 1898, bound for Syracuse, accompanied by his youngest brother, Giovanni Pio.  From there they took the train to Rome, stopping only for a few hours at Messina.  They arrived in Rome two days later and on the 14th he was already writing his first letter to his mother.

On 13 July, Joseph went to the Capranica College to meet the Rector, Mgr. Coselli, whom he described as a "Gentleman", and to present his certificates.  Speaking with Mgr. Coselli he admitted being rather weak in Latin, whereupun the Rector suggested he should enter the Capranica on 22 August.  During this period he would undergo an intensive course in Latin.  Moreover, pointed out Mgr. Coselli, this two-month period would enable him to brush up his philosophy.

In Rome, Joseph stayed with relatives until he could enter the Capranica.  Actually he did not enter on 22 August as had been suggested: on 24 August he was writing that he should be joining in about 12 days’ time.

In the meantime, on 24 July, Cardinal Rampolla had formally granted his approval to Joseph’s application.

Worries, prayers and projects. 

Joseph’s letters suggest clearly that he was passing through a worrying time.  He was certainly concerned about his mother’s health which he thought could suffer as a result of her separation from a number of her children.

Joseph had also a number of projects in mind even before he started his courses.  Some of these projects were later to be realised.  At that time too Joseph’s health was in turn rousing worries to his mother who kept insisting he should see a specialist, but Joseph’s immediate plans were restricted to entering the Capranica.

 September 1898 Joseph was admitted to the College, joining the philosophy class.  In fact he enrolled at the Gregorian University to follow a course of lectures in philosophy.  Here De Piro dedicated himself wholeheartedly to his studies and did not lose any time.   But Joseph had to continue experiencing the serious problem of ill health.  He had first been taken sick in a rather grave way when he was supposed to sit for the Matriculation examination.   During the first year at the Capranica it seems that he fell sick again, because while being in Malta for his first summer holidays the Rector of the same College, Mgr. Coselli, wrote to him wishing good health:

"I pray the Lord that he may give you the strength and health so that one day you will be able to work continuously in the vineyard of the Lord ...".

To add to this, on 13 May 1899 Alberto, Joseph’s brother, died after a grievous illness.  During Alberto’s illness Joseph had tried to fortify his mother’s heartbroken.  In a letter dated 5 April, he told her:

‘It is not proper to complain, but I believe that if  we offer our tears to the Lord to atone for our sins, we shall have merits without end.  It is natural for one to cry when heartbroken.  Therefore, when God allows us to suffer, we are creating a treasure for ourselves because of this same suffering”.

Joseph's letter of 15 May, infused with the deep sadness of Berti's death, is one of his finest:

'From among all my brothers, dear mother, I am the least who can comfort you....  It is witness that God and the Virgin Mary have not forgotten us because they often present us with circumstances which serve to increase our trust in them.  As for Berti, we can say, without fear of being proven wrong, that he is in a better place than we are, for he is with other good people who have died before now’.

First orders. 

It was during Joseph’s first summer in Malta, and exactly on 21 September 1899, that he received the tonsure and the minor orders from the hands of Bishop Peter Pace.  It was  a private ceremony in the Bishop’s Palace, in Mdina.

Subdeaconate,  deaconate  and  presbyterate. 

Joseph De Piro received the subdeaconate on 14 February 1901.  With regards to his studies we cannot say that Joseph was unsuccessful, but he himself was not so much satisfied.  At the end of the second year theology he sat for the baccalaureate examination. Commenting on the results of this same examination, Joseph said that they were not so much promising:

“I am not particularly intelligent.  I have managed to cope so far .... my baccalaureate resultst were rather poor.  Out of three examinations, I just scraped through in two.  Therefore, if I keep in mind my abilities and the difficulty of the examinations ahead, I have to admit that I have little possibilities of obtaining further degrees”.

The third year theology meant for De Piro his ordinations to the deaconate and priesthood.  In fact he was ordained deacon on 21 December 1901, at the Basilica of St John Lateran, in Rome. This time was very important for Fr De Piro not only because he was nearing the priesthood, but also because he had been thinking seriously about what to do after being ordained priest.  On the one hand he had been wishing to return to Malta and live at St Joseph's Institute together with other priests, taking care of orphaned boys.  On the other hand he had been invited by the Bishop of Malta to continue his studies at the Accademia Ecclesiastica.  There came a moment when De Piro made another discernment by writing down the reasons in favour and against for his going to the Institute or the Accademia.

Fr. Joseph was ordained priest on 15 March 1902, again in the Basilica of St John Lateran.  In Malta Fr Joseph celebrated his first solemn Mass on Easter Sunday, 30 March 1902, at the Cathedral in Mdina.  Soon afterwards he returned to Rome to continue his third year theology.

Poor health. 

Reference has already been made to the problems his poor health created for him during his studies.  This was not an easy hurdle for Fr. De Piro to overcome.  In fact one cannot know whether he had sat for the final examinations of his third year theology.  And although he once again fell victim to his recurring tuberculosis, on 10 July 1902, Fr. Joseph did not leave Rome immediately.  But these were surely his last days at the Capranica and the Gregorian University.  Therefore it can be said that he had to stop his studies abruptly.  It was therefore providential that Bishop Pace had asked that De Piro should be ordained priest before the proper date.  If the ordination were to have been conferred in July, who knows what would have happened!

Officially De Piro terminated his course at the Capranica on 23 July 1902.  Of the few comments about him ín the College's archives we find these words:

“Joseph De Piro is by nature predisposed to forgive.  He is an extremely good person.  He left a cherished memory behind him in this College”.

At Davos, in Switzerland.

 His ill health forced him to abandon his ambitions for further studies.    He had planned a ten year course of studies, but in fact he did not succeed in finishing even half of them; he had to miss completely even the fourth year theology at the Gregorian.  Returning to Malta at the end of July, 1902, he prepared to go to Switzerland to recover his health there.  From a letter sent to him by his brother Gwido, who was in Louvain, in Belgium, studying medicine, one can conclude that Fr. Joseph was getting better after a short time.

As time went on, Fr Joseph recorded a steady improvement.  In fact he thought of returning to Malta in January 1904.    Yet he left Davos some time after that and was back in Malta on 2 March of that same year.

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