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

Chapter III
His Public Life (1907-1933)

From the beginning of his Missionary dream to his death

While the first twenty seven years of De Piro’s life were indeed private, the twenty years that followed were completely different.  In them he was more than the full timer priest, involved in the various aspects of the Diocese of Malta; the citizen who gave a big share for his Country’s development and well being; he was more than a benefactor to the many poor children and grown ups in Malta and Gozo; and God chose him to be the Founder of the Missionary Society of St Paul.

 Section 3         A father to the poor

The Charitable Institutes under his care.

Although the activities mentioned above were already in themselves a reasonable contribution to the Church and his native Country, Fr. De Piro did more than that for both of them ... and  in a completely different area than the ones mentioned above.

Since the time he was a seminarian in Rome, Joseph De Piro had contacts with Fr. George Bugeja, the assistant director at St Joseph's Institute in Sta. Venera, Malta.  De Piro used to send him donations for the orphans living in that Institute.  There was once when De Piro even substituted Bugeja at the Institute when Fr. George was abroad for some one month ... and was most successful.  This same contact with the Institute's Assistant Director solved the Bishop's problem about whom to choose for the leadership of another Institute, Fra Diegu,  at a time when the Franciscans Minors could not continue taking care of it.  When Bishop Peter Pace found himself faced with this difficulty he talked to Fr. Bugeja about it and the latter immediately mentioned De Piro. His Excellency accepted this proposal and nominated the Servant of God, Director of Fra Diegu Institute for girls, on 2 August 1907.

This was only the first of a series of Institutes to be entrusted to the care of Monsignor.  In 1922 Archbishop Caruana handed on to him another two Institutes, St Joseph's for boys and that of Jesus of Nazareth for girls.  In 1927, there came still another home for De Piro to care for, St Francis de Paul, for girls.  Besides these Institutes in Malta, Fr. De Piro had to found and take care also of another  Institute,  St Joseph's, this time at Ghajnsielem, Gozo.

At Fra Diego Institute, Hamrun (1907-1933).  

Fr Joseph De Piro was thirty years old when entrusted with the direction of Fra Diegu Instititute.  At first the sisters of the Tertiary Franciscan Order, who looked after the Institute, imagined that De Piro, belonging to a distinguished Maltese family, would be aloof and difficult to approach. This notion was rapidly removed as soon as De Piro encountered them for the first time - indeed they were pleasantly surprised at his ability to mix with the young orphan girls, in spite of the fact that this was his first such experience.

De Piro involved himself whole-heartedly in the Institute - at that time he had no other official appointments. He visited it regularly and spent hours talking to the sisters and the girls. He kept this regular contact even in later years when he was burdened with many other responsibilities.

The Director also became extremely popular with the girls who saw in him a loving father. He was however a firm administrator and his first concern was that the girls should get a proper education. Rather than punishing the girls, De Piro always made it a point to explain what they had done wrong. He was strongly against corporal punishment and he discouraged the sisters from shouting at the girls. Still he insisted that the girls should be closely watched over at all times and that they should not be left idle.

Another of his beliefs was that the girls should wear better dresses on Sundays as these would make them realise that that day should be a special one.  Moreover he himself used to examine the young girls before their First Holy Communion, to which he attached particular importance.

De Piro believed he would achieve far more by gentle words than by strict unreasoning discipline. This method he practised both with the girls and with the sisters who looked after them. He was never thrifty with words of encouragement to all those who were performing their duties.

The Servant of God strongly believed in the importance of recreation which was a means of making the individual happy. He organised plays and outings and games to gladden the young orphans’ lives. He wanted to make the orphans’ existence in the institution a merrier one than they had experience before.

In addition to learning academic subjects, the girls were taught cooking, sewing, embroidery and other practical subjects. De Piro personally used to bring prizes for those who distinguished themselves in these subjects, which were often presented by some personality who was appositely invited.

Fr. De Piro had moreover a genuine and deep spirituality which was evident even in his administration of children’s institutions. His love for the Virgin Mary made him place his complete trust in her. He had a special affection for Our Lady of Pompei whose feastday is 8 May, the day on which he had finally decided on his priestly vocation. For some years he made it a point of celebrating the feast at the chapel of Fra Diego’s Institute.  Later, when he was appointed director of St. Joseph’s Institute, he started to conduct the function in that Institute. He used to ask the orphans to make some special sacrifice to offer to Our Lady.

De Piro’s devotion to Our Lady could be noticed every day of the year. Whenever he came to the Institute he never failed to kneel in front of the statue of Our Lady and say three Hail Mary’s. He was always praying whenever he found some free time; indeed he was always saying the rosary.

Monsignor believed strongly in the power of prayer and he greatly encouraged the nuns to instil the love of prayer in the girls. He insisted that there should be a number of priests who visited the Institute regularly in order to cater for the spiritual needs of the young orphans.

In those days Pope Pius X had just sanctioned the giving of Holy Eucharist to young children and he personally saw that the girls were suitably prepared to receive the Eucharist.

Two secrets for success : order in everything and belief in Providence.

By the time of his death in 1933, De Piro had five institutes to look after. Since he was an extremely meticulous man he kept a careful record about each of them, as he himself wrote in his will of 8 February 1932.

He kept an office in each institute which he normally furnished with his own personal things, which he however bequeathed to the particular institute.

There exist ample references to the careful way in which De Piro kept the accounts of the various institutions. Alfons Maria Galea, a noted Maltese philantropist who was often asked to audit the accounts of diocesan institutes, attested to De Prio’s exactness and rectitude. In a declaration made to Galea, De Piro insisted that he never expected, nor would he expect, any financial reward for his work with the young orphans. In a later declaration, dated 8 March 1920, Galea again refers to the noble work De Piro was doing and for which he reserved all praise.

Not only did De Piro receive no payment for the work he carried out but he regularly contributed handsomely from his own personal wealth.

De Piro never wanted any preferential treatment. He insisted on sharing the common food available, in return for which he never failed to make some offering in the poor-box to pay for the food he had taken.

Few people were actually aware of the extent of De Piro’s regular financial contributions to the Institute. At one time, during the hard days of the First World War, when the general social condition severely affected the contributions of the population, he personally paid the bill for the bread consumed at Fra Diego’s Institute. He even gave money to the children’s families though he often preferred to do this through one of the Nuns. In all acts of charity he performed, he used to warn the Sisters that no one should be told as to who the donor actually was.

 A beggar for others. 

De Piro was not satisfied merely to give nearly all he had to the poor, but he reduced himself to great humiliation to beg for money and goods for the sake of the poor children. 0ften he turned to his understanding mother who used to call him ‘my poor one’ and who was sincerely worried that he would neglect himself for his beloved orphans. Sometimes, ironically, he could not find the fare for his return home and he had to pass at the Institute to borrow some money.

Every Thursday he used to visit those benefactors who regularly contributed to the institutes. He always made it a point to be aware of what a particular one needed so that he could obtain it. He did not deign it beneath him to go and walk in the streets where lived some kind-hearted benefactor - his mere presence was often enough and had the desired effect.

On his part he expected the children to be grateful to their benefactors whom he regularly invited to all activities in the various institutes. He did not distinguish between donors - it was not the value of the donation that mattered.

One of his greatest pleasures lay whenever the children were bequeathed something through somebody’s will. He himself remembered the institutes in his will - the money he left Fra Diego’s Institute was expressly meant to provide, amongst other things, for the Christmas tree that would have cheered the girls during Christmastide.

Father and Superior General to the Sisters 

The Congregation of the Franciscan Sisters of Malta had been founded by Fr Joseph Diacono who however soon severed all connections with it leaving the effective administration in the hands of Mother Margaret of the Sacred Heart. She found a most understanding person in Fr. De Piro who was always ready with practical advice. In 1920 Mother Margaret asked him to attempt to obtain official approval for the Congregation. De Piro left his mark on the Congregation as he was to all intents and purposes their spiritual father.

St. Joseph’s Home, Sta. Venera (1922-1933) 

St. Joseph’s Home was founded in 1888 by Mgr. Francesco Bonnici to accept orphan boys. From its origins in a rented house near Tas-Samra chapel, in 1893, it moved to larger premises, which up to 1919 lay in the limits of Hamrun before it became part of the Parish of St. Venera. Mgr. Bonnici soon involved other priests in his work to give the proper spiritual care to the boys. And the Director had to leave the leadership of the orphanage in 1898 due to reasons of health.

Mgr. Bonnici’s departure almost caused the orphanage to close down until a new priest-director, Fr Manwel Vassallo, was found to take charge of it. Vassallo was assisted by another priest, Fr Gorg Bugeja.

De Piro, as he writes in his diary, had felt the desire to join Mgr. Bonnici from his very first year at the Capranica College, in Rome. In 1899, during his summer holidays in Malta, De Piro met Vassallo for the first time and a bond of friendship was forged between them. De Piro did his best to help the home even while he was studying in Rome, from where he kept a regular correspondence with the priests in charge of the Institute.

One of the major problems facing the Institute was the shortage of staff to look after the children - moreover the home depended almost entirely on voluntary charity for its running. At a time when all the Brothers of Charity, whose Congregation had been founded to provide help in looking after the boys, had left the Institute, Vassallo placed high hopes in the young  De Piro who would one day return as a priest to assist him in administering the Place.

It has already been said that De Piro’s desire to involve himself in the running of the Home was so strong that he even refused the opportunity of furthuring his studies at the Accademia Ecclesiastica in Rome.

At that time De Piro was quite worried about his state of health which could even stop him from realising his dream. He was also afraid that pressure might be brought to bear on him to accept a post at the Accademia.  

When De Piro eventually returned from Switzerland to Malta in 1905, he failed to get the invitation to go to live in the Institute as he had hoped so fervently. At that time Fr Gorg Bugeja had taken over as Director, following the resignation of Fr Manwel Vassallo. Bugeja was to dedicate himself fully to St. Joseph’s Home which experienced a number of positive reforms during his time.

As has already been said, until 1907, when he was appointed Director of Fra Diego’s Institute, De Piro carried out his pastoral ministry in Qrendi. During this time he did not forget his project of organising some congregation of priests who wou1d, amongst other tasks, have the responsability of running St Joseph’s Orphanage, in Santa Venera. Events were however to prove that De Piro’s noble mission was not fated to see light of day within that Institute! Though Fr Gorg Bugeja was to help him in the setting up of the Society of St. Paul, he never formally asked the Congregation to use the premises of the Institute. De Piro and Bugeja remained close friends and De Piro must have made it quite clear to the other priest that he would give all the assistance he could. Indeed one of the new Society’s aims was to 1ook after charitable institutes.

Between 1905 and 1922 the Christian Brothers known as the Freres De La Salle were asked to provide a helping hand in the education of the boys at St Joseph’s. Eventually the members of the Society of St. Paul started replacing the Freres whenever they had to leave for a few days to attend some spiritual retreat. This activity helped to draw the Society and St. Joseph’s Home even nearer to one another, while Fr Gorg Bugeja never failed to show his deep and sincere gratitude for the part played by its members.

Director of the Institute together with the members of his Society (1922 – 1933) 

Fr Gorg Bugeja died suddenly on 23 November 1922 while saying Mass in the Institute he loved so much. That same day, De Piro was nominated by Bishop Caruana to take over the administration of the Home.  In spite of his numerous commitments, Fr. De Piro accepted this new appointment.

Towards the end of that year, the members of the Society of St. Paul took over the running of the Home from the De La Salle Brothers who, due to a lack of vocations, could not cope with the added work of ministering to the orphans.

Dedicated to the Institute 

During his directorship, De Piro enlarged the premises and the Institute’s chapel to cater for as many needy children as possible. He administered the finances wisely, seeing that expenses never exceeded income. Another of his reforms included using the Home for the novitiate of Catechist-Brothers of the Society, whom he placed under the patronage of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.

As soon as he was nominated Director of St. Joseph’s Home, De Piro started sleeping there at night. He used to encourage the priests working there to use their initiative because he did not want them to think of him as indispensable. He even supplemented out of his own pocket the wages paid to the employees of the home and, at a time when there was no national pension scheme, he even provided a pension for those who finished work and who were in dire need.

In his instructions to the members of the Society who looked after the boys, De Piro warned them against being too familiar with their words. He even told them they should only converse with the external teachers when it was absolutely necessary. He also insisted that the Assistant Director should give him a weekly report.

St. Joseph’s Home subsisted on public charity. Though some considerable sums were occasionally given, the greatest amount of contributions consisted of small sums generously given by ordinary Maltese citizens. Still this precarous financial state did not stop Fr. De Piro from assisting needy cases who went to him for help.

Fr. De Piro also believed firmly in the importance of providing decent means of recreation for the boys, to whom he always wanted to dedicate more of his time. He organised theatrical representations especially during carnival time and he regularly took them to his brother’s summer resisence in St. Paul’s Bay. He did not deign it beneath him even to play some jokes with the chi1dren to gladden their time.

As far as food was concerned, Fr. De Piro strongly insisted that his fare should not be different from the children’s, for whom he made a great number of sacrifices.

De Piro’s indefaticable dedication helped to put the Home on a firmer financial footing. Most of the regular income came from the Opera della buona morte and from the printing and book-binding carried out on the premises. At the time of De Piro’s death the Home had no debts and the general lines by which the Home is still administered had been laid down.

A new home for little boys at Santa Venera (1930 - 1933). 

Fr. De Piro also found time to think up other projects that would help the needy and the destitute. One such project was an extension for the home to include male infants, a project he comunicated to Archbishop Maurus Caruana in 1930. According to the letter sent to the Bishop, De Piro also had in mind the building of furthur quarters for widows and unmarried mothers, and for the elderly.

Though the Bishop approved this idea on 11 September only the home for young boys above the age of three actually materialised.  This was entrusted to the care of  the Missionary Sisters of Jesus of Nazareth. De Piro’s death in 1933 was to put an end to the other plans before they actually got started.

Director of Jesus of Nazareth Institute, Zejtun (1922-1933)

 The Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of Jesus of Nazareth was actually founded by Maria Giuzeppina Curmi, a Valletta spinister who had gone to live at Zejtun where her father had been nominated mayor by the British authorities.

Fr De Piro played a leading part in the setting up of this Congregation which had as its aim that of looking after orphans or children coming from broken families.  He even had to go to court to protect the interests of the Congregation when it looked as if the heirs of the Foundress would claim all its assets back.  He helped to obtain official recognition and provided the Congregation with solid foundations for their future.

Maria Giuzeppina Curmi's Congregation had its start in 1913 in a small house in St. Pius X Street, Zejtun, where she originally managed to draw six young girls around her to care for abandoned children.  Fr De Piro was involved in the Congregation from the very start for he had been Curmi's spiritual director even before 1913.  Though he did not use to go to Zejtun personally, Curmi used to seek him regularly for advice.  De Piro was to remain Curmi's spiritual assistant until the Congregation moved to its Piazza Brittania premisis.

In 1922, following the death of the Institute's first director, Curmi wrote to De Piro asking him to take over its running, which he did following Bishop Caruana's request.

Curmi let herself be guided completely by De Piro in all matters pertaining  to the Institute.  In these days it seemed that the Congregation was not going to obtain official recognition.

Before the Congregation was approved it had to experience many vicissitudes.  In 1925 Curmi had obtained the Archbishop’s permission to borrow money to buy land on which to build larger premises for the Institute.  In fact the owner of the land was to refuse all monetary payment in lieu of a yearly handkerchief for him or his heirs and an annual mass for the repose of his soul and that of his wife.

De Piro assumed responsibility for the actual building, the first stone of which was laid that same year.  He kept a careful record detailing all expenses which were so great that all building activity soon came to a temporary stop.  It was only in 1930 that enough money was collected to finish at least the basic section of the new Institute.

This imagination seems to have inspired De Piro to strengthen his efforts to obtain official recognition from the Church authorities.  De Piro proposed to Curmi that the members of the Congregation be called "Sisters of Jesus of Nazareth" rather than "Nazarine Sisters" as she had originally intended.

De Piro also suggested the introduction of a missionary aspect in the Congregation since this would distinguish them from other congregations of Sisters.  Indeed this similarity with other congregations had been one of the objections of Rome against recognizing it as a separate Congregation.  De Piro even adapted the statutes of his Society to serve as a model for the Sisters' own rules, suggesting the name of "Missionaries of Jesus of Nazareth."

It was also made quite plain that the new Congregation was to be considered as a separate entity from the Missionary Society of St. Paul.

In the first statutes, which De Piro helped to draw up, reference is made to the "special aim of the Congregation which is to take care, in Malta and other countries particularly missionary lands, of abandoned boys and girls who would have just left an Institute and to take care of widows and old people."  These aims show the large-scale projects De Piro had in mind for the Congregation in the early days.

In 1931 Maria Giuzeppina Curmi died.  The following year, while the Congregation had managed to obtain local approval for a canonical establishment, the Sisters passed through a difficult time because Curmi's heirs opened a law case to claim her property, including the Institute.  The case was finally decided in the Congregation's favour, in 14 January 1935.  De Piro helped a lot even in this case.

The approval from the Congregation of the Religious in Rome was finally obtained on 28 October 1933, five weeks after De Piro died.

St Francis de Paule Institute, in Birkirkara.

During this time De Piro was also deeply involved in obtaining the Institute of St. Francis de Paule, in Birkirkara, for the Congregation of the Misionary Sisters of Jesus of Nazareth.  Its Foundress, Giuzeppa Psaila, was finding it too hard to look after the about twenty female orphans in the Institute.  The negotiations were protected and the Birkirkara home was not taken over by the sisters before the death of Fr De Piro.  This only took place in 1938 by which time the Sisters gave up looking after the young boys' section of St. Joseph's Home.

A diocesan home for Gozitan orphans (1925-1933)

Soon after the setting up of St. Joseph’s Home, in Hamrun, by Mgr. Francesco Bonnici, Bishop Pietro Pace, a Gozitan and a former Bishop of Gozo, expressed a wish that a branch be opened in Malta’s sister Island to cater for its orphans and needy boys. Because of certain difficulties that arose, this project came to nothing.

The need however continued to be felt and on 10 November 1923 the archpriests and parish priests of Gozo drew up a notarial contract whereby such an orphanage could be founded. For this end they were to ask for a LM1000 subsidy from the government in return for an undertaking to keep twenty orphans in the home which they proposed to call the Diocesan-Parochial Orphanage and which was to be sited at Ghajnsielem, Gozo. This proposal was accepted by Mgr. Micheal Gonzi who in the meantime had succeded Pace as Bishop of Gozo. The relevant foundation decree was issued on 6 November 1924.

According to this decree the home was to be known as Orfanatrofio Diocesano and the civil government was not to interfere in any way in its running. The officials responsible for its administration were to be chosen by the parish priests themselves subject to diocesan approval. The Bishop reserved the right to preside over the council of administration and to vet all applications. In case the orphanage should be forced to close down, all property was to pass to the Bishop of Gozo.

As regards the actual administration of the Home, the parish priests were unanimously of the opinion that it should be affiliated with St. Joseph’s Home which at that time had Fr. De Piro as its Director. Always meticulous in all he did, De Piro kept asking for more information before he would commit himself. He eventually gave his consent on 3 February 1925. That same day, in his dual capacity as Superior of St. Joseph’s Home and Superior of the Society of St. Paul, he wrote to the Archbishop asking for permission to let the Society take over the running of the orphanage. Official approval was granted on 9 February.

Furthur discussions were then held with Mgr. Gonzi, where De Piro was informed about the decisions that had been already reached. Together they saw what remained to be done and there were arguments on matters of procedure to be followed.

The parish priests of Gozo saw in De Piro the only practical administrator for the Home and they wanted to make sure that he would not change his mind. They let him know that they would favourably consider any suggestions he cared to make. Mgr. Gonzi even invited him over to Gozo to take a close look at the whole situation.

All this came as a surprise to De Piro who did not entertain much hope for a positive outcome especially following his earlier discussion with Mgr. Gonzi.

De Piro still insisted on the affiliation of the Gozo Orphanage with St. Joseph’s Home in Malta. He disagreed with the conditions as laid down in Gonzi’s foundation decree because, to his mind, they failed to take Divine Providence into account, and they lacked a sense of charity. He wanted to obtain the same conditions as those in St. Joseph’s Home because he wanted his Society to look after them. In short he did not want any interference with the way in which he understood his mission. Basically this meant that the Gozo Home would not be dependent upon the Bishop of Gozo.

De Piro and Gonzi eventually met towards the beginning of April and on the 18 th of that month, Mgr. Gonzi issued the relevant affiliation decree as De Piro had wished. Gonzi also authorised the transference of all the rights and obligations of the Gozo Diocese and parishes into the hands of Fr. De Piro. Only one condition was stipulated, namely that should the Gozo Branch of St. Joseph’s Home secede from its Motherhouse or St Joseph’s in Malta, all its rights and property would pass to the Bishop of Gozo.

De Piro was greatly safisfied with the developments and he immediately decided on a private inauguration ceremony that was to be held on 8 May, a date so precious to him. However on 25 April, as De Piro was about to retire to his room on the first floor of the orphanage, the roof slabs beneath him suddenly gave way and he fell about four meters to the ground. Though De Piro hurt himself he suffered no fractures. For some days he could not stand up.

De Piro accepted this setback with humour and resignation but it was obvious that the inauguration would have to be postponed to 21 May - the feast of the Ascension.  Civil and ecclesiastical dignitaries were invited, including the Governor, Sir Walter Morris Congreve, parliamentary members and the Cathedral Chapter.

On that same day the first three boys were accepted in the Home, and soon their numbers began to increase. Fr. De Piro was confident that benefactors would continue to support the Home.

One of the first problems De Piro had to face was the procrastination on the side of the government in honouring its pledge to contribute the LM1000. Indeed the months dragged by until the contract was eventually signed. On 16 October 1926 he was asked to withdraw the agreed subsidy. The government on its part insisted that at least 20 boys be kept for the first four years.

The person chosen by De Piro to administer the Home as Vice-Rector or Assistant-Superior was Fr Michael Callus, one of the first priests to be ordained from inside the Society.  Some time later Fr Karm Azzopardi, another priest from the Society replaced Callus. Fr. De Piro always kept in mind the particular needs of the Gozo Home and regularly sent all possible help.

In his desire to recreate and improve the children, De Piro set up a musical band similar to the one the Malta Home had. From this humble origin there was to develop the St. Joseph Band of Ghajnsielem, the first Gozo band outside the City, Rabat (Victoria).

In addition to providing tuition in academic subjects, De Piro was extremely keen to teaching the boys a trade. His original plan to bring the growing boys to Malta to learn a trade there could not be realized because the Hamrun home always had a long waiting list of boys expecting to be admitted. For this reason the boys had to have instruction in the Gozo home itself where De Piro saw to the setting up of a sewing ‘laboratory’ though the cost of employing instructors in carpentry and shoe-making were more than the Home could afford. De Piro therefore applied for, and was granted a govenment subsidy for this specific purpose.

Soon the original premises started becoming too small to make possible the developments that De Piro had in mind from the very first. On 12 January 1930, he requested a plot of land from the government where an extension could be built, even though he had no sound financial means except a blind trust in Divine Providence. After protracted negotiations he was granted the lease of a large plot of land on 15 February 1933.

The extension project hit a snag when a farmer who cultivated part of the land, refused to give up his property. Fr. De Piro actually died on 17 September 1933 and the Society eventually renounced responsability for the Home on 2 October 1935. The extension never materialized but De Piro had seen the Home through its first difficult years.

The will and the Institutes

What has been said is already enough proof of the bond that existed between Joseph De Piro and the Institutes under his care.  His will confirms this close link.  The second article says that, “As regards the administration of the various charitable Institutes I have a separate book for each administration.  For obvious reasons I declare that in the Institutes administed by me, whether they are missionary or charitable, there is no furniture … or sacred objects that are my property.  The fact they they are there means that they pertain to that institute … I wish to declare also that I do not want any payment for any administration I would have carried on, or for any expenses I would have incurred during my term of office …”.

After saying what he leaves for the Society of St Paul, his mother, Bishop Caruana, the Sisiters of Jesus of Nazareth, and St Ursola House in Qrendi, in article eight and nine he leaves something for the Institutes : Fra Diegu, esus of Nazareth, and St Francis de Paule.

A workshop for unemployed girls in Valletta

Fr De Piro never stopped thinking about what to do more for the Institutes under his care.  It was exactly this dedication that made him enlarge, refubish, or change some part or other of their buildings.  It was again this interest in the Institutes that continually encouraged him to introduce new ways how to run these charitable Institutions. It was because he wanted to help even the girls who had left the Institutes and who had no one to welcome them that he thought of the Laboratory of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

In 1927 De Piro had already aired a project with government officials that would consist of a workshop for poor and needy girls in Valletta. This he had the idea of siting in a small house near the Lower Barracca.  Nothing came of this particular plan, which consisted of providing a moral and technical education to needy girls. Rather than founding an institute, he had in mind the setting up of a workshop where girls could work and get paid for whatever they produced.  

Early in 1928 the government offered him temporary accomodation.  De Piro refused it, owing to the fact that he had in mind a place he would not be turned out from.  Another accomodation was found and the official opening took place on 11 April 1928. The house De Piro rented was at 101, St. Christopher Street. In order to subsidise the high rent he was asked for, De Piro asked for and was granted permission to hold lotteries to raise some money.

Fr. De Piro found an able assistant in Maria Assunta Borg, who, after having been legally separated from her husband, administered the laboratory in which she even resided permanently. The girls were being instructed in sewing and other feminine accomplishments.

After working from 1928 to 1931 together, relations between De Piro and Borg started becoming strained. De Piro preferred to see the 1aboratory reserved for girls coming out of the orphanages he was looking after, while Borg desired to open them to all girls living in moral danger. Moreover Borg started thinking that only she was responsible for the laboratory while De Piro felt that he could even remove her from her office if needs be. The disagreement between the two had arisen because Borg started seeking advice from Mgr. Enrico Dandria who advised her to listen to De Piro insofar as the administration of the laboratory was concerned and to Dandria himself where problems of conscience were involved.

Matters came to a head in November 1930 when De Piro ordered Borg to leave the laboratory and move to Hamrun. In February 1931 she complained to Dandria who advised her to contact the Archbishop. Instead she went to De Piro who was obviously displeased that anybody had dared interfere in the running of the laboratory. De Piro offered to remove Borg who was even told off by Dandria for not having listened to his advice. Borg only went to the Archbishop in March 1931 and he told her that he would personally discuss the whole thing with De Piro.

When De Piro got to know about her encounter with the Archbishop, he informed Borg that he had lost all confidence in her and that she therefore would have nothing more to do with the laboratory. De Piro also let the Archbishop know of his decision.

This clash of opinions had its repercussions on the laboratory. Indeed to avoid legal problems it was decided that the laboratory of the Sacred Heart of Jesus be formally declared closed and a declaration to that effect was drawn up by De Piro and Borg on 14 August 1931. To show that there was no bad blood between them, De Piro entrusted Borg with the small sum of money that was left over after the dissolution.

Though De Piro was greatly saddened by the whole outcome, the events prove how strong-willed and decisive he was whenever he felt he was in the right. Still the failure of the project upset him deeply because he was quite conscious of the magnitude of the problem of the young girls who had to leave the shelter of the orphanages without having anyone to provide them with a home.  He dearly loved to found some other charitable institution in its stead.  Maria Giuseppina Curmi, the Foundress of the Missionary Sisters of Jesus of Nazareth was to be the alternative.  She died on 27 December 1931 but the members of her Congregation concretised what De Piro had dreamt.  As Monsignor was drawing up the statutes, he suggested the insertion of the care of girls who left orphanages as one of the secondary aims of the Sisters’ Congregation. Even in his spiritual testament De Piro urged his successors in the administration of the Congregation to cherish this particular aspect of their mission.

A less organised charity.

De Piro’s charity was even of a less organised and formal nature.  If one goes through the petty cash books of St joseph’s Institute  one frequently meets such entries as : “To the mother of … “, “To the father of …”, “To a wretched poor woman …”, “To a poor family …”, “Charity given by the porter …”.  This last note is frequently met with in the registers and the money involved is many a times relatively substancial.

 A promotor of justice. 

Justice was next to charity in the case of De Piro.  Studying the registers “Casa di San Giuseppe, Ist. Bonnici, Piccola Casa”, one immediately realises that the Director every now and then increased the wages of the workers at St Joseph’s Institute.  At a time when there was no retirement pension, Monsignor gave this assistence to the workers who left the Institute because of old age.  Even the wife of the worker who had to abandon his work because of some invalidity was given some sort of assistence.

The Birkirkara Oratory

Birkirkara is one of the oldest and most populous towns in Malta. There, early in the twentieth century, an Oratory was built in the eastern part of it to cater for the teaching of christian doctrine.

In 1910, Fr Michael Sammut, a priest from Birkirkara, and Notary Michael Louis Casolani obtained a plot of land for the building of a chapel. It was Casolani who paid for its construction which was completed in four months and solemnly inaugurated on 31 July 1910.

Casolani had hoped that the Salesian brothers would look after the chapel and provide a religious and civil education for the people’s children according to the methods of Don Bosco.

A short time after, an Oratory was built adjacent to the chapel. Again Casolani paid for the building and, in accordance with his wishes, it was entrusted to the Salesian brothers who named it ‘Domenico Savio Oratory’.

When the Salesians gave up the Oratory in 1912 due to a shortage of priests in their Congregation, the Freres De La Salle took it over and renamed it after St. John Baptist De La Salle. But the Freres too had to give up responsibility for the Oratory since they were finding it hard to find enough vocations.

The Oratory continued in its mission under the general direction of its two founders for a number of years. On 15 December 1925, Casolani wrote to Fr. De Piro asking him to take over the Oratory, though De Piro had his hand full with his Society and the various charitable institutions he was responsable for. Moreover even his physical condition was giving him reason for concern. Still De Piro seriously considered taking over the Oratory for the Society of St. Paul, asking Casolani for detailed information regarding all the conditions he wanted to impose.

Since the Society was still a diocesan one the Archbishop’s approval was necessary before the Oratory could be accepted. The Archbishop gave his consent on 21 January 1927 and the relevant contract was signed on 4 April. De Piro made it quite clear that the Oratory was only being accepted on behalf of the Missionary Society of St. Paul, and that there should be no interference in its running by any other congregation. On its part the Society undertook to continue that spiritual welfare that was already being performed and to accept responsability for all future expenses.

The ceding of the Oratory to the Society came at a most opportune time because its Co-founder and Director, Canon Michael Sammut died soon afterwards on 11 November 1927.

The primary concern of the Oratory was to educate the young poor children of the area, spiritually. The children had mass daily and were encouraged to go to confession every Saturday. The main feasts observed by the Oratory were Christmas and Our Lady, Help of the Christians.  De Piro, however, did not neglect the physical and intellectual development of the children. The Society’s catechists supervised them as they played in the playground and produced modest theatrical representations to bring out their hidden talents.

For the first few years of the Society’s administration, De Piro was formally considered the Superior of the Oratory. He had struck a very close friendship with Notary Casolani with whom he shared a deep desire for charitable deeds. Casolani was eventually drawn towards the Society and he considered it more than a coincidence that both the Society and the Oratory had been inaugurated in the same year.

If one were to have a look at the minutes of the council meeting of the Society of St Paul of 4 August 1928, one would find out that Fr. De Piro also had in mind the utilising of the Oratory as a sort of novitiate for those who aspired to join the Society as either priests or catechists. As De Piro said in the following council meeting of 11 August, the Birkirkara Oratory would serve as a kind of Training School, while the novitiate proper would remain at Mdina or Hamrun, or at St. Agatha’s when this bui1ding would be completed. It was planned that the Training School, which was dedicated to Our Lady Assumed into Heaven, would open towards the end of the year.  It was placed under the directorship of Fr Michael Callus and was to remain open for six years, that is a few months after De Piro’s death.  

Notary Casolani died on 3 February 1930 and the Society took part in the funeral services of this great benefactor. De Piro personally concelebrated a Mass in his memory on 13 February in the Birkirkara Oratory which was attended by Casolani’s widow and the children of Birkirkara.

In 1931 the Church celebrated the fifteenth hundred anniversary since the Council of Ephesus, in which the dogma of Mary as the Mother of God was proclaimed. For this occasion De Piro organised a conference at the Training School in which the decision was taken to ask the Church to declare that Our Lady was assumed bodily into heaven.  

The Oratory and the Society of Christian doctrine (M.U.S.E.U.M).

Already in 1915, twelve years before the Society assumed responsability for the Oratory, its catechists used to teach catechism to the children of Birkirkara in a small church dedicated to St. Paul.

Those years also saw the start of a Society of lay catechists, then known as Tal-Papidi, today better known as M.U.S.E.U.M. It had originated in 1907 in Hamrun, the work of an unassuming priest, Fr Gorg Preca.

In 1914 the M.U.S.E.U.M. opened a female branch in Birkirkara, followed four years later by a male one. Casolani had seen the M.U.S.E.U.M. as a threat to the Oratory and in 1922 had unsuccessfully petitioned the Church authorities to close it down. In 1930 the M.U.S.E.U.M. members felt it was time they started providing lessons in catechism to boys in an area quite close to where the Oratory was sited. It was obvious that some sort of agreement would have to be reached betweem the M.U.S.E.U.M. and the Oratory. The members of the M.U.S.E.U.M. therefore asked De Piro if he would find any objection if they were to teach boys under the age of twelve, in view of the fact that the parish authorities had entrusted the Oratory with the responsability of providing religious instruction in that area.

De Piro desired that any agreement would be sanctioned by a formal written contract, which was presented at the sixth meeting of the Council of the Society on 26 April 1930. A petition was then forwarded to the Archbishop who however pointed out that such a decision was the prerogative of the Provost of Birkirkara, though he was not against a legal contract being drawn up. The contract was signed on 11 June; the signatories being Fr. De Piro, Canon Don Karm Bonnici, the Provost of Birkirkara and Fr Gorg Preca.

Though the right to teach catechism was granted to the M.U.S.E.U.M., the Director of the Oratory was given the authority to inspect the premises and the teaching being imparted, either personally or through a delegate. The Director also reserved the right to examine the young candidates for Holy Communion and Confirmation instructed by the members of the M.U.S.E.U.M.

Cradle of Vocations  

The Birkirkara Oratory played an important part in fostering vocations for the Missionary Society of St. Paul in particular among the young students at the Training School.

One of the facts that worried Fr. De Piro was the lack of a sufficient number of priests to meet the needs of his Society. For him the Oratory and its Training School represented a great potential. In September 1931 two young men did actually start their novitiate in Mdina after having attended the St. Mary Training School. Both these young men, Gorg Xerri and Giovanni Xuereb were later actually ordained priests.

Till the end of his life De Piro kept working to improve the Oratory and to make life better for the boys who frequented it. He had the good fortune to see the number of young men applying to enter the vocational Training School increase so much that some had to be sent to St. Agatha’s, in Rabat, instead.

De Piro’s death in 1933 did bring some financial problems to the Birkirkara Oratory as it did to the Society as a whole, since he used to contribute generously from his own resources. Providence however intervened to make sure that neither of these two noble projects would die a natural death. The Training School did die out but the Oratory grew and prospered and has continued its mission of educating the children of Birkirkara to this very day under the guidance of De Piro’s Society.

 Section 4         Founder of the Missionary Society of St Paul

“The ideas”

When writing about De Piro's period of the deaconate it was said that this was the time when he had to decide whether to go to the Accademia Ecclesiastica or to St Joseph's Institute.  It was also said that he wanted to settle in the Institute in order to be with other priests taking care of orphans.  But this was not the only reason.  He himself also said that:

“An internal feeling tells me that from this Institute God wants to form in Malta a Congregation of priests under the patronage of St Paul.  After establishing itself in Malta, it goes even abroad."

This was the time when De Piro was still at his studies, but had it not been for his spiritual director, Padre Gualaudi, who told him to stop thinking about this, Joseph would have developed more and more his ideas.

 Not much support.

Referring to De Piro’s Diary one finds out that the Servant of God obeyed the advice of his spiritual director: during his studies and for another three years he never spoke to anyone about his project. But on 7 August, 1905 he exposed his ideas to Fr Emanuel Vassallo, the then director of St Joseph's Institute and presented to him his ideas in writing.  In these same pages of his Diary one sees that De Piro did not specify what his project was, but then he put an asterisk near the words "my written idea" and at the end of page 9 he added:

"A Society of Missionaries"

Fr Vassallo did not tell De Piro that he would not succeed, but the former did not seem enthusiastic about the idea:

"He promised me his help, but he also told me that he would only do this when less busy". 

Vassallo suggested to De Piro to go to Mgr. F. Bonnici, the founder and first director of St Joseph’s Institute. De Piro recorded that:

"He told me that considering the character of the Maltese priest, namely  that he is too much attached to his native country ... my idea is impossible,  if there is not some supernatural event."

"He even told me how he worked for a similar cause and that he failed, adding that he might not have been the person destined by Providence."

The same Bonnici adviced De Piro not to do anything and:

"He encouraged me to pray and not to take any other steps forward, while he repeated what had been said by Padre Gualandi …”

"The idea" was still very vague in De Piro's mind.  He was only convinced of the fact that he intended to begin a missionary project and in order to succeed in reaching this he had to set up a congregation.  But he was still quite unsure of whether to set up a religious congregation whose members would profess the vows or whether to gather together those diocesan priests who would share his idea, without professing any vows.    At the same time in the 'addendae' mentioned above one can notice that De Piro was quite determined that:

"If with God's help ... I arrive at the foundation of a regular Institute this must be perfectly so."

But he also adds that: 

"It must find a way how to accept even the secular Clergy."

Quite obviously therefore the ideas in De Piro's mind were still a bit vague.  But notwithstanding the fact that "the idea" of a religious institute was not yet clear in De Piro’s mind, the thought about providing missionaries was fundamental for him from the beginning.  Whatever the form of the Society, the need was felt that the missionary ideal be clearly seen even in the name itself of the new Institute.

The first activities of the Society were to be (i) work among the orphans at St Joseph's Institute (ii) apostolate among the Maltese who lived abroad (iii) a dedication towards those who work on ships. As has already been said, Fr Joseph was finding no support from those around him.  The year 1906 passed away without providing for him anyone to make him hope for anything positive.   De Piro himself seemed to be a bit disheartened.  At the same time he was resolute to do whatever providence had planned for him to do.  He himself said that being the feast of the dedication of the Basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul, he asked the help of the Lord through the intercession of these two saints:

"... I have celebrated Mass at St Peter's in the Vatican and precisely at the altar of St. Peter.  I said the mass of the Apostles Peter and Paul praying them to help me know the will of God and to put it in practice."

It has already been made clear that Fr. De Piro was quite open about the special characteristic of his future Society; he wished to set up a missionary one.  It happened that in Malta there was a group of priests whose work was to go around the parishes on the Island and help in the christian renewal, especially by their preaching and the administration of the sacraments.  This organisation was called "L 'Opera della Santa Missione" and had Mgr E. Debono as director. The latter, knowing "the ideas" of Fr. De Piro, invited him to join his Organisation, hoping to satisfy the zeal and "ideal" of Fr Joseph.  Being open to the signs of the times the latter accepted the invitation. But in spite of all this great fervour to help, De Piro was in fact not able to contribute much to Mgr. Debono's Association at that time;  he was still sick of TB and therefore could not preach for a long time because of his affected bronchi.     Here one has to say also that De Piro's wish and missionary ideal were not the same as that of the 'opera' of Mgr. Debono; he did not want the priests of his future Society to work in the Maltese parishes.  

The year 1907 can be said to have been as much disappointing for De Piro as the years before; he had still to work very hard to find other priests to begin living with him as a community with a specific purpose at St Joseph's Institute.  Fr Joseph's wish was that those who would join would be ready to go to the missions.  This did not seem so much easy, but on the 19 February, 1907, he and Fr.G. Bugeja agreed to share their thoughts with Fr. Paul Galea and Fr. Robert Caruana Gatto. De Piro and Bugeja were working very closely together, and had agreed to form a community of secular priests; for the time being they were not envisaging to bind their prospective confreres with the religious vows.

The time passed by without offering anything positive to De Piro. The diocesan priests were not cooperating at all with him.  It was only Fr G. Bugeja who was supporting him.

The year 1907 was unsuccessful as was more than the first half of 1908.  But then on the 8 August of that year, De Piro met a seminarian who was already a deacon and who was interested in De Piro's project. His name was John Mamo.  He wished to set up an institute.  Therefore De Piro invited him to meet Bugeja.  In fact the three met on 25 September and they agreed to help each other.  The Servant of God and Bugeja encouraged Mamo to begin his institute at Vittoriosa, one of the parishes in Malta.  Mamo agreed with them and talked immediately to the parish priest.  The latter accepted the idea of having an institute for religious instruction in his parish.

Here one has to say that Mamo's plans did not in fact conform with those of De Piro.  Referring to De Piro's Diary one finds it clearly hinted that Mamo's project was independent of Fr Joseph's own plans.     On the other hand Mamo wanted to present his ideas as originating from him and the other two. 

This seminarian promised De Piro that there were other seminarians who were interested and ready to join, if the three of them, that is De Piro, Bugeja and Mamo, would succeed in beginning a congregation.

To further prove the independence of the one project from the other, one can make reference to the fact that De Piro and Mamo presented their plans separately to Archbishop Pace.  Mamo did this through one of his professors, Fr Anton Vella,   while De Piro thought that he could do this directly.  In fact he communicated "his ideas" for the first time to the Bishop Pace on 29 September, 1908.     Being asked by De Piro to bless the project, His Excellency did not only accept to do this, but also promised his help.

If Mgr. Debono's and Mamo's projects did not agree at all with De Piro's, there was someone else who had understood him more than the other two and in fact offered him an idea which could be said to coincide with that of De Piro.  Mgr. Peter Pace, as Archbishop of Malta, had been thinking about sending diocesan priests to work abroad. What was still difficult for him was how to form these priests for the missionary ideal.  It seemed that Pace had written to the Superior General of the Mill Hill Fathers, through a certain Fr Innocent, asking  him to suggest some way how to begin a missionary seminary. This Superior General answered Fr Innocent on 30 May, 1908.     The Bishop, knowing De Piro's "wish" to begin a Missionary Society and having promised his help, passed on this same correspondence to De Piro for the latter to express his opinion.  Analysing this letter one finds out that there the missionary ideal  as escogitated by De Piro was undeniably present.  But there was no reference at all to any of the religious vows.  The Mill Hill Superior General did not speak of any religious institute.  On the contrary, he suggested that the College should be set up by the Bishop himself and it was he who had to choose its superiors and staff.

Notwithstanding all this difference between De Piro's plans and suggestions made in this letter, De Piro thought that it was better to get hold of that same opportunity and try to develop it. Therefore he asked the Bishop whether it was possible for him to begin such a seminary.  But it was exactly here that De Piro had to experience another setback.   It happened that Mgr Pace himself was not in favour of establishing such a seminary, at least at that particular moment.  The reason presented by the Bishop was that the Salesians had begun one of their Oratories in Malta and therefore the His Excellency thought that it was not proper to begin a similar project at the same time.  De Piro knew that the two activities were in actual fact not similar, but he was determined to do what the Bishop had suggested.

In fact Fr Joseph asked Mgr Pace whether he had to abandon his own project.  The Bishop answered by telling him that he had not only to persevere in his "ideas", but also to find other priests to join him when the proper time would come.

Thus the year 1908 came to an end.  De Piro had some meetings with Mamo.  The latter informed the Servant of God that he had made contact with one of his professors, Fr Barbara, who was interested in  their plans.  At the same time De Piro was told that when Barbara heard of the community life that was supposed to be lived by the members of the new Congregation, he thought it was impossible for him to join them.  At the same time he promised them his help. 

Some hope 

The first hope for Fr Joseph came in 1909.  De Piro, Bugeja and Mamo were still thinking of opening a house.  All three met together on 29 July, 1909 and decided that for the time being they had to refrain from telling the Bishop about their plans.  They also decided to open a house to teach catechism in it. 

In spite of this agreement it was still very clear in De Piro's mind that his original project was something else.  In fact on 1 August, 1909, while on his own, he formulated a promise that was intended for those who were to form part of his future Congregation. This manifests what De Piro's plan and ideal was:

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. We do our promises in front of God, Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St Paul the Apostle, when the proper authorisation of the Holy See arrives. 

The aim of the Company is to form missionaries and send them where necessary.  The Company considers as its own the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola.  It is from these that it gets its proper rules and constitutions." 

La Fontaine - A great benefactor of De Piro 

Bishop Pace can be considered to have been of great encouragement to the Servant of God because he seemed to have understood his wishes and aims and had passed on to him the letter about missionary formation.  But there was someone else who must be considered  as another very great benefactor.  This was the Apostolic Visitor, Mgr Peter La Fontaine.  Many of the people whose help De Piro sought remained passive or gave very little help.  La Fontaine gave the Servant of God his constant support up to his very death.

On the 2 November, 1909, De Piro wrote these words in his Diary:

"All Souls' Day and first Wednesday of the month.  The Apostolic Visitor Mgr La Fontaine was at Fra Diegu Institute. During the meeting I had with him we talked about the plan of the foreign missions.  I communicated to him my idea. He encouraged me to present my petition ..."

La Fontaine had gone to Fra Diegu Institute as Apostolic Delegate. Undoubtedly this was a providential visit for De Piro and his future Society.  As the above words indicate De Piro and La Fontaine talked together about the missions.  Being asked by the Apostolic Visitor to express his wishes in writing the Servant of God met Fr gorg Bugeja to share the suggestion made to him by La Fontaine. In fact De Piro wrote the petition on 3 November and passed it on to Bugeja to sign it.  Mamo put down his name on the 8 th of the same month.     These were the exact words of De Piro's 'Supplica':


"Most Holy Father,

We the undersigned humbly kneeling at the feet of your Sanctity, ask the permission to start a religious Society, with the aim of forming Missionaries first and foremost for the colonies of Maltese living abroad.

(signed)              Fr Joseph De Piro, Fr Gorg Bugeja, Deacon Mamo John"


On 11 November, De Piro took this same petition to La Fontaine.  The latter, knowing how much the Holy See appreciated such a 'supplica' when recommended by the local ordinary, told the Servant of God to have the signature of Bishop Pace on it.  De Piro, who trusted La Fontaine, did as he was told and on 22 November of the same year talked to His Excellency about the petition.

From the same 'supplica' we know that the Bishop wrote his recommendation on the left hand side of the 'supplica', and signed it on 15 November, 1909,    by saying:


"I recommend the permission.

Given in Valletta on the 15 Nov. 1909

P. Arch. Bish. of Malta.”


More difficulties.  

This 'supplica' was most important for the beginning of the Society, but at the same time the words "first and foremost for the colonies of the Maltese who are abroad" were to cause De Piro much misunderstanding from the side of the Holy See.  Fr Joseph never meant that his Society should ever exclude the work among those who had never heard the Good News.  However, he could not eliminate the fact that his times were such that many Maltese were going abroad to find work there and many a time they had no priest to cater for their spiritual needs.  For the time being De Piro thought it was wise to launch his Congregation by beginning the work of evangelisation among the Maltese migrants.

De Piro and La Fontaine contacted each other continuously.  The first letter from the side of the Apostolic Visitor was written on 27 January, 1910.  La Fontaine told De Piro that:

"The Holy Father, to whom you presented the petition, while being informed by me about it, expressed his joy at the news. He has also entrusted me with the honourable duty to pass on to you his Apostolic Benediction."

This same letter spoke of an 'indirect' benediction from the side of Pope Pius X which did not mean in any way the approval of De Piro's project.  There were still many things to be done in order that De Piro's plans might get this same approval.  De Piro began to realize that even his great benefactor, La Fontaine, had not understood him completely; the Apostolic Visitor had compared De Piro's 'project' to that of Mgr Coccolo who had founded a Society of diocesan priests who worked among the Italian migrants.  La Fontaine also suggested to De Piro to talk to a certain Fr Vella, S.J., who had worked among the Maltese in Greece.   The "first and foremost" of the petition seemed to have been interpreted as "only" by La Fontaine!

Another illness was to trouble the Servant of God after La Fontaine's departure from Malta.  In fact one can find out that the above mentioned letter from the Apostolic Visitor found De Piro sick of typhoid fever.  Answering La Fontaine's letter on 21 February, 1920, De Piro told him these words:

"When I was well again I discussed the matter with the others. With God's help we hope to start the project.  In this way we would deserve the Holy Father's Benediction, of which we feel so much the responsibility ..."

The "Small House of St Paul".  

This was the time when De Piro, Bugeja and Mamo began their search for the first house of the Society.   Having been asked to give permission for this, the Bishop approved,

"... wholeheartedly the Initiative and we wish every success.”

This was on 6 June, 1910.

The petition made by De Piro and his two companions gave details about the use of the house and repeated the aim of the Society:

 "... a house which will serve as residence for the members of a religious society.  The aim of this Institute is to form missionaries, first and foremost for the colonies of Maltese who are abroad.  The name of the house will be 'The Small House of St Paul' ”.

The Bishop on his part, having blessed the project, asked the three priests to present the Society's statutes.  

The above-mentioned house was opened on 12 June, 1910, and Bishop Pace blessed it.  De Piro delivered a speech for the occasion and having made an appeal to the Maltese clergy, reminded those present that Mgr F. Bonnici and Mgr E. Debono had thought before of founding such a Society.  He also compared the Small House to the Grotto at Betlehem.

The first vocations

Now  that De Piro and the other two companions had succeeded in finding a small house where to give start to their project, they all did their best to make of it a decent place where the future members could live.  De Piro did not forget his benefactor, La Fontaine. On such an occasion he thought it was opportune to write to him about the Small House:  

"As regards our Project we have already hired a small house in Mdina which as much as possible we are going to embellish.  It already surpasses our exemplar: the Grotto of Betlehem"  

De Piro continued telling La Fontaine about the benediction of the house by Bishop Pace.  But then he added something else which was of the utmost importance:

"... and next Wednesday, vigil of the feast of Our Father ... the "Small House will start accepting a student and a catechist."

Thus the first two members of the new Society went to the "Small House" to begin their life of dedication to God and their neighbour.

De Piro was left alone.

After Bugeja and Mamo had worked with De Piro in order to begin their project, both of them left De Piro alone.  Yet he was determined to continue.   At the same time, although he tried to remain always humble, De Piro himself admitted that he had never imagined that the work was so much difficult.  He had never thought it would be so hard to cultivate a vocation and help the members of his Society to persevere.

A blessing from Pius X.

Pius X did not bless the Founder and his Society only in words and through an intermediary.  On  11 June, 1911, the Pope sent a written blessing carrying his own autograph.  This blessing is still kept by the Society with great veneration.  At the same time it cannot be considered as a valid document, historically.  By means of it the Pope blessed De Piro and the "Catechist priests" who made part of his Society.  He blessed them for the spiritual work they were doing in the Maltese clonies of Corfu’ and Tripoli.  The historical mistake here was that not only had De Piro not yet sent any member abroad, but that several other years still had to pass for the Society to have any priests at all.  

De Piro's Society grows up amid great difficulties.

By the year 1916 one of the first two members who had arrived at the "Small House of St Paul", and who was to continue his studies for the priesthood, was approaching his  priestly ordination.  De Piro, as Founder of the Society of St Paul, wished to stress the missionary charism of his Society by asking the Sacred Congregation of the Sacraments the permission for the student mentioned above to be ordained "Titolo Missionis".  Accompanying this petition, written on 22 August, 1916, the Founder sent a brief history of the Society up to that date. This information is most interesting.  Having mentioned the origin, the Apostolic Benediction of Pius X, and the opening of the residence for the first members, the Servant of God continued with the historical development of his Society:

"Development - from then on, each day has had its weight and suffering.  Disappointments and humiliations were not missing.  Three very good students who were the hope of the Institute, left.  But Divine Providence balanced these sorrows.  It provided such consolations as the decree of His Excellency Mgr Portelli, the then Administrator of the Diocese.  He gave permission to the members to wear the Society's dress."

One can therefore see that the beginning of De Piro's Society was not very easy in that the Founder had to suffer, amongst other things, several defections.  On the other hand Fr Joseph was going to have his first priest, John Vella.  In fact one finds that Vella was approved for the minor orders on 10 September, 1917, deacon on 4 April 1919, and presbyter on 20 September 1919.  

For the Founder this was also the time when he was doing his best to get the Pontifical Approval for the Society.  Here it is worth remembering that in 1906 the Sacred Congregation for Bishops and Regulars had published a Decree saying that no congregation could be considered to be a religious one before it would have been approved by the Holy See. De Piro’s new Congregation did not have such an approval yet. Therefore the Founder wrote to Bishop Portelli on 10 March,1919, in order to give him information about the origin, development and Constitutions of the "Small Institute".    This information was then passed on to Cardinal Van Rossum, the Prefect of 'Propaganda Fidei', in order that he might see whether it was possible for tha Sacred Congregation to accept in its decastery De Piro's Missionary Society.  The Congregation could not see clearly the real intentions of the Servant of God, whether (i) he intended to set up a Society the members of which would profess the vows,   and whether (ii) the members would go only to the Maltese migrants, or anywhere. 

All this caused many difficulties for the Founder.   In order to help him overcome these hurdles he relied on Don Archangelo Bruni, one of the secretaries at 'Propaganda Fidei'.  After a protracted correspondence between them, Bruni answered De Piro about another two rescripts for the "Titolo Missionis", for another two students of his Society.  It is very important to report some of the words of this letter of Don Bruni:

"I make haste to send you the two rescripts you have asked me. There was some difficulty but now it's over.  But in the future if you will be in need of any similar document you must refer to the S.C. of Religious.''

These words of Bruni were very significant for the Servant of God because they were a clear proof for him that 'Propaganda Fidei' had not accepted his Society and instead he had to pass under the Sacred Congregation for Religious.  In fact referring to the "Decretum" sent by Bishop Caruana to De Piro on 2 April, 1924, one can find out that it was the Sacred Congregation for Religious which had given the permission to his Excellency to grant the Canonical erection to De Piro's Society.

Notwithstanding all this the Founder of the new Society continued stressing the missionary characteristic of his Congregation.  He wished to make the members realise that besides being religious and therefore bound to live the three vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, they had to be prepared to leave their country and evangelise the Good News wherever needed.

The Missionary Charism over and above everything 

The Missionary activity was the greatest ambition of De Piro. In spite of the fact that the Society was already doing much work in Malta and Gozo, especially in the Institutes and at the Oratory in Birkirkara, the Founder was still looking forward to the moment when he would be able to send the first members to the missions.  It was in 1927 that Bro Joseph Caruana, one of the first two members of De Piro's Society, left Malta and went to Addis Abeba in Abbysinia, or the present Ethiopia.

This was not enough for Fr De Piro; he himself wished to go to the Missions.   In fact he had planned that he, together with another priest and two lay brothers of the Society, would go to Bro Caruana to see what were the possibilities for the Society to work in that African country.  From a letter sent by Bro Caruana himself, it can be concluded that the Founder, together with the others, intended to reach Abbysinia in September, 1933.

His Sudden Death  

But man proposes and God disposes.  Fr De Piro's desire to go to Abbysinia and plan for the Society's future there, had to give way to another event.  It was 17 September, 1933.   After the Servant of God had led the procession of Our Lady of Sorrows in one of Malta's parishes, Hamrun, he felt sick while giving the Blessed Sacrament benediction.  He died that same day, late in the evening, at the Central Hospital in Floriana.  De Piro had to end up his life when he was only fifty-five years of age.

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