Republished with permission: originally published December 25, 2022 in the Times of Malta: https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/maltese-sisters-sacred-heart-posted-us-1931-1934.1002886
By Dan Brock, Carmen Vella and Mark Caruana
In The Sunday Times of Malta edition of October 30, 2022, we gave an account of several young Maltese women who were initially influenced by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Malta to go to Kingston, Jamaica, and there, between 1912 and 1939, join the community of the Sisters of Mercy.
In this article, we wish to give an account of 16 sisters from the Sacred Heart Convent in St Julian’s who were sent, between 1931 and 1934, to serve other communities of the Society of the Sacred Heart or Religious of the Sacred Heart (RSCJ) in the United States.
Four were initially posted to Sacred Heart Convent in Kenwood, Albany, New York, and 12 were sent to the Convent of the Sacred Heart, at 6250 Sheridan Road, in Chicago, Illinois.
The first to be sent were Sisters Marianna Debono and Rosaria Gauci. Marianna was one of six children of Serafino Debono and Marianna Sammut of Mellieħa, while Rosaria, also from Mellieħa, was the seventh of 12 children of Andrea Gauci and Carmela Abela. Together, the childhood friends had taken their first vows at the convent in St Julian’s, on January 12, 1931.
On August 2, 1931, they left Malta on board a vessel which stopped at Syracuse before they disembarked in Naples. There, they spent a few days waiting other newly-professed nuns who arrived from Rome. The group sailed from Naples, on board the Saturnia, and arrived in New York on August 15.
After spending the night at the College of the Sacred Heart in the Manhattanville section of northwestern Manhattan in New York City, Sisters Marianna and Rosaria proceeded to Sacred Heart Convent in Kenwood, Albany, New York. They were to be the first Maltese members of their congregation to serve in North America. In July 1932, Sr Rosaria was transferred to the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Overbrook, Pennsylvania.
The following month, Sister Marianna was joined, at Kenwood, by Sisters Angela Attard, one of 12 children of Horatio Attard and Carmela Azzopardi of Żejtun, and Antonia Camilleri, the eldest of four children of Mosè Camilleri and Paula Mifsud of Lija. Sisters Angela and Antonia had sailed from Naples on board the Saturnia and arrived in New York Harbour on August 17, 1932.
Sr Antonia appears to have been the most educated of the 16 members of her community who were sent from Malta. She had attended Secondary Central School in Lija from 1921 to 1925. In December 1925, she sat for the Oxford General Certificate of Education examinations and obtained good results in six subjects. At the age of 18, she attended the Training School at Valletta, and became an elementary school teacher, a post she held till 1928 and then entered the RSCJ Convent at St Julian’s in January 1929. Ironically, Sr Antonia appears never to have formally served as a teacher within her community whose purpose was to educate women.
Sisters Angela and Antonia had been accompanied in their Atlantic crossing in 1932 by two other members of their community, Sisters Agnese Grech, a daughter of Gaetano Grech and Maria Darmanin of Cospicua, and Annunziata Micallef, the 11th of 17 children of Paolo Micallef and Luisa Caruana of Rabat, Malta. Sisters Agnese and Annunziata were en route to the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Chicago. With the four sisters on the cross-Atlantic voyage were two Canadian-born RSCJ sisters, Mary Lahey and Annette Archambault, who were returning to the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Montreal.
It is said that following his attendance at the Eucharistic Congress held in Chicago in 1926, Bishop Michael Gonzi of Gozo was asked if he could send some Maltese sisters to that city. Whether the request came directly from the superior of the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Chicago is not known. In any case, Sisters Agnese Grech and Annunziata Micallef were the first Maltese members of the congregation to be posted in Chicago.
After five years in Chicago, Sister Agnese was to spend a year at San Francisco College for Women. Sister Annunziata appears to have already been there, and, on July 4, 1937, both took their final vows there.
Meanwhile, in 1933, they had been joined at the convent in Chicago by Sisters Paulina Xuereb, the seventh of eight children of Francisco Xuereb and Vincentia Mifsud of Birkirkara; Salvina Sammut, one of 12 children of Angelo Sammut and Joanna Sant of Mellieħa; Spiridiona ‘Spira’ Gauci, a younger sister of Sr Rosaria Gauci, who had been sent to the convent in Kenwood two years earlier; Adelina Attard, the second of eight children of Giuseppe Attard and Marianna Borg of Valletta; Emmanuela ‘Mani’ Camilleri, the eighth of nine children of Joseph and Carmela Vella of Naxxar; and Assunta Grech, one of eight children of Ġużeppi Grech and Rosa Grima of San Lawrenz, Gozo.
The last of the 16 Sisters of the Sacred Heart to arrive in the United States between 1931 and 1934 were Sisters Maria Consiglia Debono, one of five children of Carmelo Debono and Dolores Agius of Lija; Maria Melita Attard, one of 11 children of Riccardo Attard and Michelina Ciappara of Qormi; Maria Carmela Gilson (aka Ghilson), one of three children of Dominic Gilson and Teresa Pisani of Sliema; and Agnes Micallef, a daughter of Michele Micallef and Carmela Miller. All four of these sisters, like the six who came from Malta the year before, were first sent to Chicago where they arrived in August 1934, having disembarked from the Rex at New York on August 15.
In examining the careers of each of these 16 Maltese members of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart who came to the US, it appears that six, Sisters Agnese Grech, Pauline Xuereb, Adelina Attard, Emmanuela Camilleri, Maria Consiglia Debono and Maria Melita Attard, never returned to Malta, even for a visit.
Sisters Rosaria Gauci and Angela Attard returned to Malta at least once and Marianna Debono twice.
Sister Salvina Sammut is known to have returned to Malta to visit her family in 1977, 1982 and 1987 while serving at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Victoria, Australia.
Three who lived out their lives in the US – Sisters Marianna Debono, Angela Attard and Adelina Attard – died at Kenwood in Albany, New York.
Sisters Agnese Grech, Paulina Xuereb, Maria Consiglia Debono and Melita Attard were living at the Oakwood Retirement Centre for the Sisters of Sacred Heart in Atherton, California, when they died.
Sr Melita Attard was among the six members of her community who helped lay the groundwork in the 1940s for what became the campus for the San Diego College for Women and would be named Alcalá Park. She died at the age of 98, in 2005, the last survivor of these six founding members.
Sister Emmanuela Camilleri was struck by car after attending mass in Menlo Park, California, and died a few hours later.
Sister Salvina Sammut had relatives living in Australia. In 1971, she was transferred to Kincoppal-Rose Bay, School of the Sacred Heart in Rose Bay, an eastern suburb of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. The last two years of her life were spent at the Sacred Heart Convent in Karlaminda, Kensington, a suburb in southeastern Sydney, were she died in 1996.
Sr Maria Carmela Gilson returned to Malta in 1972. Between 1977 and 1986, she worked in the linen room at the Sacred Heart community in Roehampton, London, England. On returning to Malta, she lived out the rest of her life in the community for elderly Sacred Heart Sisters in Tal-Virtù, Rabat, Malta.
Sisters Rosaria Gauci, Annunziata Micallef, Antonia Camilleri, Spiridiona Gauci, Assunta Grech, and Agnes Micallef also returned permanently to Malta and lived out their later years at Tal-Virtù.
After spending a year doing housework and helping in the community infirmary at St Julian’s after her permanent return to Malta, Sr Rosaria Gauci became one of the 14 founding members of the community in Fgura in 1972.
In studying the lives of these 16 Maltese sisters who arrived in the US between 1931 and 1934, one is struck by the humble tasks, which for the most part they performed as religious, such as serving in the refectory, sacristy or vestry, working in the laundry, doing housework or making caps or habits, often while serving in educational institutions run by their community.
Sr Antonia Camilleri appears to have been the only one of these Maltese religious who received formal professional training in the US. In 1966-67, she took a one-year course in practical nursing at the Lindsey Hopkins Centre in Miami, Florida.
One is also impressed by the longevity of some of these sisters. Paulina Xuereb, Agnes Micallef, Melita Attard, Carmela Gilson, and Angela Attard all lived into the 21st century and into their 90s. Sr Angela was 99 and the last survivor of these 16 Maltese Sisters of the Sacred Heart when she died in 2007. She had also outlived all 11 of her siblings.