The Malta Independent 26 March 2019, Tuesday

The history behind Unione Cattolica San Giuseppe

Malta Independent Tuesday, 17 June 2014, 18:49 Last update: about 6 years ago

A book that was launched on Thursday 5 June tells the remarkable story of an organisation born in 1910 and still existing, albeit on its last legs these days.

In fact, the Unione Cattolica San Giuseppe (UCSG) still exists but consists of a meagre two members, and the APS Bank, which is its direct descendant and progeny, is asking the Archbishop to close it down.

Before that is done, APS Bank commissioned historian Dr Joseph F Grima to delve into the archives and tell the story of the UCSG from its launch to 1948, when its organisation passed on to the archdiocese.

Fr Joe Brincat, one of the two last members, spoke about what happened to UCSG after the church took it over.

But the glory years of the organisation were its first years. On a wider scale, those were the years when the church, as Judge Giovanni Bonello explained, tried to respond to the new worker consciousness brought in by communism and socialism, by creating social structures for and by the workers.

The church, in those days, was not above the taking over of structures and tasks that are today assumed to be government prerogatives. Such was, for instance, its Cassa di Risparmio, which helped poor people save a proportion of their earnings – even if it were a minute sum; as much as they could afford, even 1d at a time. This was the forerunner of today’s APS Bank, which developed from the Apostleship of Prayer bank, which in turn, originated from the Cassa di Risparmio.

The Cassa di Risparmio was the brainchild of Jesuit Fr Michele Vella, who hailed from Xaghra. The records say that this was discussed as early as the UCSG’s second meeting and was set up immediately. Committees were founded in 20 towns and villages to administer it. All who had a hand in managing it did so voluntarily. It invested the sums loaned to it at 3.5% and gave back interest at 2.5%.

At around the same time, the Government’s Savings Bank was set up, but it was a State-run organisation, not one run on a volunteer basis.

The Cassa di Risparmio even set up its own Pension Fund in 1931, paying a small sum to some 40 members at a time. At its peak, the Cassa had 2,000 members but the war disrupted its activities and made its organisation close down for lack of volunteers. It was taken over by the archdiocese in 1948 but before that, it had contributed some £8,000 to UCSG from 1913 to 1935.

In 1919, UCSG formed part of the National Assembly and was determinedly against the institution of a Senate in Malta, since this would be elected by a minority of Maltese and thus, an elite minority could have blocked lawmaking.

UCSG was also one of the very first to have a cinema in Malta, seeking to keep the faithful from flocking to the more lay and commercial cinemas that were being set up. Its cinema was in the building called Palazzo Caraffa, which later became the headquarters of the Gioventu Cattolica of Mgr Enrico Dandria and is now owned by the Catholic Action.

The theatre was also used for plays – mostly clerical and edifying ones – as well and increasingly by vaudeville makkjetti type of plays. No women were allowed on stage and female parts were usually acted out by men with a falsetto voice. Controversy ensued when a transvestite tried to get a woman’s part. His offer was declined but he was offered £1 for his pains.

UCSG also had its mandolin school, just like Valletta’s La Vallette Band. This UCSG band was under the direction of Maestro Bascetta, whose daughter was later to become one of Malta’s leading teachers of music.

UCSG commissioned a Workers’ Hymn (to contrast the Internazionale) with words by Dun Karm and music by Paolino Vassallo. This was the only occasion upon which these two important figures collaborated. Maestro Vassallo was later replaced by Maestro Caruana who wrote other hymns for words by Dun Karm.

Fr Brincat took up the story where the book ends. After it was transferred to the archdiocese, UCSG had Mgr Joseph Mifsud at its head.

It became a mutual help society and helped many Maltese migrate to Australia and when they returned to Malta disheartened, it helped them once more.

It set up its own printing press, housed for a time in its building in front of St Paul’s church in Valletta – where APS’ legal office is situated today – which was then re-named Empire Press, and moved to the Catholic Institute in Floriana. It later became Il-Hajja Press and was located at Blata l-Bajda.

The UCSG also set up its own lotto scheme, which however was not a great success and closed soon after.

In time, it also became a recreational organisation, with billiards and other games. But this had to be abandoned when the building’s owner would not renew the lease.

APS Bank chairman AP Delia said the bank is very pleased to have commissioned this study of the organisation which had founded the bank. The bank intends to continue the social commitment that characterised UCSG’s years.

Only two weeks ago, Michael Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England and Christine Lagarde, incumbent Managing Director at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), had lamented about the absence of soul from today’s capital world. APS Bank intends to follow UCSG in its search for grassroots and help small people rather than looking at profits and gains.

Archbishop Paul Cremona, concluding the event, said UCSG is remarkable for how forward-looking its inspiration was and how it was managed by lay people.

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