The Malta Independent 17 June 2024, Monday
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The First Maltese Saint: Dun Gorg Preca – A biography

Malta Independent Monday, 4 June 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

Born in Valletta on 12 February 1880, Gorg was the seventh child in a middle-class family of nine. His father, Vincenzo Preca, was first a merchant and then a sanitary inspector. His mother, Natalina Ceravolo was a teacher.

He was baptised in the parish church of Our Lady of Safe Havens in Valletta, on 17 February. In 1888, the Preca family moved to Hamrun, then a fast-growing town. Gorg received his Confirmation and his first Holy Communion at the parish church of St Cajetan.

One day when he was 17 years old, Gorg was walking along the Mall Gardens in Floriana where he met one of his lyceum professors, Fr Ercole Mompalao, who told him: “Preca, you will grow up and will be befriended by people who respect God. You will be blessed because of them, and they because of you...”

Feeling that he was being called to join the priesthood, he moved from the lyceum to the seminary where as a young student, he distinguished himself in his studies, especially in Latin.

His ordination seemed in jeopardy as Gorg, who had been sickly throughout his childhood, was diagnosed as suffering from lung failure and his father was told that Gorg would probably not have a long life ahead of him. He was discouraged from even buying him vestments or a missal.

However, the young cleric was to live to celebrate his first Mass on 22 December 1906 and to die at the venerable age of 82 years. Dun Gorg would joke about the incident, saying “My father died, the professor has died and I, with just one lung, am still alive to teach people!”

Shortly after his ordination, Dun Gorg Preca had an ascetic experience that led him to spend three months alone, praying and meditating in a loft and pondering the Bible, especially the New Testament.

However, Dun Gorg was not new to such events that eventually led him to found MUSEUM.

The notion of training laymen to teach catechism was unheard of at the time, as only priests could do that, and Bible ownership was heavily sanctioned by the Church. However several incidents induced him to take practical measures in this regard. Once, he overheard a child asking the sacristan at St Cajetan how God was created. The reply that shocked Dun Gorg was “God had created Himself.”

Another, yet this time, more spiritual inspiration came to him via his confessor Fr Aloysius Galea who died on 8 April 1905 and a few days later appeared to him and said: “God has chosen you to teach his people.”

Inspired, Dun Gorg wrote a rule in Latin which he wanted to send to Pope Pius X for approval. He envisaged groups of seven permanent deacons in every parish who, with the help of lay auxiliaries, would be responsible for the formation of the people of God.

As a seminarian, he used to go to the Grand Harbour, board the foreign ships there, and introduce himself to Greek, English and French sailors by offering them a cigarette.

He used the same tactic with a group of youngsters in Hamrun. Knowing that they were in the habit of meeting together regularly, Dun Gorg struck up a steady friendship with them, slipping in spiritual advice in their conversations.

He set his eye on their leader, Eugenio Borg, known as “Gègè”, a pattern maker at the dockyard. He used to take him out for walks in the countryside and explain the Gospel of John to him. Eventually, he would become the first Superior General of the Societas Doctrinae Christianae.

Soon the group of youths who met in the vicinity of the St Cajetan parish church grew so much that premises had to be rented where their meetings could be held.

On 7 March 1907, Dun Gorg rented a house at No. 6 Fra Diegu Street, Hamrun. It was a small house where he began gathering young men and teaching them catechism. Upon renting the house, the group had not yet given a name to themselves. It was young Salvu Muscat who came up with an idea, “let’s call it ‘Museum’, since that is the place where you store precious things.” The name stuck and he was raised shoulder high while he scribbled Muzew on the stone rim around the main door with a pomegranate skin.

Later, Dun Gorg changed the name to the acronym MUSEUM meaning Magister Utinam, Sequatur Evangelium Universus Mundus (Teacher, O that the whole world would follow the Gospel!).

In 1910, Dun Gorg also opened a female section, which was placed under the responsibility of Giannina Cutajar.

During that same year, Dun Gorg had a very powerful mystical experience which he always referred to as “the extraordinary vision of the child Jesus.” One morning, he was passing in the vicinity of the Marsa Cross when he suddenly saw a 12-year-old boy pushing a low cart with a bag full of manure. The boy turned to the priest and ordered him imperiously: “Lend me a hand!” As he put his hand on the cart he felt an extraordinary spiritual sweetness and he never could remember where they went or what happened to the young boy. He later understood however that the boy was Jesus and that the Lord was asking him and his followers to help him with nurturing the Lord’s field and vineyard with sound doctrine and formation.

At the time, the Church kept a wary eye on all new activities and organisations, fearing that heretic teaching would spread and damage the official doctrine. When word came to the ears of the Vicar General Mgr Salvatore Grech that a group of youths and young women were meeting regularly to talk about God, alarm bells started ringing.

This concern was compounded by the fact that many people were flocking to hear this priest, and his followers, talk about God in a simple and clear way.

In 1909, Dun Gorg was ordered to close his MUSEUM centres, which he duly did without hesitation. However parish priests themselves protested with the ecclesiastical authorities and the ban was revoked by Mgr Grech.

Between 1914 and 1915, a number of daily newspapers carried articles and letters denigrating the new society.

Dun George ordered his members to take a vow of meekness, gladly forgiving anybody who poked fun at them.

In 1916, Bishop Mauro Caruana ordered an enquiry concerning the society. A famous episode during the enquire shows both Dun Gorg’s yearning to teach and the church’s lethargy at teaching at the time. During the inquest, a prelate asked him, “How come you are teaching moral theology to boors?” to which the young priest answered with another question, “Why do we learn it at the Seminary? To keep it there?”

Eventually, the inquest resulted in a glowing report for the young society and Bishop Dom Mauro Caruana canonically erected the Society of Christian Doctrine on 12 April 1932.

The society is synonymous with the phrase Verbum Dei caro factum est (The word of God was made flesh).

This phrase taken out from the Gospel of St John refers to the mystery of the Incarnation and as of 1917, Dun Gorg wanted members to wear a badge with these words.

His devotion to this mystery of the Incarnation led him to start off a tradition that has become a fixture of Christmas festivities in Malta.

On Christmas Eve of 1921, in Hamrun was held the first procession with a statue of the baby Jesus, which he dubbed as “a demonstration in honour of the Baby Jesus.” The practice spread fairly quickly and has become a regular fixture in Christmas festivities in Malta.

He also wished that no family would remain without a crib and a statue of the Holy Child, so he encouraged MUSEUM members to give every child attending their centres a crib with a baby Jesus to take home.

Dun Gorg was very devoted to Our Lady.

He was especially devout to Our Lady of Good Counsel, Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Immaculate Conception.

In fact, he did much to propagate the devotion towards these two titles.

His devotion to Our Lady of Good Counsel was strengthened when the Curia ordered him to close MUSEUM centres.

Once he was at home and as he passed in front of a sacred image of Our Lady of Good Counsel, he heard a voice telling him “Serva Silentium” (Keep Silent).

Dun Gorg had always been devoted to Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

He used to wear the scapular and in 1918, he became a Third Order Carmelite with the name of Franco.

The strength of his devotion to the Immaculate Conception can be observed from two incidents. He used to meditate in front of the titular painting of the Collegiate of the Immaculate Conception in Cospicua, where once he was inspired to write a litany in honour of Our Lady. He wanted that all centres would recite this prayer, which he named Vestis Honoris (A dress of honour) on every seventh, 17th and 27th day of each month in front of an image of the painting that inspired him.

He also distributed a lot of holy medals depicting the Immaculate Conception, which came to be known Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. Later, the church of the society’s motherhouse was dedicated to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.

Dun Gorg proved to be a man ahead of his time in a number of ways. Besides preceding teachings of the Vatican Council II by over 50 years, in 1957 (almost 50 years prior to Pope John Paul II) he suggested the use of five “Mysteries of Light” for the private recitation of the Rosary.

On 20 October 1952, Dun Gorg was nominated a Papal Secret Chamberlain with the title of Monsignor. Owing to his humble persona, he never donned a monsignor’s vestment and actually left the document that conferred on him the title on the Archbishop Michael Gonzi’s table and never bothered to claim it back.

His meekness was one of the characteristics that attracted people to him.

Wealth and worldly things never attracted him. He led a simple life; in fact, it was thanks to the initiative of one of the society members that he got electricity installed in his house in 1958.

However, in 1961 the house where Dun Gorg rented in High Street, Hamrun was sold.

Since he had no money or other possessions as he shunned all things material, he had to move in with his housekeeper, Nelly Bartolo, at Parish Street, Sta Venera.

He lived there for one year to the day as he passed away on 26 July 1962 at about 7.45pm. Some 20,000 people attended his funeral in Hamrun.

Today, there are over 100 MUSEUM centres and it has 1,100 members who teach around 20,000 boys and girls in Malta, Gozo, Australia, Peru, the Sudan, the United Kingdom, Kenya and Albania.

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