The Malta Independent 4 December 2020, Friday

The Centenary of the Society of Christian Doctrine (M.U.S.E.U.M.) – Female Section

Malta Independent Friday, 15 January 2010, 00:00 Last update: about 8 years ago

It began at a time when the place of woman was the house and the family. A humble beginning: A group of women who would go out every day, in order to gather the young, and to speak to them of God. These were certainly courageous, generous women, who were willing to live dangerously. Even throughout the two world wars, this small group of Maltese women remained active, outspoken and united. This relatively small, young society even survived the ferocious socio-political turmoil of the last century, despite the fact that its members came from all sides of the political arena. Since its early beginnings, 100 years ago, its members have met every single day, sunshine or rain. Their purpose? To seek God, and to serve the Church. If you don’t think that’s extraordinary, then I don’t know what is.

Here is a society which started well before women were allowed the right to vote. And yet these women already had a voice. They were not the typical feminists who insisted on their rights. They preferred to live quietly and humbly. Nor did they ever demonstrate in favour of free education for all. (School would not become obligatory for another 37 years). Some of them left school quite early, as was the general norm among women in those days. Yet here we have a group of women who loved learning, and who practised John Dewey’s concept of life-long education without ever having read his works, or even heard his name. Vatican Council II’s emphasis on the universal call to perfection and on the laity’s prophetic office has been considered innovative for the 1960s. But, in Malta, as early as 1910, we had a society of women speaking within the Church, and among the people.

Some of us will still remember the members of the society wearing the traditional black faldetta (the ghonnella), as late as the 1960s, something which led to the members of the society being described as old-fashioned, even hideous, and by others as mysterious and fascinating. The fact is that these women were not what they seemed. They were not the timid, fearful sort. They could not be. They were those on the front line.

They lived simple, honest lives, but they spoke candidly to people – in the shops, on the markets, in the streets – reminding them of absolute truths, and of the Last Things. They preached the Gospel in public life, in the world in which they lived. Later on, they spoke from the pulpits, and addressed people from the Church parvis. In some sense, I think that the faldetta served its purpose. These women had to protect themselves, not just from the men who could easily have taken advantage – for not all the members were necessarily unattractive – but also from those who would otherwise have been scandalised at having these women speak so honestly and challengingly, in public.

Every afternoon, the members would spread along the whole neighbourhood, teaching in various places, both indoors and outside in the open air. They would walk from one village to another, and return in pitch darkness, for there was, as yet, no electricity lighting their way back. It is not difficult to understand that a woman doing what these members did, without the traditional headgear of the village woman, would have been interpreted as wild, and her morals and virtue considered dubious.

Saint George Preca had started gathering the first group of young men in 1907. But that was really the beginning of the male section of the society. How did the female section really start? The female section started thanks to a family who lived in Paola, then still a part of Tarxien Parish. Family Cutajar had two young sons and a daughter. One of the young adults of the family – Carmelo Cutajar – had already become a full member of the M.U.S.E.U.M., or rather, the Society of the Papidi (literally, the supporters of the Pope), as it was then known. Fr George often gave talks in this town and he often spent days at Family Cutajar’s abode.

Within this family, which was relatively prosperous, but at the same time simple, there was this young 16-year old girl called Giannina, a girl endowed with many gifts. Giannina was intelligent, obedient, reliable, generous and humble. Above all, she loved to learn, and she was never satisfied, wanting to know more and more.

At the age of 16, she was still fascinated by dolls. And yet, when Fr George heard about this young girl, he ‘handpicked’ her. He approached her brother Carmelo and told him that the girl had all the qualities to help him with a Female section. When her brother informed her about Fr George’s endeavour, and when Fr George himself invited her to this vocation, Giannina was delighted, and she joyfully accepted. On his part, Fr George, being the prudent person that he was, sat and explained to Giannina what he had in mind, and asked her to approach the Parish Priest of the locality – a certain Fr Saviour Chircop – in order to ask for his permission. The Parish Priest who knew what a good person Giannina was, and who knew of Fr George’s reputation for holiness, immediately accepted their request.

Consequently, on the 10 January 1910, the first M.U.S.E.U.M. opened at Casal Paola. Other young ladies from the same town started to join in right from the beginning. There were 12 in all. Among these one ought to mention, Carmela Rizzo, Giulia Rizzo, Carmela Darmanin, Lizzi German, Vincenza Borg, Guzeppa Degiovanni, Giovanna Caruana, Rosaria Safia, Carmela Galea u Paolina Abela.

This beginning was not without its difficulties. Since these first members did not have premises where they could hold their meetings, Giannina’s father gave them one of his warehouses in St Monica Street, so they could assemble there and teach the children sacred doctrine. They did not even have benches at the time. They used to carry heavy stones on which they would then lay planks, which Giannina’s father kindly provided. Everything was, literally, providential!

Giannina cared for these young ladies with total dedication, took them out for walks, accompanied them to confession every week, and regularly invited Fr George to give them talks. The children were, quite naturally, attracted by her character and thanks to that, they used to come to her in order to hear about Jesus. The first time that the First Holy Communion was received, there were 90 eight-year-old children, prepared by the Society members.

Because Giannina understood her vocation so well, she realised that the M.U.S.E.U.M. could not restrict itself to Paola. As a result, in 1911, following Fr George’s counsel, she went to Cospicua, where she opened the first Centre outside Paola, amidst the joy and enthusiasm of the Cospicuans. From that day onwards, other Centres started to open, so that today, in almost every town and village in Malta and Gozo, one may find a M.U.S.E.U.M. Centre run by members of SDC.

The first M.U.S.E.U.M. in Gozo opened in Nadur in 1915. Within a few weeks, two other centres had been opened: Those in Ghajnsielem and Xewkija. The Diocesan Superior was Rakela Camilleri, from Nadur. Rakela was very much supported by Fr Preca. Although he did not visit Gozo often, but he gave Rakela direction through his letters, most of which still exist. Rakela was Diocesan Superior for many years.

Just as Fr George Preca had called the male members ‘apostles of the end of time’, so the females were also called ‘women apostles’. During the ecclesiastical investigation, better known as ‘the Inquest’ in 1916, the secretary had written ‘Apostolesse’ so that any doubt that this referred to females would disappear. During this time, there were many who sought to denigrate the Society and its members. Some said that the members of the Society had no right to be called ‘apostles’. They said that if the term ‘apostles’ was used for them – who were nothing but catechists – then what ought the Pope, the bishops, the priests and missionary catechists be called? Because of this display of disapproval, Fr George later avoided this title and simply called the members of the Society ‘active members’.

At the beginning of the Society, Fr George had also wanted the society to have its own ‘theologians’. Besides the major theologian, he envisaged that, in each centre, there would be members who acted as ‘minor theologians’, and who would be responsible for the various aspects of theology: dogma, morality, asceticism, mysticism and so on. Yet, some considered the title ‘minor theologian’ ‘ridiculous and bombastic’, and one priest actually made fun of the possibility of having a female theologian! Again, because the term ‘theologian’ seemed to be so offensive to some, the Founder chose to call them ‘Servants’, instead.

Since the beginning, the centres for females have always been separated from those of the males. They have the same apostolate, and the same responsibility, even if the members of the clergy always seemed to trust the women less!!! There have been times when parish priests thought that the female members were trying to bite off more than they could chew. Or that the Female Section ought to be under their control! This was something that reflected the times, and the mentality of some ecclesiastics, but certainly it is not the nature of the Society as Fr George wanted it.

These, then, were the humble beginnings of the Society of Christian Doctrine, popularly known as the M.U.S.E.U.M. Few would realise what an extraordinary society this is, particularly where the female section is concerned. For if things were difficult for the laymen of the time, things were doubly difficult for the laywoman! And yet, some aspects of the Society’s tradition are astonishing, precisely because of their very unpredictability. What young woman, who has known the M.U.S.E.U.M. in her youth, does not still remember with nostalgia the thought-provoking three day programme held during Carnival? Or the beauty of the Para-liturgical celebrations, particularly during Holy Week? Or the night vigil which takes place on the feast of St Michael’s? These are very old traditions within the Society. But to imagine women already doing what we do today, so many decades ago, when they had no incoming salary, and such few resources, no electricity and no means of transport, is truly fascinating, to say the least!

So, here we are, one hundred years later. The question arises quite naturally, Now what? I guess, my hope is that young people who read these words would be captivated by this history, and feel challenged by the Gospel imperative to go out into the world and preach the Good News. After all, was not this the motto of the Founder? (Magister Utinam Sequatur Evangelium Universus Mundus). May the whole world follow Christ’s Gospel.

May young people be inspired by this dream, and be empowered by the example and spirituality of St George Preca. God is still inviting intelligent, generous and humble youngsters to seek Him, and to serve His word. We would very much like to welcome all young people who would be interested in becoming a part of this impressive tradition.

Finally, we would also like to ask for your prayers. We believe that many of the early members of our Society were saints and mystics. Like them, we desire to be holy. Moreover, these early members gave their own life, their time, their energy, their resources. Like them, we wish to be generous, altruistic and prophetic. We ask that you pray for us, for living up to the standards which these early members set for us is not easy. They were just outstanding.

Pauline Dimech is a member of the Society of Christian Doctrine (M.U.S.E.U.M.) She holds a Masters in Theology from Heythrop College, London, and is Senior Lecturer at the Junior College, Msida.

Photos are of the recent Mass led by Archbishop Mgr Paul Cremona on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the female section of the Society of Christian Doctrine.

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