We were sitting around a beautifully decorated table on the afternoon of my brother’s wedding having just finished dessert. After we finished our conversations about how perfect the day was, how lovely the service and how beautiful my new sister-in-law was, we soon started to discuss where everyone was going on their summer holidays.
I revealed that we were about to travel to Malta, the country of crystal-clear waters and 365 churches (one for every day of the year). “How exciting!”, my Auntie Ann remarked, “You must come over to our house so I can tell you about a relative of yours…”
I was intrigued and so my auntie went onto explain that I had a distant relative who had been a priest in Malta during the 1970s. I had known that the island had been a favourite place of my great grandparents, but this connection was entirely new to me. A week later, I found myself in the front room of her house with an old obituary and a black-and-white photograph in my hand.
Fr. Bernard Gaffney was born on September 5th, 1901 in my home city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. He was my great great grandmother’s cousin which makes him my first cousin, four times removed. He trained and worked as an engineer before deciding that he wanted to become a priest. My Auntie remembers times he visited the house growing up, a gentle and polite man, he would visit the family home and they would often share meals together.
It was a nice story, although I suppose a priest in the family was a lot more common in early 20th Century Britain than it would be today. It wasn’t until I looked closer at the obituary that I was stunned into silence. There were three letters following my distant relative’s name. Three letters that have followed me around since I left Sixth Form almost a decade ago.
Fr. Bernard Gaffney, S.D.B.
My first cousin, four times removed was actually in fact a Salesian of Don Bosco. A priest belonging to the religious order that I have grown so fond of since I first encountered them at Matadi Youth Centre in Liberia back in 2010. A priest belonging to the religious order that so lovingly shared their lives with me in the Philippines in 2014. A priest belonging to the religious order whose founder continues to inspire and motivate me fully in the work I do now as a School Chaplain.
When we stepped off the plane at Malta International Airport last month, I knew that I had to spend some time following in his footsteps.
Fr. Bernard moved to Malta in 1970 towards the very end of his life where he spent his final four years as chaplain to the English-speaking parishioners of St. Patrick’s Church in Sliema – the church at the top of a steep street which we were now breathlessly approaching on a boiling Sunday morning in time for the 10:15am Mass.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. There had already been two Sunday morning Masses that day, and two more were planned for the evening. I thought that perhaps the church would be half-full and I would be able to have a quiet word with the priest afterwards.
Upon arriving (in good enough time) I was shocked to find that there was standing room only – except for the seats which could only be described as “Restricted View” or at the least not within the domain of the electric wall fans. There was a definite buzz about the church, something was happening, and after a few moments a Deacon ventured to the lectern and began to explain the plan for this very special celebration of Mass.
It was to be the last Mass of Fr. Joe Cimi, S.D.B. who was due to move on to pastures new after 21 years of being Chaplain at St. Patrick’s. He was handing over to a Fr. Alfred Sacco, S.D.B. who was also in attendance. The Mass was utterly joyous; the music was uplifting and Fr. Joe spoke passionately about his work through his homily landing on an anecdote summing up the ‘togetherness’ of the Salesian community in Sliema. Afterwards there was to be cake and refreshments in the entrance hall so folks could say their goodbyes and celebrate the ministry of Fr. Joe. No chance of a quiet word with the parish priest then.
We hovered awkwardly on the staircase as people left the Chapel and dived for the cold drinks, an antidote to the sticky July heat. I bit-the-bullet and approached a member of the clergy who I had noticed concelebrating the Mass (Fr. Joe was too busy to talk to and I was super conscious of not interrupting what was a hugely important occasion for the community).
I enquired a little about Fr. Bernard. The kind priest I spoke to was surprised to see us standing there and remarked on how great it was that I was trying to find information about a relative that was so well remembered in the community. He mentioned briefly that Fr. Bernard was not buried in Sliema and that there were some in the community who knew him at the time. Unfortunately, there was no time to chat further as someone shouted “Let’s cut the cake!”, and so we quickly and awkwardly moved to one side whilst the cameras clicked and the knife plunged into the white icing of the farewell sponge.
We hung around for about 20 minutes whilst we waited for the Sunday crowd to disperse before we were finally able to greet Fr. Joe. He shook our hands and pulled us into his office. As soon as I mentioned Fr. Bernard’s name, his eyes lit up, and he was quick to tell me that one of the priests has been at St. Patrick’s since the early 1970s and remembers him well. Unfortunately, we were unable to speak with him on this occasion.
Fr. Joe had been ordained a priest at the same time that Fr. Anthony Sutherland – who had written Fr. Bernard’s obituary – had been the Rector of St. Patrick’s and he was thrilled to see the words of his former confrere. Even more so, he was happy we had brought a photograph with us and he asked if he could borrow them both to scan for their archives.
After a few moments passed, Fr. Joe was keen to get back to those who were wishing him a fond farewell – I still felt awful about the awkward timing – but before he left us, we asked further about where the Salesian grave was. It turned out that it wasn’t at St. Patrick’s but in Addolorata Cemetery in the town of Paola about three miles outside of Valletta.
Before we knew it, we were on a bus out to Paola to pay our respects to his grave.
Amongst some of the other photographs my Auntie Ann had showed me on that Tuesday evening after work were pictures of my great grandparents visiting the grave of Fr. Bernard. They, too, had made the pilgrimage themselves back in 1987 with the help of Fr. Tony Sultana, S.D.B. who was resident in Malta at the time.
When we arrived, we realised just how big the cemetery was. It is the largest in Malta and hosts around 300,000 graves. We stood at the front entrance, baking in blazing sunshine with only a small bottle of water with us overwhelmed by what seemed a mammoth task. The two Salesians we had spoken to that morning hadn’t given us any directions as to where the grave might be.
The friendly man at the front gate (who told us he was a former student of St. Patrick’s himself!) wasn’t sure exactly where the grave was either although he tried his best to point us in the right direction according to the one solitary photograph I had of my great grandparents visiting in the 1980s.
After walking, unshaded, for half an hour, we noticed in the distance a domed mausoleum that matched the one in the background of the photograph. We climbed numerous steps (the cemetery was on many different levels) to reach it and eventually we were stood in front of a grand, yet understated, plot marked SALESJANI. 24 Salesians have been buried in this plot, my relative Fr. Bernard being the ninth.
I was struck by the fact that my great grandparents, who passed away almost 15 years ago, had walked these exact stairs themselves over 30 years ago. Fr. Bernard himself may have. In this moment I felt so connected to my ancestry in such a visceral way that my immediate reaction was to pray.
I prayed for all of the Salesians who have shaped me over the last ten years – particularly Fr. Julius Sanchez, Fr Al Añano and Br Alex Abelgas who I learned so much from in the Philippines and for all of the British Salesian Co-Operators and Youth Ministers I have met along the way; I prayed for the family who are no longer with us, especially those who I knew and loved; I prayed for the circumstances that had led me here to this graveside; and I prayed for my ancestors that have played a part in my journey so far – whether I have known it or not.
After all of this time, after ten years of encounters and adventures with the Salesians of Don Bosco, I was stood in front of their Maltese grave encountering Fr. Bernard Gaffney for the first time… a relative I did not know existed until only recently. It made me wonder about what else had been set up in my life without me knowing it. Which other hidden treasures of my past lie ahead of me waiting to be discovered?
We are who we are (and sometimes we do what we do) for reasons we often don’t know or understand. My experiences of working with the Salesians did not happen directly because I have a relative who committed his life to the teachings of Jesus Christ and Don Bosco. I made those choices myself. Yet, if I am to believe that I am being guided along a path, then it is comforting to be gently reminded by the experience whispering softly into my ear: ‘you are doing the right thing’.
As we walked down the very steep bank back towards the friendly man at the gate and towards the bus back to Sliema, I reflected on how much of a part of Fr. Bernard’s story I had felt on that day. Even now, 45 years after his death, I felt united to his story. The story of a man with “dry Geordie humour” who had lived his life as a scientist before encountering the Salesians. The man who was a chaplain to many and a man who “derived great joy from the piano in his leisure moments”.
Here he was buried in the place I stood, on an ancient island with a history of over 7,000 years, in a place that couldn’t be any more different to the streets of North East England that would be so familiar to us both. I pondered how important his story was to my visit to Malta – to a culture steeped in the faith that I profess as a young Catholic – and I wondered, perhaps, whether any future cousins (four times removed) may ever consider becoming a Salesian volunteer one day themselves.
“Here in your midst I feel completely at home; for me, living means being here with you.”
– Don Bosco