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Maltese priest and Detroit church retire together

Fr Cini celebrates mass in Detroit.

Fr Cini celebrates mass in Detroit.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Detroit overcame many challenges during its 81-year history. But the retirement of its beloved Maltese pastor, the scarcity of priests and the size of its congregation meant Mass was celebrated there for the final time last Sunday.

Fr Robert Cini, 81, is a member of the Missionary Society of St Paul. He was sent to serve the archdiocese of Detroit in 1977 after spending 20 years in Australia and arrived at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in 1998.

He has worked tirelessly as a pastor in the archdiocese, but when his health and age forced him to announce that he would be retiring recently, parishioners decided that the Church would permanently close its doors.

"I will dearly miss my parishioners and all of the friends I have made over 30 years, but I have reached retirement age. I have been serving overseas for over 50 years, and it is time for me to return to my Order in Malta," Fr Cini told The Sunday Times.

Our Lady of Mt Carmel has been a relatively small parish since it was established in 1927 to serve the immigrant communities in Detroit's Oakwood area. The area is poor and although the parish served around 500 families in the 1970s, today it caters for just 80 families most of which live outside the local area.

Aware that there would be no priest able to take over from Fr Cini after his retirement, parishioners organised a town hall-style meeting in June and voted to close the parish because it was more practical for them to find another parish closer to their homes.

Last Sunday's final liturgy was led by Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Flores and churchgoers hung a purple ribbon from the church doors to mark its closing. Fr Cini was only the third pastor in the parish's 80-year history.

As he conducted his ministry around the world, Fr Cini never forgot his roots. Around 13,000 people claim Maltese ancestry in Michigan according to the most recent US census, and Fr Cini combined his duties as parish priest with his role as chaplain at the Maltese American Community Club in Dearborn, Michigan.

Paul Borg, president of the Maltese American Community Club, said it was impossible to replace the priest he has known since 1958.

"Fr Cini always went beyond his duty as a priest to help us here. He helped our club to keep alive our traditions, particularly our Maltese festi and our traditional Christmas Eve Mass," he said.

Fr Cini led first Friday Mass and confessions at the Maltese American Community Club, as well as visiting the community's sick and conducting funerals, weddings and baptisms. The people whose lives Fr Cini has touched in Michigan will have a chance to show their appreciation at a farewell celebration at the Maltese club on November 29.

Serving alongside Fr Cini at the Maltese American Community Club since 1992 has been Fr Joe Mallia. He describes Fr Cini as "a very humble man, who only wanted to serve the people to the best of his ability. All who encountered him loved him and respected him greatly."

Fr Mallia - who emigrated to the US from Malta when he was three years old - laments the general shortage of priests that has caused the Archdiocese of Detroit to explore the options of mergers and closures as part of their strategic five-year plan entitled 'Together in Faith'.

"The closure of the church is not due to a lack of money or people or faith, but a lack of priests. I know the people in Malta feel that they do not have enough priests, but the shortage is much greater here. In some areas of our state, Mass is only offered once a week and sometimes only once a month."

Fr Cini has not been home since 2004 and he is looking forward to his return. He is expecting to arrive back at St Agatha's, Rabat, in mid-December after spending some time in Rome.

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