Fr Carlo Manchè – Gżira’s saintly parish priest
The Manchè family are known for being members of the professional class as well as musicians. But few of the young generation may have heard of the highly erudite and intensely spiritual parish priest of Gżira, Fr Carlo Manchè (known as Dun Karlu), once described to me by an elderly Gżira resident as “the best parish priest we ever had”.
Though we do not hear much about him now, Fr Manchè’s imprint is still very deep. Gżira was known to the British sailors, like Strait Street in Valletta, for its bars, pubs and barmaids.
When he was appointed parish priest of Gżira on March 12, 1935, Fr Manchè did not face an easy task. There were no social benefits at the time, and Gżira was frequented by hoards of sailors crowding its bars.
Undeterred, the young Dun Karlu, wearing his large black cape and smoking his pipe, used to roam the Gżira seafront calling at one bar after another ‘to look for his sheep’.
Born in Valletta on September 22, 1905, Carlo was one of four children of the well-known surgeon Charles Manchè, a British Army colonel, and his first wife Giuseppina Falzon. Fr Manchè died at the young age of 45 on September 28, 1950, in Gżira.
His memorable funeral, which drew thousands of people from all walks of life, was proof of the love, respect and admiration people had for this holy parish priest. Foremost among them were the poor, the needy, and also those who ran the bars. These people felt they had lost a father but won a saint in heaven, for he was a living model of the Curé d’Ars, Jean-Marie Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests.
“A great Christian” was the heading of an appreciation published in the Times of Malta. The writer was Mr A. Turnham, who was one of the many converts to Catholicism under Fr Manchè’s guidance. He wrote: “The serenity, the altruism and above all, the charity of Dun Karlu Manchè have left an indelible mark which will never fade.
“We always saw in him a worthy successor of another Carlo (St Charles Borromeo), who reformed the Church in Milan and helped the Church in very difficult times. The radical practice of his Christian life, as Christ taught us, was the fruit of his perfect union with the Master himself.”
Many, priests and lay people, expressed the same feelings, including Archbishop Michael Gonzi who presided at Fr Manchè’s funeral. The memory of his humility, love for his people, his life of deep prayer and his poverty were, and still are, virtues that make him a saint. He was truly a father of the poor, widows, single mothers and the sick.
He gave them his heart and every penny he had. He lived like a pauper, though he came from a wealthy family.
A small group of priests lived with Fr Manchè next to the parish church, leading a simple life. When he died they discovered he had just one pair of worn-out black shoes.
He left nothing, “as all he had he distributed to the poor or for the needs of the parish. With him he took to heaven thousands and thousands of good works, for which God rewarded him,” wrote Mgr Arturo Bonnici in a booklet published by Christus Rex, the Society for the Clergy.
Fr Manchè’s love for his parishioners was mostly felt when the first enemy bombs fell on Gżira on June 11, 1940, since Royal Navy warships were anchored in Marsamxett Harbour.
Henry Frendo, in his book Europe and Empire, wrote: “Fatally, these bombs were Italian. Parish priest Manchè helped his people not only with prayer, but with courageous action in aid of the victims and of his flock, who were fleeing from Gżira to various safer villages in the island.
“Fr Manchè worked night and day, while like a true general he did not abandon the parish. He helped the homeless, the injured and sought food for the people, even serving in the commensal Victory Kitchens.”
His nephew, Dr Loris Manchè, told me he refused to organise a reception for the Governor who wanted to visit the parish as the money would have been better spent to help families in need. The Governor’s visit was cancelled, leaving a happy parish priest with more funds to carry out charitable work.
Fr Manchè did not lack intellectual talents which could have made him an academic, such as a professor of philosophy. He entered the Seminary and continued his studies at the Royal University of Malta, where he became one of the top students in philosophy and theology.
Like the rest of his family, Fr Manchè had a musical talent as he played the violin, guitar and oboe, and while at the Seminary he learned to play the piano under the guidance of Mro Carlo Diacono.
Smoking was allowed in the Seminary, but limited to only three cigarettes a day, so Manchè compromised by cutting his cigarettes in half so that he could have six a day. He was a habitual pipe-smoker till the end.
Fr Manchè was ordained on September 22,1928, his 23rd birthday, at St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. He celebrated his first Mass very simply the day after at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish church (known as tal-Ġebla) in Gżira.
Shortly after, he won a scholarship at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and in a record two years graduated Doctor of Philosophy.
At the same time he mastered several languages; besides being fluent in English and Italian he spoke French, Spanish and German. His aunt, who lived in Germany, remarked that he spoke German like a German.
When Fr Manchè returned to Malta, Archbishop Maurus Caruana appointed him curate at Gżira and Prefect of Studies at the Seminary. When the parish priest of Gżira, Fr Anton Manchè (no relation), died in 1935, Fr Manchè was appointed to succeed him. This meant giving up his studies and music and dedicating himself to complete the building and refurbishment of the parish church.
Fr Manchè was fully taken up with the pastoral care of his growing, difficult parish. He dedicated many hours to hearing confessions, preaching, visiting the sick, teaching catechism to children and being of service to his flock. It is said that one evening at about 11, a man knocked at the presbytery; he wanted to confess and Dun Karlu was all ears to hear his confession. It was a great spiritual consolation for him to hear that the penitent died the next day, at peace with his Maker.
Often he was asked to preach the spiritual exercises for the clergy. There were times when the Archbishop, Mgr Gonzi, went to listen to his sermons.
Another apostolate he was involved in, like Blessed Nazju Falzon, an ecumenical pastor before him, was the religious instruction of Protestant servicemen who wanted to become Catholics.
What was the secret of Fr Manchè’s holiness? We are told it was the hours of adoration he spent each afternoon in front of the Eucharist, so much so that his favourite feasts were those of Corpus Domini and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
He had a great love for Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Carmelite order. Indeed, at one stage he wrote to the Archbishop requesting permission to join the Carmelites. The Archbishop replied: “I ask you to refrain from your wish, as your mission as parish priest of Gżira has not come to an end.”
Likewise he loved the Brothers of St John Baptist de La Salle, better known as the Frères, who opened Stella Maris College in Gżira.
Fr Manchè even asked the well-known painter Giuseppe Calì to paint a portrait of St John Baptist de La Salle for the parish church of Gżira. The saint’s brother was a Knight of Malta and built Palazzo de La Salle in Valletta.
The secret of Fr Manchè was his deeply interior life as a man of God. He vowed to live a life of sacrifice and poverty.
He often wandered at night in the area of the bars along the Gżira seafront, trying to redeem many a young ‘barmaid’ from prostitution. He was more than once threatened with death, but he was never afraid to give up his life for his beloved flock like the Good Shepherd. He converted the parish house into a presbytery, the first time this happened in the diocese.
Fr Manchè abstained from drinks, sweets and desserts. All he had he gave to those in need and many went to him to ask for charity. His generosity, said his brother, former University rector Prof. Joseph Manchè, had no limits. One day Prof. Manchè was admiring an old precious Bible belonging to his brother. Fr Manchè insisted he take it, and told him: “If you don’t take it someone else would.” The professor did not think twice.
This is the life of a Good Shepherd, whom I always loved since my late teens. As I was born and baptised in Gżira I used to go to him to collect my birth certificate. He always welcomed me warmly (though I did not like the smell of the pipe). He once told me: “You are going to be the first priest from Gżira. Do come here when you are ordained.” God’s will led me elsewhere.
I think that Gzira, as it has done in the past, should revive the memory of Dun Karlu Manchè. Marble slabs alone do not tell the story, but we need to hear and pray more to Dun Karlu. Lately I met his nephews, Dr Loris Manchè and Judge Albert Manchè, and I again fell in love with this ‘giant’ of the Maltese clergy.
Had the Church carried out an in-depth study of the heroic virtues of this saintly priest soon after he died, he would by now have been declared a Servant of God. In his day, the Maltese Church had many holy priests, starting with Dun (now Saint) Ġorġ Preca, Dun Alfred Gatt, Mgr Giuseppe De Piro, Mgr Isidore Formosa, and others.
In 1975, on the 25th anniversary of Fr Manchè’s death, a group of priests belonging to the Christus Rex Society, organised a commemorative evening in his honour. Why should it not be repeated?
Readers having documents and photos of Fr Carlo Manchè are invited to contact Dr Henri Diacono on 9944 2680 or write to him at Flat 4, Graham Court, Graham Street, Sliema.