‘Church crucial to diaspora in keeping Maltese identity’

The Maltese-American Club building in Dearborn, Detroit. Right: Marc Sanko.

The Maltese-American Club building in Dearborn, Detroit. Right: Marc Sanko.

A Maltese-American, who has concluded that the Catholic Church played a vital role in retaining the Maltese cultural identity in Detroit, is looking for feedback as he pursues a doctorate about the Maltese Diaspora.

In his Masters dissertation, which he completed this year, 25-year-old Marc Sanko says that the Catholic Church in Detroit has been crucial to what it means to feel Maltese.

“I really wanted to look at what made third generation Maltese-Americans, like me, connect with the Maltese,” Mr Sanko, whose maternal grandparents were born in Malta, told the newspaper over the phone.

The Maltese community has kept up with using the church as some form of cultural retention

Raised in Farmington, Michigan, which is just outside the city of Detroit, Mr Sanko recalls doing things “slightly differently” than his classmates – from Sunday dinners after church at his grandparents, to celebrating Easter.

He tried to focus every school report he did on Malta, so when he was pursuing his Masters at the Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and his lecturer asked the class to come up with a new take on an aspect of Christianity, he decided to look into why the Maltese community in Detroit held on to traditions in a sea of American culture.

The economic downturn that followed the First World War created massive unemployment in Malta, and together with the rapid rise of the automobile industry in Detroit, Maltese dockworkers found new opportunities at the industrial factories.

These migrants did not immediately adapt to their surrounding culture, but arrived there packed with traditions and culture.

And one of the strongest cultural pieces they took over was the Catholic Church, Mr Sanko has found.

“Originally when I asked people in Detroit what made them feel Maltese, a lot of them said language, but then they admitted that they didn’t know the language. So it couldn’t be language if no one spoke it.

“From further questions I found how important the Catholic Church was as part of their Maltese culture.

“I then explored this historically and found that a lot of community events were organised around festi,” he said. At these events they would learn how to make pastizzi or figolli, or sit in for a Maltese Christmas play. There were small things that gave Maltese descendants something tangible from Malta. “Although throughout the years there have been changes in the way the church is organised, the Maltese community has kept up with using the church as some form of cultural retention.”

From the 1920s to the 1950s there was a physical Maltese Catholic Church in Detroit, so families could go to the church to worship in Maltese.

And even those families who lived far away from this church and went to other churches on Sundays, would gather at the Maltese one for major events.

In the mid-20th century the church was demolished and most looked for a parish church with a Maltese priest.

Nowadays, traditional events are still being organised around festi. Fenkati, for example, are organised following the Festa tal-Vitorja celebrations.

And two Maltese clubs in central Detroit, where some 40,000 Maltese-Americans live, still host social events and festival celebrations. One of these clubs, in Dearborn, even organises Maltese language classes.

For the next three years, as a PhD student at West Virginia University, Mr Sanko will be taking a look at Maltese immigration and why people moved away from Malta after both World Wars.

He will also be looking at the pressure of assimilation once they moved to another country, drawing comparisons namely between Australia, Canada and the US.

“It’s still a work in progress so I don’t know where exactly I will end up,” he said, noting he was welcoming feedback and comments.

Mr Sanko’s Masters dissertation can be found on: .

He can be contacted on [email protected].


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