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The early years of Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s family in Michigan

Judge Rosemarie E. Aquilina

Judge Rosemarie E. Aquilina

On January 24, 2018, Judge Rosemarie E. Aquilina of East Lansing, Michigan, US, became an instant American folk hero when, in a half-hour statement, she sentenced Larry Nassar to up to 175 years in prison for sexual assault. Almost immediately, the media went viral regarding her statement and sentencing. 

In her address, Judge Aquilina made mention of the fact that her father was Maltese. Much was learned about both Judge Aquilina and her father, Dr Joseph Aquilina, in the following days. As this is for the most part readily available online, there is no real need for me to repeat much of this. What I would mainly like to do in this article is to look at the Aquilina family as immigrants to the US, a topic which heretofore has not been really discussed in the media.

The story starts with Nicholas Aquilina of Qrendi. He was born in Siġġiewi, the son of Joseph Aquilina and his wife, Nicholina (née Farrugia). Joseph Aquilina’s line has been traced – by David Lanfranco of Lanfranco Genealogy Services in Malta and Charles SaidVassallo of the website Maltagenealogy.com – directly back in Siġġiewi to Capitano Filippo Aquilina and his second wife Maddalena, who lived during the first half of the 16th century.

Both Joseph and his son Nicholas, known as Nick, were tailors and moved to Qrendi where there was less competition in their trade. They both did well as tailors in Qrendi and their handiwork can still be seen in the red tapestries during the festas in the parish church there and in other churches throughout the island. 

Passport application photo of Nicholas ‘Nick’ Aquilina, aged 36. Courtesy of the National Archives of MaltaPassport application photo of Nicholas ‘Nick’ Aquilina, aged 36. Courtesy of the National Archives of Malta

In Qrendi, Nick met and, in 1933, married Mary Rose, a daughter of Carmelo Ellul and his first cousin Antonia Ellul. To them were born five children: Joseph, Theresa, Nicholas, Charles and Benjamin. All managed to live through the horrors of World War II. 

Following the war, Nick decided he could better and more easily provide for his family by immigrating to the US. He had a friend from Qrendi, Paul Catania, known as ‘Il-Plawni’, who was going to San Francisco. Nick originally planned to go there with Paul but was dissuaded by townsfolk who convinced him that part of California was about to fall into the Pacific Ocean and the rest would end up pushed up against Hawaii.

Both Nick and Paul took leave of their families on May 1, 1950, and sailed on board the Brasil. On arriving in New York Harbour, they parted ways – Paul for San Francisco and Nick for Dearborn, Michigan, where he would live temporarily with Mike Cassar, “a shirt tail relative”. 

Once settled, Nick planned to bring out his family. Then, on June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. The US responded by pushing a resolution through the UN Security Council calling for military assistance. With the US involved in war on the Korean peninsula, Nick feared that if his eldest son, Joseph, came out he would be drafted into the American Armed Forces and could be killed. Thus, on December 27 of the same year, Nick set sail on the Saturnia, from New York Harbour, bound for Naples where he would board a smaller ship for his return to Malta. 

On February 12, 1952, Nick again set sail for New York Harbour, this time on the Argentina. Meanwhile, in August, his son Joseph had applied for a passport and, on November 20, 1952, embarked on the Nea Hellas in the Grand Harbour. The ship arrived in New York Harbour on December 5. The next day he was with his father, who was then living on Abbott Street in Detroit. 

Joseph, known as Joe, who was 17 years old at the time, was both very intelligent and industrious and had been well educated in Malta. As well as Maltese and English, he was conversant in Arabic, French, Italian and Latin. He got a job at the Ford Motor Company, where his father worked the day shift. After working the midnight to 8am shift, Joe would head for his 9.30am class at Wayne State University.

The following year, he and another student were finding their chemistry experiments “being sabotaged” by other students who were jealous of their academic success and they decided to temporarily drop out of university and enlist in the American Army. They were accepted on October 11, 1954. On November 18 of the same year, Joseph Nicholas Aquilina became a naturalised American citizen, through the US Army, while stationed in Frankfurt, West Germany.

Meanwhile, in early 1953, Joe’s mother, Mary Rose, had arrived, via the Nea Hellas, with her youngest child Benjamin. The daughter, Theresa, remained in Malta looking after her two middle brothers, Nicholas and Charles. As Mary Rose and Benjamin were only on a temporary visa, they ended up returning to Malta, in June 1954, sailing on the Roma to Naples.

When they returned to the US by way of Southampton, on board the Queen Elizabeth, in early December 1955, to take up permanent residence, they were accompanied by the second youngest son, 15-year-old Charles. By this time the family was living on Livernois Avenue in Detroit.

It was not until 1966 that the second eldest son, Nicholas, left a good position at the Dockyards in Malta for an even better one at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. Meanwhile, the American Army did not know quite what to do with Joe Aquilina. He had been under suspicion for his knowledge of nuclear bombs, which the authorities were surprised to learn he was openly taught in high school in Malta. All this was then top secret in the US. He was sent to France, but the French too were suspicious owing to his fluency in the language. Therefore, he was sent to Germany.

Joe would have been on one of those planes in which all 66 passengers and crew members were killed in what was then the worst air crash in Germany

Although dyslexic, he began learning German by sitting with high school girls in a café. They taught him German and he taught them English. Being from Qrendi, he had the best and most natural accent of a Hanoverian resident and was told that nobody pronounced German better than he did. While in the Army, he also learned Spanish.

Passport application photo of Joseph Aquilina, aged 16. Courtesy of the National Archives of MaltaPassport application photo of Joseph Aquilina, aged 16. Courtesy of the National Archives of Malta

Like most Maltese of his generation, Joe has always been a deeply religious person. Twice, while in the US Army, he had good reason to believe that the hand of God was protecting him.

On August 11, 1955, an alert call was made to determine how much time would be needed to evacuate the troops from the United States Seventh Army, headquartered at Stuttgart, if the Soviets invaded the country. As the Americans were going on alert, Joe was reading an article on Gina Lollobrigida in an Italian magazine and, having gone to sleep under a jeep, overslept. Consequently, he missed his plane in this training exercise.

Confused and not knowing what to do, he was startled by the amazement his fellow soldiers. It was as if he had “won a $100,000,000 lottery”. It was then that he learned that two of the nine C-119s flying on the training mission from Stuttgart-Echterdingen airport had collided shortly after takeoff. Joe would have been on one of those planes in which all 66 passengers and crew members were killed in what was then the worst air crash in Germany.

Joe was given a month’s leave to help him recuperate from what today would be called post-traumatic stress. One of the places he visited during his leave was his homeland to assist his mother in obtaining a visa to return to the US. On his way back to Germany, he was bumped by a captain on the flight from Paris to Frankfurt and later learned that that plane had crashed and the captain who had taken his seat was killed.

Passport application photo of Mary Rose Aquilina (née Ellul), aged 33. Courtesy of the National Archives of MaltaPassport application photo of Mary Rose Aquilina (née Ellul), aged 33. Courtesy of the National Archives of Malta

Joe had dreamt of taking the Orient Express, meeting the girl of his dreams and marrying her. The following year, 1956, he made $100 bets with several of his fellow soldiers that he would accomplish this.

While on the Orient Express from Paris to West Germany, at midnight, August 31, 1956, he met such a girl – Johanna. She was very pretty, with fair skin, auburn hair and blue-green eyes. He struck up a conversation with her. She was well-educated, spoke English perfectly, was a German citizen, born in the Sudetenland (Czechoslovakia), and like Joe, had a sister who had become a nun. (Joe’s sister, Teresa, had remained in Malta and was now Sr Ferdinand. Later, while in Australia, she became Sr Teresa.)

As it turned out, Joe was married to this ‘angel’ he had met on the train, exactly one year later. By this time, he had obtained his discharge from the Army and, through the GI Bill (of Rights), which would pay for all his schooling, had enrolled at the prestigious University of Munich Medical School.

The first of Joe and Johanna’s four children – Rosemarie and Joseph – were born, in Munich, in 1958 and 1959 respectively. As Joe was not German, his children could not be declared German citizens, and, as he was an American citizen, but did not yet have 10 years’ physical presence in the US (including credit for his military service), his children could not claim American citizenship, and were, in fact, stateless, as Joe was not about to go back to his original status as a British subject.

In any case, Joe brought his family to the US by air, from Brussels, Belgium, on August 7, 1959. They lived with Joe’s parents, downstairs in the house his mother had purchased. The upstairs had been converted into two apartments which Mary Rose rented out. Later, she purchased six more rental units on the same street. 

Joe continued his medical studies, and in 1963 obtained his MD, cum laude, and was elected valedictorian by his fellow graduates at the University of Munich. After completing his internship and specialty training, Dr Aquilina completed all the required examinations and became a fellow of the American College of Surgeons and was certified by the American Board of Urology. Meanwhile, his and Johanna’s two younger children were born: Thomas in 1964 and Helen in 1966. 

Dr Aquilina served as a clinical associate professor of surgery at the Saginaw Campus of Michigan State University Medical School. His practice was limited to adult and paediatric urology and microsurgery. After 35 years of practice he retired in 2005.

By a combination of talent, hard work and the grace of God, Dr Aquilina became one of most successful first-generation, Maltese immigrants in the US. This has continued on to the next generation. Rosemarie is a 30th Circuit Court Judge; Joseph and Thomas are both very successful doctors, and Helen is attorney referee for Ingham County Friend of the Court at the same court house as her sister.

I found my research on the Aquilina family’s migration from Qrendi to Detroit, Michigan, to be a fascinating study. The years that follow this account surpass even the central characters found in some of American author Horatio Ager’s novels.

Dan Brock, who is based in London, Ontario, Canada, is the editor of the newsletter of the Maltese Canadian Club of London, Canada.

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