History of the Church in Malta

David R. Crockett

Malta is island in the Mediterranean Sea. It was part of the British empire. In 1964 the island became an independent state and declared itself a Republic in 1974. Its population speaks Maltese and English. Map: http://city.net/img/tra/mag/map/malta.gif

In 1850 Elder Lorenzo Snow indroduced the gospel in Italy. During 1851 he went to England to make arrangements for translating the Book of Mormon into Italian. On his return to Italy in February 1852, he announced plans to introduce the gospel to the island of Malta.

On February 20, 1852, Elder Lorenzo Snow and Jabez Woodard boarded the steamer "Telemaque" to begin their journey to Malta. They were detained two days at Civitta Vecchia because of bad storms. On the 23rd they docked at Naples and looked in awe at the smoking volcano, Mount Vesuvius which was "like a demon watching for the destined hour when again he can pour forth desolation upon the surrounding country." They went on to Sicily, passed through the straits, and went across the Mediterranean. They arrived at the island of Malta on February 26, 1852.

Elder Snow had originally planned to only stay briefly, to help Elder Woodard make arrangements for missionary work. But a steamer had broken down and his return passage was delayed several weeks. He wrote: "Though at present disappointed in being able to move forward, I feel that much good will result from the manner in which the Lord may direct the employment of the time now at my command, as I am surrounded by an interesting people, and in a most important field of labor, where a great work may be accomplished, extending to adjacent nations." (Biography and Family History of Lorenzo Snow, 212)

The two missionaries found about 124,000 people on the island and discovered that most of them were Catholic. Nevertheless, the freedom of speech and press existed and the elders started to make arrangements to publish information about the Church. Elder Snow wrote to England asking that Elder Thomas Obray be sent to Malta with a good supply of books and pamphlets. The missionaries found a printer on Malta who became a friend and had expressed much interest in helping their cause. The printer made arrangements to order from England an "apparatus for stereotyping." Elder Snow envisioned that they would be able to set up a central book depot on Malta to supply published works to Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and India.

By May Elder Obray had arrived and the missionaries had published a second edition of Italian pamphlet "The Voice of Joseph" and also printed other works. Elder Lorenzo Snow reported on missionary work in Malta:

People are now constantly making calls to inquire concerning this "strange religion." A few evenings since we had at one time, at our private lodgings, gentlemen from eight different nations, having come from various parts of the city to hold conversation concerning our doctrines; among the number were those from Poland and Greece, who are now reading our works with peculiar interest. Two intelligent and enterprising young men, the first fruits of our ministry upon this island, will ably assist in moving forward the cause in which we are engaged; one of them we have ordained an Elder--he speaks several languages fluently. (Ibid 216).
Opposition also had arisen. Soon after the elders arrived on the island "slanderous reports" about the Saints in Utah were published in local newspapers. But as was usually the case, these negative articles actually awakened curiosity and increased the elders' opportunities to preach the gospel.

In May 1852 Elder Lorenzo Snow departed Malta for home. By July Elders Woodard and Obray had found enough converts enabling them to organize the first branch on Malta with twenty members. The branch was called the Valetta Branch. In July Elder Woodard returned to Italy, leaving Elder Obray in charge of the Church in Malta. Elder Woodard wrote: "I could not help feeling deep regret in leaving that devoted brother in a country with whose customs and climate he is yet unacquainted." (Ibid 222).

In August 1852 Elder Obray wrote to his mission president:

It is beyond my power to make known the difficulties attending this mission. I have not only to encounter Catholic, but Protestant, who are circulating lies as fast as a horse can run, in order to stop the work of God on this island; but God be praised! I am enabled to say that I have added two since I last wrote to you, which make twenty-two members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints here, rejoicing in God. (Ibid 223-24).

By October 1852, there were 26 members in the branch on Malta including three elders, two priests, two teachers and one deacon. Considerable opposition still tried to hinder the work. On February 10, 1853 Elder James F. Bell arrived to assist Elder Thomas Obray.

In April 1853, Elder Obray became ill and needed to return to England. Elder Bell served as the presiding Church authority while Elder Obray was away. On May 16, 1853 a branch council meeting was held with twenty-one members. War between the British and the Turks affected some of the new converts as they were called into the service.

Elder Obray returned to Malta in June, 1853. On August 19, 1853, the first branch conference was held in Valetta, Malta. Thomas Obray presided with Elder Bell and George Burridge (a convert) as counselors. In November, Elder Obray was released from his missionary service in Malta. Elder Bell was called to succeed him. [Thomas Obray experienced great hardship as he made his way to the Salt Lake Valley. At Fort Leavenworth he married Louisa Shelton, a new convert. She soon came down with the measles and as she recovered she was hit with cholera and died, just three weeks after their marriage. Many others in his company died. Thomas later arrived in the valley and married Louisa's sister. (Our Pioneer Heritage, Vol. 5, p.288)]

On November 2, 1853, the second Malta Conference meeting was held. Two Malta branches were represented, Valetta and Fleet.

On March 28, 1854, England and France declared war on Russia. This tragic conflict was called the Crimean War. The island of Malta was used as a staging base for British troops. Elder Bell had opportunities to proselyte among the troops stationed there. His gospel lectures were well attended at first, especially by members of a Welsh regiment.

Later the work slowed down. Elder Bell wrote: "We would enter the barracks, each one on a different side, leaving tracts and invitations and conversing, till sometimes forbidden to enter, or till policement were called on us. . . . (Then) we proceeded through the streets . . . conversing with people also. Many promised to attend, but never did, some refused to even touch the papers, lest our heresy should infect them. Some cursed us, and some gave a vacant stare." ("'A valiant little band': LDS soldiers in the Crimean War", Ensign, January 1981).

LDS members of the Church who were stationed in Malta also continued worshiping when they were transferred elsewhere. A group of four LDS soldiers who went to Turkey held services in an old Turkish graveyard. Brother Henry Russell used his knapsack for a desk. He wrote: "The brethren have had a great deal to suffer by their officers and comrades, but they all say, let what will come, they are determined to roll on the work of God." The LDS soldiers in Turkey organized the "Epeditionary Force Branch of the Malta Conference" on 18 May 1854 with John McLean its president, Alexander Ross, counselor, and Henry Russell, secretary. (Ibid.)

Another branch resulted from soldiers stationed on Malta. It was called the "Floating Branch" in the Mediterranean, which consisted of sailors belonging to ships the Bellerophon, Trafalgar, Vengeance and Britannia. A third branch was sent to Nova Scotia. (B. H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, 4:75.)

Elder Thomas Bell, in Malta reported: "The mother branch, formerly in Valetta, but now in Floriania, numbers at the present very few members, owing to the detachment of the above three branches, and the removal of six members to England (some of them bound for Zion), and the excommunication of some others. Our total is 13." (Andrew Jenson, Encyclopedic History of the Church, p.465.)

With the end of the Crimean War in 1855 and Elder Bell's emigration to America, missionary work ceased on Malta and by 1856 the Church ceased to function there. It would not return for more than a century.

[Elder Thomas Bell never made it to the valley. On March 31, 1855, he sailed from Liverpool, England on the ship "Juventa," with 573 Saints. Under his care were several Italian Saints from Piedmont, Italy. In May, while traveling up the Missouri River in a steamboat, Elder Bell became ill. He died in Atchison, Kansas.]

For more than one hundred and twenty years, the island of Malta lay dormant without the presence of full-time missionaries and the message of the restored gospel. This changed briefly in 1979 when the Italy Catania Mission sent two full-time missionaries to the island. They were Elder Victor Bonnici and Paul Anderson. Elder Bonnici was of Maltese descent. The missionaries found good contacts among the people but because of visa problems were unable to establish a branch of the Church. ("Work taking hold on the island of Malta," Church News, August 26, 1989).

It wasn't until 1988 that missionaries were again sent to Malta. President Vincenzo Conforte of the Italy Catania Mission felt impressed that the time was again right to send missionaries to the island. During June 1988, a missionary couple, Rodger and Helen Gunn were called to again open Malta for the preaching of the gospel. They were assisted by two full-time elders.

[Among our LDSWorld-Gems subscribers is David Gunn , son of the Gunns. (Hmm...son of a Gunn, couldn't resist). His father was delighted to hear about the Gems series on Malta and sent me a letter. It is appropriate that we include it in this history.]

I am interested in reading your report on the Island Nation of Malta, Truly Malta is a unique nation. My wife, Helen, and I were called to open up the nation of Malta to missionary activity in June 1988. We arrived there July 4th and found ourselves in a strange and interesting country. Our assignment was under the Italy Catania Mission. President Conforte, a native Italian, was an effective leader for the Italians and he spoke some English.

The President instructed me to open the land for missionary activity and to dedicate the land for the preaching of the gospel, which I did from the highest point on the Island, at Dingli Cliffs, 927 feet above the sea. I constructed an altar of stones and proceeded to dedicate the land for the preaching of the gospel. [The dedicatory prayer was forwarded to the LDS Church Historical Archives.]

Evidently the Catholic Church has grown in power and control in the Nation. About 98% of the inhabitants are Catholic. We soon discovered, after having placed an ad in the Maltese Times, that to put subsequent ads in the public paper, the Catholic Church had to first approve the content of the ad.

The two languages, Maltese and English, are spoken by the Maltese people. However, it was apparent to us that the educated and the economically secured of the population spoke English fluently while those who were less fluent and less educated did not achieve as much.

When we departed from Malta at the end of December 1989 the Branch of the Church numbered twenty-eight members, including some we had discovered had been living there for some time. The first family to be baptized was the Charles Conti family of four members. I believe they were baptized December 1, 1988.

The most important baptism was that of Emanuel DeManuele who subsequently was called to be the Branch President. The story of his conversion is most stirring, resulting from an invitation to share the "Mormon" story with a small congregation of the Unification Church, known as the "Moonies." (Letter from Rodger S. Gunn to David Crockett, August 3, 1999).

During their stay, Elder and Sister Gunn sponsored cultual evenings and a family history seminar. The branch met in an old villa in the country near Naxxar. A lily pond outside the home, was used as a baptismal font. In 1989 the Church News reported:
A small but gratifying event occurred recently when a convert, Emmanuel De Manuele, a counselor in the branch presidency, stood before the Sunday School and translated into Maltese the song, "I Am a Child of God." ("Work taking hold on the island of Malta, Church News, August 26, 1989).

In November, 1989, Elder Rodger Gunn and Sister Helen Gunn departed Malta after their eighteen-month-mission was complete. The Gunns had helped establish the first modern-day branch of the Church on Malta. Anthony Bonnici wrote a tribute to Malta's first missionary couple. He mentioned the following:

Elder and Sister Gunn worked extra hard to overcome the language barrier to reach those Maltese that did not know English. They gave themselves wholly to the work, their first priority was always to make contact with the people, regardless of the effort required. And in some cases, the effort needed to reach the people despite their strong traditions was tremendous. . . .

Several Maltese have been baptized into the Church and many hearts have been touched by their warmth. One new convert said of the Gunns: "They make us feel so happy. We know they love us. At last, I could talk from the heart with someone. Since we've known them, we have been very happy. . . .

All Maltese members of Church, both new and old, from all over the world, join together in thanking Rodger and Helen Gunn for their work they have done in establishing the Gospel on Malta and the love they have shown the people there. ("il Moghdija: The Malta Branch Newsletter," 1:3)

The Gunns were replaced by Elder Teddy Jacobsen and Sister Beverly Ann Jacobsen from California. After six months, because of health problems, the Jacobsens were transferred to Georgia and served in the Atlanta Temple. They were replaced by Elder John H. Heaton and Sister Jacquelyn Heaton, of Vancouver, Washington.

In October 1989, the first issue of "il Moghdija" (the path) was published as a newsletter for the Maltese members of the Church. It was established by JoAn Borg Bitton , a Maltese member living in Utah. Anthony Bonnici, a Maltese member from Canada, has helped with the layout of the newsletter over the years. It has been an wonderful vehicle for recording the history of the Church in Malta and had helped to bind together the Maltese members across the globe.

In 1990 efforts began to translate some Church pamphlets and publications into the Maltese language. Emanuel d'Emanuele helped to translate "Gospel Principles."

Missionary work continued to be slow but steady. In 1993 Elder William N. Hopkins and Sister Mary Ann Hopkins were serving on the island along with four full-time elders. The missionaries had brought several new converts into the Church since 1988.

Elder and Sister Hopkins reported:

Our Malta branch is growing in strength. With four young elders serving here now and more Maltese being taught the gospel than ever before, we will see some dramatic changes taking place in the Lord's church on Malta. . . . Since we will be serving on Malta for quite some time, we have enrolled in a conversational training class in Maltese. Even though English is spoken by nearly all the people, they converse with each other only in the native language. Our effort to communicate in their own language can only help our missionary work. We hope to be here long enough to see some real growth in the church on Malta and strongly feel this is bound to happen. ("il Moghdija," 3:5)
One of the full-time elders serving on Malta, Trevor Zierenberg, from Chicago wrote:
I'm especially excited to be here in Malta at this time when the work is progressing so rapidly. People are truly popping out of nowhere! I really believe that the Lord has recognized this great people and has begun to bless their lives with the message of the restored gospel. These truly are some of the greatest people in the world. They are humble and kind, and willing to offer a helping hand. They truly deserve all of the many blessing that the Lord has to offer. (Ibid., p. 6).
On July 4, 1993 a milestone was reached with the organization of the first Relief Society on Malta. Sister Connie Vella Smith was called as its first president.

On July 25, 1993 the Malta Branch held its first branch conference presided over by President G. Robert Dewitt of the Italy Catania Mission. Emanuel d'Emanuele was serving as the branch president. (Church News, December 4, 1993)

In early 1994 the Malta Branch moved into a new meetinghouse in Mosta, centrally located on the island. The chapel could seat 40 people with an overflow area which could seat 30 more. Several other rooms were available for Priesthood and Relief Society. The Malta Saints felt very blessed to have the use of such a nice place. A beautiful mahogany piano was used for hymns, which could be heard throughout the neighborhood.

During 1994 missionary work started to take hold with new success as several families entered the waters of baptism. At least fourteen new people joined the Church during the year. These included the Scerri family, the Askan family, and the Sutana family. Because five young men had been recently baptized, the Aaronic Priesthood could be organized and began to meet separate from the Melchizedek Priesthood for the first time.

The small but enthusiastic branch was very active in coming together for social activities. They would gather for dinners, games, baptisms, picnics, barbecues, and other outdoor activities. On March 26, 1994 the members held a spaghetti feast, attended by forty members and friends. Also in attendance was President G. Robert DeWitt, president of the mission. The group played missionary games, and feasted on Betty Crocker chocolate fudge cake which was a branch favorite. The film "On the Way Home" was also shown.

Four full-time elders continued to serve with Elder and Sister Hopkins. The Hopkins were serving their second eighteen-month mission to Malta. Malta was gaining a positive reputation among the elders of the Italy Catania Mission. Elder Mike Weaver said: "Malta is the envy of the mission. In the office we called it the mission's 'yacht.' It hadn't always been so, but with the patient work of dedicated missionaries and courageous members Malta was now promising." (il Moghdija 4:3) Elder Michael Bushman added: "Serving here in Malta is totally different from Italy; it is almost like serving a second mission. One big difference is that we do door-to-door tracting for the majority of our missionary work, something I didn't do in Italy. I have found the people to be wonderful and friendly, and very receptive." (Il Moghdija 5:7)

On August 12, 1994, the Saints on Malta were blessed with a visit from a General Authority of the Church. Elder Hans B. Ringger of the Second Quorum of Seventy visited, taught, and uplifted members, missionaries, and investigators. A Friday evening fireside was held, followed the next morning by a missionary meeting attended by six very attentive missionaries.

On March 19, 1995, the Malta Branch was divided by President DeWitt. Two branches resulted, the Mosta Branch and the Fgura Branch. Emanuel D'Emanuele was called to serve as the president of the Fgura Branch which would hold its meetings in the Maltese language. The Mosta Branch, an English-speaking branch, was presided over by Hasan Askan. This branch division was viewed as a wonderful step forward for the Maltese members.

On June 16, 1995, Elder Han B. Ringger made his second visit to Malta. He encouraged the Saints of both branches to be strong in the gospel and to share their testimonies with others. The missionary force on Malta was increased by an additional set of elders. These elders would usually serve about a year on Malta before being transferred.

In October 1995, Seminary and Institute classes started for the first time, taught by Elder and Sister Hopkins.

In 1996 Elder Dieter Uchtdorf of the seventy visited Malta and hosted a special fireside on families. Fifty-three people attended. He reviewed the Proclamation on the Family and encouraged the Saints to make the gospel the center of their families.

In April, after serving for three years in Malta, the Hopkins bid farewell to the Maltese people who loved them dearly. Their dedicated service has never been forgotten. They were replaced by Robert and Yvonne Gardner of Tucson, Arizona, grandparents of 38.

During 1996 eighteen Maltese brothers and sisters entered the waters of baptism and joined the ranks of the Saints in the two Malta branches.

An annual tradition among the Malta Saints is to hold a Christmas party. On December 21, 1996, 60 members were in attendance at "a buffet-type meal offering food for an army." A magician delighted both children and adults. The elders entertained on the piano and harmonica.

From Setember 1996 to January 1997, an exchange student from BYU, Molly Bennet Brymer, of Federicksburg Virginia, studied on Malta. She wrote:

Being a member of the Malta Branch was a great experience for me. It was wonderful to meet so many members from different backgrounds and nationalities, as well as hearing touching testimonies of converts. Being a Latter-day Saint has taken on new meaning for me as I see the courage and sacrifices of the members in Malta. The branch may not be great in numbers yet, but there is a sense of unity that I really enjoyed. ("il Moghdija" 10:6)
On May 16, 1997 a special fireside was held at the Mosta Branch. The newly organized choir sang and Elder Gene R. Cook of the Seventy spoke to the Malta Saints.

On June 10, 1997, the first full-time sister missionaries arrived on the island. They were Sister Antonelli and Sister McEwan.

For two years there had been two branches on Malta, the Fgura Branch and the Mosta Branch. On August 31, 1997 the branches were officially combined back together into one branch. Elder Harry Withington from England was called as the branch president. Elder and Sister Withington were serving a full-time mission to Malta. They replaced Robert and Yvonne Gardner from Arizona. On August 30, 1997 a spireas party was held for the Gardners to wish them well on their return home. Fifty-three people attended including President and Sister Ascione of the Italy Catania Mission. ("il Moghdija," February 1998)

Near the end of 1997, Sister Suzanne Portelli became the first person to be called on a full-time mission from Malta. She was called to the Temple Square Mission in Salt Lake City and reported to the MTC in January 1998. Sister Portelli was a convert of just one year. She wrote:

After sending the [missionary] papers [in], I waited one week, then two, then four, then seven. Finally, after nine weeks I saw an A4 size envelope with the Church's name and address sticking out of the letter box. I froze and then sprinted down the stairs. All the neighbours came out on the balcony to see what all the commotion was about and why I was dancing and shouting in the middle of the estate.

I had promised the missionaries I would open my call when they were all there. Going to the church, I was about to open my call when I noticed that two elders were mission. So we left to do some shopping and then went back. With all the missionaries there, I opened my call. Temple Square Mission! (Ibid).

When Sister Portelli went to the embassy for a visa, the local authorities were not cooperative, and did not want to issue a visa. The missionaries fasted and prayed for her and eventually the visa was issued. With great joy, Sister Portelli wrote: "I have to thank Heavenly Father for the opportunity to share that which has been such a joy in my life." [Sister Portelli was recently released from her mission and is currently traveling in Utah and Idaho with her mother.]

On December 19, 1997, the Mosta Branch held a holiday social. About sixty people attended representing 15 different nations. On April 13, 1998, the first wedding was held at the church in Malta. William Washington Cosmos and Alison Xuereb were married in a ceremony performed by Elder Withington. The two had been baptized four months earlier.