The Unholy War: a five-part series on Malta’s Interdett – Part 1

First of a MaltaToday series on the January 1961 Church Interdett, first published in MaltaToday in 2005

In January 1961, the diocesan commission issued a circular which was read out in all churches condemning the MLP’s affiliation with the Socialist International and the Afro-Asian Peoples Solidarity Organisation. In a bid to wield its power over the god-fearing masses, it declared a sin the reading of Labour newspapers and the attendance of MLP meetings.

The events of the sixties would re-carve Maltese society as Gonzi’s ‘holy soldiers’ battled Mintoff’s ‘evil’ ‘soldiers of steel’ (suldati ta’ l-azzar), the total number of people who had voted in favour of Labour’s proposal for integration of the Maltese islands with the United Kingdom.

The Unholy War: a five-part series on Malta’s Interdett – Part 1

The people miming Beelzebub: Lino Spiteri remembers the Interdett - Part 2

Across the great divide: Guido de Marco during the interdiction - Part 3

Divide et Impera: Ragonesi recalls PN during the interdiction - Part 4

Scar tissue: The aftermath of the interdett - Part Five

Wedding bells: Joe Micallef Stafrace and wife Yvonne in 1961, with Labour MP Patrick Holland
Wedding bells: Joe Micallef Stafrace and wife Yvonne in 1961, with Labour MP Patrick Holland

Malta always lagged behind the times. The church still played an important social role in society. An unemployed son would be recommended to the village contractor by the parish priest. The priest was the village ‘psychologist’. In a decade where progressive cultural revolutions were taking place across all western societies, the regressive actions taken by the Maltese church remain a historical irony.

Whilst Pope John XXIII opened up the Vatican to a new spring with the Vatican Council II, moving away from biblical literalism and absorbing the liberal influences of the times, Gonzi wanted to sustain his archbishopric as a feudal prince who had free reign over Malta.

And as the pope declared it no longer a mortal sin to vote for the communists, it was Mgr Gonzi who was declaring it a mortal sin for socialist material to be read and propagated. The church’s decree fragmented society to such an extent, that a parallel society was created.

Alternatives to mainstream activities were organised. Labourites had their own carnival of flowers, their own snooker tournaments, and their own Labourite brigade as opposed to the scouts. Both Gonzi and Mintoff can be described as men of vision but whilst Archbishop Gonzi wanted to keep the status quo, Mintoff envisaged a country unshackled by archaic values.

Joe Micallef Stafrace
Joe Micallef Stafrace

Whilst Mintoff wanted to shake up a rigid society so as to catch up with the times, Gonzi was simply enraged by tourists sunbathing in bikinis – even the usually accommodating Nationalist government fended off his lordship’s requests to get the police to clamp down on bikini-clad tourists, for fear of compromising Malta’s reputation as a tourist destination. In the parallel, Labour society however, Labourite girls felt protected to freely put on their bikinis during beach parties, an acceptable practice in the world of the ‘other’ political party.

Backdoor marriage: Joe Micallef Stafrace marries in the sacristy

Tying the knot during the interdiction is not the only thing former Labour ministers Joseph Micallef Stafrace and Lino Spiteri have in common. “Both Lino and I got married at the same sacristy – that of St Paul’s because our prospective wives were both from Rabat,” says the 72-year-old Micallef Stafrace, the obstreperous lawyer who can still be found counselling his clients in the legal office he shares with two of his three children.

Micallef Stafrace eagerly shuffles through the towers of legal documents on his imposing desk to find the book that holds his collection of articles he had written for It-Torca. The article titled ‘Six years of marriage’ tells the detailed story of his wedding ceremony. “Besides not being able to receive the holy sacraments, the interdiction had a direct impact on me because I wanted to get married.

 In an attempt “to humiliate” them, the Micallef Stafrace couple and their guests had to enter the church from the side entrance and endure their wedding rites to be celebrated in a dimly lit sacristy.

“The witnesses at our wedding had no qualms about being present as Guze Muscat Azzopardi was a left-wing writer and Magistrate John Formosa was a member of Strickland’s constitutionalist party. That made him a veteran of religious persecution,” he chuckled as he pointed to the black and white wedding photo. He is of course referring to Strickland’s clash with the ecclesiastical authorities in 1930.

The fervent members of the Catholic Workers Youths waiting for the newly married couple made it a point to create a rebus. “I remember them shouting ‘Hail Christ King’ and other nonsensical phrases,” Micallef Stafrace says.

“A good number of people didn’t attend the wedding party because they were scared their attendance would be interpreted as political. But even Guido De Marco attended my wedding. As far as he was concerned, his friend Joe was getting married and that was the end of it.”

Guzè Ellul Mercer (second from left) – ‘his vision is still relevant’
Guzè Ellul Mercer (second from left) – ‘his vision is still relevant’

Micallef Stafrace’s will remained strong as he resisted Archbishop Mikiel Gonzi’s attempted bribery to convince him to convert. He was invited to the Curia where he was told that he could get married in the Mdina co-cathedral or in Gonzi’s personal chapel in exchange for allowing Gonzi to save his soul. Walking into Gonzi’s office for a personal meeting with the bishop, he saw him perched on an elevated throne like a regent. Only then did he realise that all the priests were finding excuses to run errands in the surrounding rooms in order to observe “the infamous enemy of Christ.”

Gonzi retorted: “you have to endure the humiliation,” when Micallef Stafrace asked if it was possible to get married in a deserted chapel. The former Labour MP says he ignored the priests who frequently made allegations about his integrity during mass, except for one episode when the Zurrieq Parish priest mentioned his wife during the homily.

Clearly protective of his family and the private dimension of his life, the man appears pained when recalling the congregations walking by his house, insulting him just as they returned from mass. Micallef Stafrace say the Maltese people have matured as a result of these events, certain that the people have learnt their lesson and choose with their conscience: “They give unto God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is his.”

Guze Ellul Mercer

Dying just before the AAPSO conference that would spur the indictment against the Malta Labour Party, Labour MP Guze Ellul Mercer would suffer the interdett anyway. The author of the classic social commentary Leli ta’ Haż-Żgħir ended up buried in the unconsecrated part of the Addolorata cemetery, infamously known as the Mizbla. One would never suspect this tucked away part of the Addolarata cemetery had once symbolised the extent to which the Maltese church would go to in order to single out the people it feared were plotting its downfall.

The grave of Guze Ellul Mercer at the Addolorata Cemetery
The grave of Guze Ellul Mercer at the Addolorata Cemetery

The ‘miżbla’ (rubbish dump) was a small stretch of wasteland exactly adjacent to the cemetery. The miżbla still elicits feeling of rancour from all sides. An old priest from Mellieha who spoke to MaltaToday on condition of anonymity says the miżbla was an invention: “There was no such thing as the miżbla. It was customary to bury those who had fallen out of God’s grace in unconsecrated grounds.”

But former Labour minister Joe Micallef Stafrace says the “so-called Christians” came up with the word miżbla to describe the area where the Labourites were buried.” Ellul Mercer’s nephew Anthony Vella still remembers the path that leads to his uncle’s grave.

“The wall that separated the cemetery from the Miżbla had a narrow entrance,” explains Vella. “Children at school were always passing comments about the way uncle Joe had died. He died alone, so people started circulating rumours about the cause of death.”

Men and women denied a holy burial in 1960s Malta
Men and women denied a holy burial in 1960s Malta

He speaks lovingly of his uncle who always took time out of his busy schedule to entertain his nephews and nieces with stories that always fascinated the children. Vella remembers the trials and tribulations that the family had to endure even during Ellul Mercer’s burial. Like all other families whose relatives were about to be buried in the mizbla, Ellul Mercer’s family tried to persuade the curia to allow the Labour MP, a “God-fearing man till his death,” a dignified burial – but to no avail.

Vella recalls that in the eighties the church authorities contacted the family and informed them that they were willing to transfer Ellul Mercer’s remains to the consecrated part of the cemetery. The family refused on principle. Back then the graves were not adorned with any fancy marble statues or granite slabs. It is almost certain that people walking by this place would not glance at these simple graves. The horizontal slabs of limestone used to be covered with twigs, bits and pieces of wood and assorted rubble.

As an unconsecrated burial ground, the miżbla was not considered part of the cemetery, attracting dumping of foliage and rubble on the ground. Vella remembers there was never any plaque commemorating the icons of the worker’s movement buried in the miżbla, but the Msida MLP club paid for the marble tomb that today covers Ellul Mercer’s grave.

Freddy Micallef, the present secretary of the MLP Msida club remembers his MP: “He was a gentleman and a great author, I still have his books.” Most of the graves situated in this peaceful nook have no connection whatsoever with the past religious-political feud. The Labour government tore down the wall over two decades ago and most of the families transferred the remains of their loved ones to their family graves.

“Guze Ellul Mercer loved Msida and her people and they loved him,” Micallef says as he recalls that the executive committee decided to dig in its pockets to pay tribute to a man who usually shied away from public adulation. They also commissioned a bust of Ellul Mercer and a lesser-known Msida woman who had also been interdicted and buried in the miżbla.

Liza Zammit was only 49 years old when she was run over by a car in Rue d’Argens. Her being a devout Catholic didn’t stop Gonzi from issuing the interdiction edict the morning of her funeral. She had just walked out of church and was on her way home when she died. A priest ran out of a passing bus to administer her the last rites.

Gonzi’s former PRO, Mgr Charles Vella says he had convinced the archbishop to be more moderate during the Curia’s dispute with Mintoff, by issuing interdiction to the MLP executive instead to all of the party members. Although slightly sceptical about the veracity of Liza Zammit’s case, he expresses his regret for the incident and says: “tell them to remove her remains if they haven’t already done so.”

Indeed, when granted permission by the Curia her family removed her remains from there. One of her six children, Rose Falzon, says: “we had to cope with the shock of losing our mother and then being told that she would not be blessed by the priest.” The family was on the verge of starting the mourning rituals with the routine procession from the hospital when the priest was ordered to leave and they were told to remove the cross from the casket carrying Zammit.

The presiding undertaker had insisted the cross remained on the casket, and so it did. The funeral was also postponed till the evening. “Pandemonium broke out when we heard about the edict,” says Falzon.

“We were tremendously upset because it was a disgrace to be buried in unconsecrated grounds in those times… our faith and that of others remained strong irrespective of the show that they wanted to make out of my mother’s death.”

NEXT The people miming Beelzebub: Lino Spiteri remembers the Interdett - Part 2