Everybody’s friend by Dr Tonio Azzopardi

When the Director of Dar tal-Providenza, Rev. Fr. Martin Micallef, asked me to prepare an article regarding my late uncle, Mons. Michael Azzopardi, I readily accepted. His residence in Floriana was my second home during my childhood and youth. I was welcome there at all hours and so were my sisters. My uncle lived there together with his mother, brother and sister. His other sister was a Dominican nun who spent many years in a convent in Rome and later returned to Malta and continued her vocation at Casa San Pietro, Lija.

Dun Mikiel, as he was affectionately known to all, would come out of his room as soon as he would hear me boisterously entering their residence. I remember him standing very tall beside me and I could gauge how tall I was against his waistline. As a boy, I used to spend long hours in his room helping him.

In his University days, Dun Mikiel had studied law. He intended to become a lawyer. However, his religious vocation made him steer a different course and he switched to priesthood. He was a close friend of Sir Anthony Mamo, who, while studying to become a priest, had switched to reading law.

When I completed primary school, he was all in favour of my attending St Aloysius College in Birkirkara. This led to an important step in my educational life. By the time I had completed my secondary education, my mind was set: I wanted to become a lawyer and achieve what my uncle had set out to achieve. Naturally, Dun Mikiel was very pleased with my decision to read Law.

When I started to attend the Junior College in Valletta, I used to go to their house practically every day at noon. There I had lunch regularly with my uncle. He ate with moderation, unlike his young nephew sitting beside him. At the time, the residential homes for persons with disability in Siggiewi were still under construction. Dun Mikiel used to attend social occasions to be presented with donations day in day out. I was so impressed as I watched him retrieving one envelope after another, first from his outside pockets and then from his inside pockets with sums of money, big and small, that people of all backgrounds used to donate for the project – “Divine Providence at work!” as Dun Mikiel used to tell us.

Occasionally, we used to meet the lady who had given up her vacation abroad in order to donate Lm100. It was the first donation. My uncle had set out to build Id-Dar tal-Providenza with Lm100! He had a very deep-rooted trust in Divine Providence. I imagine each building stone of Id-Dar tal-Providenza dripping the people’s sacrifices. He collected large sums of money as a result of his visits abroad. He was elated when the Catholic community in the German town of Essen donated to him the first van for the residential homes.

On retiring from work, both my late father Vincent and their late brother Carmelo used to go regularly to Id-Dar tal-Providenza to assist him and they carried out all the administrative work that he entrusted to them.
When Villa Monsinjur Gonzi was completed, he must have found it quite difficult to persuade some parents, who had been used to keeping their disabled children hidden from the public eye in a segregated area, to hand over their son or daughter for placement in the new residential home. This is where he excelled. He brought dignity to these precious creatures of God, who, according to the language used in those days, he used to call his “little angels”, and ensured that Maltese society holds these people as a significant and worthy component of that society. He was applying the principle of Diversity well before it was known as such. He was conducting a silent crusade for the Human Rights of Persons with Disability well before any governmental or non-governmental organisation had been set up to champion their human rights. Somewhere along this journey to secure a dignified and decent living for these people, he expressed his desire to us that the words “Dun Mikiel Azzopardi – Il-habib tat-tfal u tal-morda” (the friend of the children and the sick) be inscribed on his tombstone.

Some years after his death, my wife Isabelle and I happened to be in Luzern, Switzerland, and the thought that my late uncle had travelled and stayed there on innumerable occasions kept coming to my mind. I told my wife about this several times that day, but we were unable to remember the exact location that he used to mention. We happened to be in the centre of Luzern later on that same day. Suddenly, a nun approached us and said that she had overheard us speak the Maltese language and said that she too was Maltese and was very happy to meet us. In conversation, I mentioned to her that my late uncle Dun Mikiel had been in Luzern on several occasions. She butted in saying: “Dun Mikiel used to stay in our convent in Einsiedeln!” Those words left us speechless.
My uncle believed that miracles were taking place regularly at Id-Dar tal-Providenza. On one particular occasion, he had no funds with which to pay the employees’ wages. That same day, he received an envelope containing the sum of Lm12,000 – the exact sum he required to be able to pay the wages.

In the past, scarcity of vegetables was not a rare occurrence. Yet the children and later adults of Id-Dar tal-Providenza were never left wanting. Dun Mikiel used to tell us that whenever there was a scarcity of some particular foodstuff, Divine Providence would be “at work” once again. Farmers from near and far would deliver the best of their produce to the Home.

He had a special way with the persons who resided in the Home. Many persons are witnesses to his affection and positive attitude towards each and every one of them. In fact, they called him “papa'”. The late Dr. Jimmy Farrugia, who was the first doctor of the residential homes, was a very close friend of Dun Mikiel.
The book written by Fr. Alexander Bonnici OFM Conv contains a rich narrative of the life of Dun Mikiel, which is inseparable from the life of Id-Dar tal-Providenza. The two are interwoven. He dedicated most of his life to this monumental cause.

Some people remember him as Spiritual Director in government schools. Others remember him in the Catholic Action Movement. Yet others remember him broadcasting Is-Siegha tal-Morda. His words were balm on the wounds of sick people. His programme ‘Ezerċizzi Spiritwali għall-Morda’ was equally popular at the time. His more recent programme ‘Ftit togħma tajba’ reached an even wider spectrum of people from all walks of life. Hence it is not a hollow slogan that Dun Mikiel was Everybody’s Friend.

The first hint at a possible opening of the canonisation process of Dun Mikiel came straight from the lips of our Archbishop on 26th January 2010.

Once, a person confided in him that he was losing all hope in life. Dun Mikiel pointed out to him a man holding on to a pair of crutches and told him: “Look at that man. That is a lesson for you. Look how fast he can walk supporting himself on two crutches. For you those two crutches should signify hope in God and courage in your heart.” We have still to realise the full depth of Dun Mikiel’s service to God and his love for all the people.
He loved Our Lady very dearly. He mentioned her often on his deathbed. My wife and I visited him very often during the period before his death and my mother stayed there in order to assist him together with the nuns till the end. Although in great pain, he exhorted us to pray to Our Blessed Mother by reciting the Holy Rosary together.

Dun Mikiel once described to us the “miracle” that had taken place on 13th May 1941 when a bomb hit the Tabernacle inside the chapel at the Qormi primary school and everyone was saved notwithstanding that the place was full of people. They had evacuated the building when the bell rang. But no one knew who had rung the bell. He wrote about it in Lehen is-Sewwa. What impressed me most in my late uncle’s narration of the fateful events of that unforgettable 13th May 1941 was his vivid description of the Blessed Hosts scattered among the debris. He said that the sight of the Chapel in a dilapidated state and the Holy Eucharist dispersed among the dust and debris had made him cry. Dun Mikiel used to say to me that the only “victim” of that bombardment was Jesus in the Tabernacle. Jesus, truly present in the Holy Eucharist, directed the deadly bomb towards Him in order to save all the rest. No one could understand how such a direct hit had left no casualties, whilst hundreds of consecrated Hosts lay scattered and fragmented among the debris. This memorable episode in his life is described in my article “A miracle, a witness and an act of faith” published in “The Sunday Times” on 20 May 2001.

I shall remember our dear uncle for his great love for all people but especially for persons with disability. Id-Dar tal-Providenza is a living monument of his love. He died on 13th May 1987, the anniversary of the first apparition of Our Lady of Fatima and also the anniversary of the miracle that had occurred in Qormi. I read the Epistle in his funeral Mass and that day I was impressed by the love shown by the people towards him. That was only the beginning.

(Dr Tonio Azzopardi is the nephew of Mgr Azzopardi)