Gozo, in spite of being a small island and often omitted from maps of the Mediterranean, is proud of its heroes and patriots. One of these is Alfons Maria Hili, a man who loved Gozo and the town of Victoria, and a priest who devoted his life for the continuous service of his community.
Hili was born in Victoria on January 19, 1865, just a few months after Gozo became a diocese. He was the first among 11 children of George Hili, the sexton of St Joseph’s church, known as Tas-Suq, and Agatha née Grech. He was baptised hours after his birth, at the parish church of St George by curate Francis Mercieca.
Hili’s family was one of high Christian values. His parents were admired by many for their deep religious beliefs and genuine piety. They were greatly rewarded for the virtuous rearing they gave to their children. Four of them answered a divine call to a priestly vocation. These were Fr Alfons, Bro. George, Fr Joseph and Fr Carm.
Since childhood, the young Alfons showed uncommon perceptiveness and diligence. Those who knew him said he displayed a great attachment to religious matters from an early age.
After completing his secondary education, he studied literature and the sciences at the Bishop’s Seminary in Victoria. There, Hili matured in the path of knowledge and righteousness. He showed assiduousness in studies, eagerness in prayer, zeal in obedience and rectitude towards the rule. Indeed, he was a model for clerics.
In a comment about Hili, archpriest Felix Refalo once wrote: “I the undersigned testify that cleric Alfons… during the summer holidays served in the parish church of St George with the cleric vestments on Sundays, and received the sacraments.”
Three years later, on November 19, 1886, canon Joseph Sultana, Master of Gregorian Chant at the Seminary, wrote: “I certify that the cleric Alfons Hili… with utmost diligence and profit, attends Gregorian singing lessons at the seminary.” Hili progressed and grew in all the qualities desired for in those who join the priesthood. On December 23, 1882, Bishop of Gozo Pietro Pace gave Hili the first two minor orders, namely the tonsure and porter, during a general ordination in the cathedral of the diocese.
A year later, on December 22, 1883, the same bishop conferred him with exorcism and lectorate. On December 20, 1884, Hili became an acolyte, and was ordained subdeacon on December 18, 1886.
Although just 22 years old, on November 17, 1887, Hili asked the bishop for special permission to be accepted in the order of the diaconate. He was ordained deacon on November 30, 1887, and was ordained priest on April 3, 1888, this time by a special dispensation from the Pope.
As a newly ordained priest, he sought to involve himself in all forms of the apostolate. He assisted the Jesuits at the seminary, and after the Jesuits’ departure, he was entrusted with the chair of theology and became a professor of scripture and canon law.
Soon after Giovanni Maria Camilleri was appointed Bishop of Gozo, he chose Hili as his private chaplain and adviser.
After four years, on August 19, 1894, the bishop appointed him rector of Our Lady of Ta’ Pinu sanctuary. Here, through his preaching and writings, he managed to increase devotion towards the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. It is thanks to him that today, we know the exact day on which Our Lady called the Gozitan lady Carmela Grima.
Whoever came in contact with him recognised in him a priest after God’s own heart. Whoever came to him felt edified, so clear was it to everyone that Hili was a man of God.
The more he advanced in his priestly life, the more two particular endowments came to the fore: his impact as a preacher and his love for the dissemination of the Word of God. These led him to become a much sought-after orator. His clear, dynamic and persuasive rhetoric echoed from almost all pulpits of the Maltese islands. His words transformed and sanctified souls.
Hili was also gifted with the aptitude of confessor and spiritual director. He undertook this beneficial task for several years, secretly and in silence. Through this work, he sowed serenity in many tired hearts, and numerous were those who sensed, through him, God’s mercy and forgiveness.
On February 21, 1899, Hili was appointed canon lector of the Gozo cathedral by Bishop Camilleri. He undertook this charge with great profit for all clergy.
In 1915, he was raised to the dignity of cantor, a leader of liturgical music of the same cathedral chapter. This nomination was applauded by many as Hili was a priest who dedicated himself, without any pretentiousness, to each duty assigned to him. It was definitely an honour to be on the cathedral chapter due to his many accomplishments.
At night, he also used to send food to households in need. Part of Charity Street in Victoria is named after Archpriest Hili
Bishop Camilleri was one of several who realised Hili’s abilities. In September 1910, he appointed him rector of the Gozo seminary. This was a role Hili discharged until September 1914. Due to his academic ability, Hili was selected by Camilleri as pro-synodal examiner, examiner of the clergy and as ecclesiastical censor.
As a judge who cast his vote in the choice among those who contested among themselves to occupy an office within the Church, Hili appeared as a man of wisdom and integrity. His word was always illuminated with knowledge and unprecedented experience.
Of a resolute and indomitable character, nothing deterred him, provided that it benefitted souls. His ceaseless zeal was truly amazing. He erected two marian congregations, one at the Franciscan Sisters and another at the Dominican Sisters; he was diocesan director of the Opera della Propaganda Fidei; he sought and struggled to open St Joseph’s orphanage for boys; he strove to build the church dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus at Fontana, and for it to be raised to the status of a parish.
As a reward for so much work, on March 10, 1918, Pope Benedict XV promoted him to the dignity of domestic prelate – a title granted to members of the clergy who have rendered valuable service to the Church – on the recommendation of Bishop Camilleri. But Hili had not yet achieved the zenith of his work.
On May 22, 1917, Victoria archpriest Felix Refalo died after leading the parish for 48 years. On December 1, 1917, to the parishoners’ delight, the news broke that Hili had been chosen to be the new archpriest.
On January 25, 1918, he was given possession of the cathedral, and on January 27 he was given possession of the parish of St George. Since 1688, the archpriest of the matrice had also been the parish priest of St George’s parish. But this changed on August 1, 1955, when Bishop of Gozo Joseph Pace brought this union to an end with the permission of the Apostolic See in Rome.
In this sizable pasture, Hili was a restless worker, a good shepherd who stole hours from sleep to guard and nurture his sheep. He was a very charitable man. It was a virtue he practised most when he came in contact with the reality of his parishioners’ many forms of deprivation.
Hili was also endowed with a noble heart that recognised tenderness and showed mercy towards the poor. It is said that before the Easter blessing of the families, he used to prepare silver coins to distribute to the poor families he visited.
At night, he also used to send food to households in need. It was indeed a fitting idea that part of Charity Street in Victoria was named after Hili so that his munificence may be remembered down the ages.
Hili also showed love for St George, martyr of Lydda and patron saint of Gozo. The hymn A San Giorgio Martire, composed by Giuseppe Giardini Vella in 1930, was performed for the first time on the eve of the festivities of St George in May 1931. This first performance was held at It-Tokk (Independence Square). It was, however, in 1934, and at the insistence of Hili, that the hymn was performed for the first time at the beginning of the pontifical procession that sets off from St George collegiate church.
Hili’s attention was not confined to the boundaries of Victoria, nor was it reserved to his parishioners. As a good father who genuinely cares for his children’s well-being, not only spiritual but also material, he was constantly concerned about the people of Gozo and always endeavoured to be of support to them. He was truly everyone’s priest.
Four political parties took part in the 1921 election. These were: the Unione Politica Maltese, under the leadership of Mgr Ignatio Panzavecchia; the Constitutional Party, led by count Sir Gerald Strickland; the Labour Party under the leadership of Colonel William Savona; and the Partito Democratico Nazionalista directed by advocate Enrico Mizzi. The latter only contested in the district of Gozo and Comino, which together formed the eighth electoral district.
Hili was one of the four candidates of the Partito Democratico Nazionalista, which obtained 2,465 votes in the election. Given that the quota on that district was 559 votes, the party that later became today’s Nationalist Party had obtained four quotas and acquired all the seats, at a time when each electoral district was allocated four deputies.
As archpriest, he found the church of St George bare of any ornament. He quickly intervened to decorate this temple
Although one cannot say Hili was among the MPs who spoke a great deal, he asked several parliamentary questions on the improvement of services that the government was providing for Gozo. It was, in fact, Hili who, as a Member of Parliament, asked and won for Gozitans the introduction of a new ferry service from Marfa to Mġarr.
As a member of the assembly, he was a voice for the lowliest of Gozitans. He spoke on behalf of those in misery not because they did not want to work, but because no work was available.
A noticeable fact in Hili was that, although he was an MP elected on behalf of a political party, his speeches were neither sectarian nor were they linked to any political ideology. He so desired the prosperity of the whole country and its people that his speeches were based on aspirations shared by a very broad cross-section of society.
Above all, Hili is fondly remembered for his zeal for adorning the temple of God. One can say that, on his appointment as archpriest, he found the church of St George bare of any ornament. He quickly intervened to decorate this temple as befitted it. He was seen knocking on the door of households to collect donations. But the parish priest did not only knock the doors of others; first of all, he banged at his own door.
Hili, together with the staunch loyalty of Mgr Francis Portelli and his brother Joseph, inaugurated a golden epoch for this parish church.
By August 19, 1935, the church was enlarged and embellished with the addition of side aisles and the building of the chapels of Jesus Mary and of the Crucifix. The old roof was removed and built anew in the form of troll di bomba.
The two apsides for the lateral transepts were also built.
Moreover, several beautiful artistic works were completed for the church. Among these, there was a set of red velvet liturgical vestments, embroidered with gold, brought from Lyon, France, and used for the titular feast. This was a gift of the parish priest himself.
The belfries were glorified by a set of bells cast in the Baricozzi foundry of Milan, and the presbytery was embellished by marble flooring.
Above all, it must be said that ever since he was ordained, Hili had had a dream that matured with him. His vision involved a dome overlooking the humble houses of St George’s parish. For it to be raised, stones had been brought by Governor of Gozo Francesco de Corduba, together with the hardworking archpriest Angelo Bonnici.
But on January 11, 1693, the land was shaken by a frightening earthquake and the dome was severely damaged. It had to be dismantled and was never rebuilt.
Hili, in his reverie, still saw that dome in place and enriching the panorama of Victoria. Today the church of St George, with its aisles and dome, is a wonderful monument of art, but above all it is a tribute to the work accomplished by Hili.
Having fulfilled this desire, Hili prayed: Nunc dimittis servum tuum Domine (“Lord, now You are letting your servant depart in peace” Luke 2, 29).
On the final evening of 1943, God, heard the request of his tired worker, and after offering him His comfort and consolation through the sacraments, called him to receive his eternal award in heaven.
He died at his home in Library Street, Victoria. Not only had the parish of St George suffered the loss of its biggest benefactor, but all Gozo.
On January 2, 1944, Hili’s remains were taken to the parish church of St George where they were exposed for the public’s last respects. From there, the funeral cortege went up to the cathedral where the funeral was held.
Near the Banca Giuratale, the funeral had to stop to take shelter from rain. Notwithstanding the inclement weather, the participants persevered and remained in the rain until the cortege reached the Citadel.
Hili was laid to rest in his family grave at Santa Maria cemetery, Victoria.
It is right and fitting that we do not let anything or anyone hinder us from recalling this priest who endures, over the years, as an admirable tribute to the Church.
On the 150th anniversary of the birth of this outstanding figure, it is more than fitting that, while we revive the memory of this archpriest, we thank God for giving us such a beacon of a true pastor.
Above all, it is a memory of a priest endowed with wisdom, prudence and pastoral zeal, with appropriate availability and fidelity to the Church; severe with himself but generous with others.
It is a commemoration of a patriot who did not manifest the love for his country by the dissemination of an ideology, but by concrete action for the benefit of people.