Bishop, Apostolic Administrator in Malta, and Extraordinary Envoy in San Domingo, Haiti and Venezuela

Antonio Maria Buhagiar was born in Cephalonia in Greece, the son of Joseph Buhagiar from Ħaż-Żebbuġ and Maria Concetta née Attard from Floriana. His parents were among those Maltese who migrated to the Ionian Islands during the first decades of the 19th century. His baptismal names were Spiridione, Salvatore Constantino.

At an early age he expressed a strong desire to take up religious life and he came to Malta, where his relatives were living. On 20 December 1863  he joined the Franciscan Capuchin Order in Malta, and spent his year as a novice at Santa Liberata’s Friary in Kalkara.

With a bright and intelligent mind, Antonio Maria Buhagiar had excellent results in his philosophical and theological studies. He graduated cum laude in philosophy and theology and was appointed lecturer of philosophy. He was ordained priest on 18 September 1869 by Archbishop Gaetano Pace Forno.

Besides Maltese, Italian and Latin Friar Buhagiar had a good command of the Greek, Hebrew, French and Spanish languages.

As a young priest he was, with another Capuchin friar, the first Chaplain at the newly opened Addolorata Cemetery at Paola.

On 2 May 1872 he left Malta for Tunis, and he was appointed Apostolic Missionary in Sfax where he built a church. He helped other Maltese and Europeans from Muslim persecution and for this he was made knight of the Nichan Iftikhar Order and military chaplain.

During this period because of the old age and the infirmities of the Archbishop of Malta, Mgr Carmelo Scicluna*, the situation of the Diocese of Malta was not at its best in the 1880s. On the other hand, Pope Leo XIII was well informed of the politico-situation in Malta and for the need of certain reforms in the Church, but he wished to appoint a person who was not involved in local political intrigues.

On 6 December 1882, the Governor of Malta, Sir Arthur Borton wrote to the Hon. Earl of Kimberley that he was informed that His Grace had applied for a Coadjutor, adding that: ‘it is very desirable that before the nomination of the Coadjutor is publicly made, the Governor of Malta should be in a position to state his views to His Holiness with regard to his eligibility’. A second warning was given when the Archbishop withdraw a Circular Letter, which he had already issued, against the spreading among the people of the idea that ‘the study of the English Language desired by the Governor is a means for protestantising the inhabitants’.

Pope Leo XIII knowing that Cardinal Lavigerie was in constant touch with the Maltese in Tunes and also  in Malta, asked him whether he knew of ‘some able and active clergyman in Tunes who might be employed to set things right’. The Cardinal mentioned Father Antonio M. Buhagiar as a man of high administrative qualities. But he made it clear that if Buhagiar was promoted to be bishop of Malta this should be entirely at the Pope’s request and not from any desire of the Cardinal or/and without any intention of employing him as a Bishop of Tunes.

In June 1884 Fr Buhagiar was summoned to Rome where he favourably impressed both the Pope and Cardinal Iacobini, Secretary of State. Cardinal Lavigerie consecrated Fr Antonio M. Buhagiar Titular Bishop of Ruspe and his Auxiliary on the 12 August, 1884 at Tunis. Buhagiar was 38 years old.

On 12 January 1885 Mr G. Errington, British Charge d’Affairs in Rome was informed of the Pope’s intention to send Buhagiar to Malta and was requested to inform the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of the circumstances in which the selection of Buhagiar was made ‘as the Pope desired in this matter not to act without informing and consulting Her Majesty’s Government’.

Sir L. Simmons, now Governor of Malta, who was all out in favour of Bishop Pietro Pace* of Gozo, did not leave a stone unturned to avoid the implementation of what the Pope desired. In fact in his Despatch of the 16 January, 1885, to the Secretary of State while admitting that Buhagiar ‘appears highly intelligent man and so far as I am informed has been very successful in his administration among the Maltese in Tunes’, Simmons airs his antagonism accusing Buhagiar of having ‘French proclivities’, adding that ‘having been throughout his early life a Capuchin Friar in this city is neither from his education nor conviction likely to be a man with sufficient knowledge of the world to control the church of this Island in the condition it is’.

On the other hand, Governor Simmons gave a totally different picture of Bishop Pietro Pace of Gozo, describing him as ‘the only other Maltese Bishop who may be  regarded as a Candidate for the See of Malta… I should be glad therefore that the future appointment should be conferred on Bishop Pace from whom I feel confident the administrator of this Government, whoever he may be, will receive every reasonable assistance and support’.

On 21 January 1885, Sir L. Simmons renewed his objections with the Secretary of State. In his manoeuvres to eliminate Buhagiar from the See of Malta, Simmons suggested that the British Government, should make use of the pretended ‘Veto’.

These apprehensions were not shared by the Colonial Office in London and the reactions to the points raised by the Governor were in favour of Buhagiar. On 5 February 1885, Lord Derby wrote to Simmons: ‘Her Majesty’s Government has very carefully considered those objections, and the arguments which you have adduced in support of your views, but they do not find in them sufficient reason for opposing the appointment of Bishop Buhagiar… steps have therefore been taken to intimate the Pope that no objection will be made to Bishop Buhagiar’s appointment, and I have to request your approval in such a manner as may be necessary for its validity under Ordinance 1 of 1838’.

At this stage the question of Buhagiar’s appointment as Administrator Apostolic was resolved with the blessings of Rome and London but not of Malta. Buhagiar arrived in Malta on the 23 April 1885 from Syracuse and on 29 April 1885 he issued his first letter to the Clergy and people of Malta from the Capuchin Friary of Floriana.

Governor Simmons, however was not convinced of Buhagiar’s loyalty and fitness. During the following three years he made his best to depict Buhagiar’s administration as producing all the elements of a Church-state confrontation. To make matters worse, Cardinal Lavigerie visited Buhagiar on his way to Rome in July 1886. Such a visit could only stir up more doubts in Simmons’s mind against Buhagiar.

 Then he became apostolic administrator of ailing Bishop Scicluna in Malta.  During the cholera epidemic of 1887, he did all in his power to help the victims and even opened kitchens in various centres.

It was a well known fact that some prominent members of the Diocesan clergy were not happy to see this Capuchin Friar at the helm of the Church in Malta. Mgr Paolo Pullicino*, amongst others, who was proposed by Bishop Scicluna as his Coadjutor in March 1885, declared himself openly against the appointment of Buhagiar. Pullicino was also upset because of Buhagiar’s age, ‘Ha meno quarant’anni’, while he was 73, and continued: ‘non si conosce in Malta’.

Lord Gerald Strickland* was seriously involved in securing the nomination of Mgr P. Pace and the transfer of Mgr Buhagiar from Malta. Count Strickland had even written to Mgr Buhagiar in view of gaining his support in his political intrigues, but Mgr Buhagiar through his Secretary, replied that he wanted to maintain an absolute neutrality: ‘finche non si toccano gli interessi della Religione, ritenendo di poter in tal guisa, per quanto è da se procurer meglio il benessere del paese’. It was also known that Strickland wanted also to prevent Mgr Buhagiar from landing in Malta again when he (Buhagiar) went to Rome to present his resignation to the Pope.

Pope Leo XIII was caught in an awkward position: either appoint Buhagiar as successor of Scicluna with all the logical consequences of a straightforward ‘Veto’ or transfer Pace from Gozo to the See of Malta at the expense of Buhagiar. The latter hypothesis prevailed.

Bishop Buhagiar was very unfortunate in having to administer the church in Malta at a time when, on one hand political relations between France and England in the Mediterranean were very tense and on the other hand any move by the local Government to introduce the English Language in the social and cultural life of the Island was considered as an attempt to protestantise the population. Obviously certain attempts in this direction were used by politicians to their own advantage.

The suspicion against Buhagiar’s loyalty was due to the fact that he had no obligation to the British Government for his promotion but to Cardinal Lavigerie who was considered as promoter of French Imperial interests. Lavigerie’s ability to organise diplomatic pressure was an important factor in his success, but he failed in Buhagiar.

Mgr Antonio Maria Buhagiar was then promoted Apostolic Delegate and Extraordinary Envoy of the Holy See in San Domingo, Haiti and Venezuela.

He died in San Domingo a few months later after his arrival.

This biography is part of the collection created by Michael Schiavone over a 30-year period. Read more about Schiavone and his initiative here.

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