Josephine Fenech from Mosta was 18 when she got pregnant 54 years ago. Back then, a teenage pregnancy out of wedlock was considered a big taboo. Something had to be done to hide the pregnancy.
The teenager and her parents moved to the US together with three of her siblings, while one brother stayed in Malta. When she gave birth in the US, she gave her newborn, who she called Jason, up for adoption. A year later, Josephine got married and had two sons and a daughter.
Seven years ago, Josephine passed away at the age of 65, taking her secrets with her to her grave.
Her son and his half-sister are now on a quest to trace the father, who they believe may have been a priest, and would like to get a DNA test to confirm.
Just three years ago, her daughter Jolene Usitalo found out she has an elder half-brother, Tim Grunert – as he was renamed by his adoptive parents. Now that they have established contact, they want to learn more about their background.
“Tim now knows who his biological mother was but now wants to know more about his father,” said 42-year-old Jolene, who reached out to Times of Malta to help find the answers.
Tim, 53, adds: “I’ve learned important health history information from my biological mother’s side. I want to know the complete picture of who I am. I think it’s a natural curiosity.”
A dive into the past
Three years ago, Jolene, who knew nothing about her mother’s past, decided to look deeper into her Maltese ancestry so she signed up to Ancestry.com, a US-based genealogy company that offers ancestry DNA testing.
“What I found out blew my mind. Ancestry told me there was a very close match, like a child or a half sibling.”
Jolene, who has three children, knew this was not about a child. As she thought about it, it all started making sense. Childhood memories came rushing back.
When she was about 17 years old, her uncle was at her house visiting and was telling Jolene a story. Her mother was not in the room when her uncle uttered the words: “That was round about the time your mum gave up the kid for adoption”.
“I remember I was shocked. When my uncle left, I asked my mum, and her reaction was not normal. She just said it never happened. It stuck with me,” she says.
Years later, during one of her several family trips to Malta, she was in the room when her mother was talking to some relatives in Maltese and started crying. Jolene did not understand Maltese so she asked a cousin to translate. The cousin translated: “I wonder where he is right now?”
“I know she ought to have thought about him, but she wanted to start afresh when she moved to the US. Back then it was extremely shameful to have a child out of wedlock,” Jolene says.
Connecting the dots
After hearing from Ancestry. com, Jolene reached out to the website to contact her brother and she asked her aunts and uncles if they knew anything.
“I called one of my aunts and told her. She started crying and said: ‘Is his name Jason?’ It was. They ended up telling me the story of why she really moved to the US.”
Her aunts asked her to drop the search for answers, but her uncle told Jolene that he remembered overhearing an argument that the father was a priest or a man who was about to become a priest.
Jolene heard conflicting stories: one uncle said he believed the father did not even know Josephine was pregnant, but an aunt said they were offered money by his family to keep things quiet.
After finding out about Tim, Jolene went through her later mother’s paperwork but did not find any clues. She also asked her father, who told her that her mother had told him she had given up a child for adoption, but she never wanted to talk about it.
Meanwhile, Ancestry.com got back to her with an e-mail address for her brother – who had been renamed Tim by his adoptive parents – and they exchanged phone numbers.
“There was a lot of crying. We kept in contact, and still talk a couple of times a week. It turned out that for several years he lived a few streets away from my older brother in Michigan and often went to the restaurant where my mum worked. He might have seen her without knowing,” she says. Jolene later met Tim in Chicago where he has lived since 2020.
Tim’s adoptive parents always told him he was adopted and that his birth mother was Maltese. “I’ve known that I was adopted as far back as I remember as a child. My adoptive parents told me they saw a document containing my biological parents’ names on the case worker’s desk during a meeting. They could see ‘Josephine Fenech’ and ‘Paul’. However, the last name of my biological father did not appear on the document.”
In 2012, a few years after his adoptive mother passed away, Tim requested information about his adoption from the State of Michigan where he was born. The State only provides what they term ‘non-identifiable information’.
“The names and ages of family members were blanked out on the copies of the State records sent to me. On one of the typed pages, I could tell from the number of letters typed on the line below that, assuming my biological dad’s name was indeed Paul, then his last name contained seven letters.”
Assuming my biological dad’s name was Paul, his last name contained seven letters- Tim Grunert
Tim would like to identify the man he believes is also from Mosta and perhaps meet with him, if he is still alive.
His sister adds: “My brother just wants to know who his father is. I’ve been to Malta five times, the last being 2019, and I’m now planning a trip with Tim in July – he’s never been.”