In the first years of the 20th century, diocesan priest Fr George Preca had a vision to start a new form of apostolate in Malta – laymen and laywomen evangelising other people. Years later, in 1965, almost 60 years after Dun Ġorġ formed his Society of Christian Doctrine, popularly known as MUSEUM, Vatican Council II developed the role of lay persons in the Church in it decree Apostolicam Actuositatem, and subsequently in other documents, decrees and instructions. Eugenio Borg was one of the first laymen, if not the first, in pre-Vatican II history, particularly in Malta, who dedicated himself to the evangelisation of the people at large.
Born in Senglea, on July 24, 1886, in a house in Our Lady of Sorrows Street (which in 1949 became the centre (Qasam) of the male members of the Society), Borg was the fourth son of Salvatore and Carmela née Mirabelli, a family of 11 siblings. The family of Salvatore, who worked as a public weigher at Marsa, and Carmela, a keen housewife, considered itself to belong to the middle class in the Maltese social strata.
Eugenio was baptised by Canon Salvatore Camilleri at Senglea’s collegiate parish church on the same day of his birth. It is customary at baptisms for children to be given additional names. In the case of Eugenio, he was also named Romeo and Joseph.
In 1891, the Borg family moved from Senglea to Ħamrun, where the most relevant episodes in Eugenio’s life took place. As a boy, he attended the elementary school of Ħamrun. Seeing that Eugenio was not particularly keen on his studies, his father decided that his son should not enter the Lyceum to continue his secondary schooling, but prepare himself for work at the Dockyard. After having passed the Dockyard entrance examination, and appointed apprentice on May 8, 1902, Borg continued his education for a few more years at the Dockyard School.
Borg was a man of God. Before speaking of God’s presence, he would smile in rapture. When speaking of God and things spiritual, he proved himself very knowledgeable and very convincing
Though he did not rise to any great heights academically, the personal and moral education Borg received in his own family, the fear of God, the pride he took in being honest and upright, the love of family, the loyalty to friends and gentleness to all, the strength of will and determination together with his natural wisdom and sagacity, placed him head and shoulders above most other young men. These qualities compensated by far for the lack of academic schooling.
Borg loved his work at the Dockyard and, presumably, he also cared for the good salary he gladly received every week. Doubtlessly, however, as was the custom in those days with young people who still lived at home, he did not keep the money for himself, but handed part or all of it, to his mother as a contribution to the family as it had no other sources of income except what the father earned.
Ġeġè, as he was affectionately known to his fellow workers, did not take long to realise his responsibility at work. His delicate conscience would not allow him to waste time, for that would be tantamount to robbery. He soon became known to be a most diligent worker, the man who never skived, and never absented himself from work unless forced to by illness or by some other unavoidable circumstance.
As a young man, Borg used to meet his friends after work in the field called Ta’ Luċtu, opposite Ħamrun parish church, or in a field by the side of the church where the Oratory is now built. These young men used to while away their time talking, relating stories and smoking cigarettes. They must have had a very scanty knowledge of religious beliefs, and in actual fact, little did they bother about them either. Nevertheless, the group of friends to which Borg belonged was caring, and their pranks did not proceed from any malice or animosity.
It was on one such occasion, in 1906, that Ġorġ Preca, then aged 26 and a deacon studying for the priesthood, visited them for the first time.
Preca talked to these lighthearted youths about the Passion of Jesus. His words slowly impressed them. They became friends and convinced him to visit them often, a wish that Preca did not turn down. So they used to meet regularly for football, jokes, chats and also spiritual reflections that Preca was more than pleased to share with them.
Dun Ġorġ was ordained priest on December 22, 1906. His young friends thought that would be the end of their friendship, because a priest, they assumed, would not want to waste time with them. They could not imagine that a priest would share their tricks and soil his black cassock playing football in a field! But Dun Ġorġ did join them again, and that sealed their friendship.
After some weeks, Dun Ġorġ asked Borg to accompany him for a walk in the nearby countryside. He told him to bring with him some bread and cheese, and some wine, together with a Bible. In preparation for that encounter, Borg bought his first Bible, in English of course, since none existed in Maltese.
They set off for the nearby area of Santa Venera, still largely unbuilt, and made their way to a field overlooking Msida Valley. There they passed an hour or so in Bible study, focusing especially on St John’s Gospel. Borg was as yet very shallow in his religious knowledge, but Dun Ġorġ passed on his reflections on the Bible in a very persuasive manner.
Those meetings went on regularly every Sunday, and Dun Ġorġ was slowly forming Borg’s mind and heart. Later on in life, Borg was to refer to these meetings and rightly claim that they were the beginning of the Society of Christian Doctrine. God was planting and nurturing in him that first seed which had yet to grow and blossom. Truly, the seed fell on fertile ground and Borg made gigantic progress in the way of perfection.
Borg had a heart of gold. He had a close attachment to his parents, particularly his mother Carmela, to whom he was exceedingly devoted. His mother passed away on August 11, 1930, after a long illness. He bore the loss with Christian fortitude, but the shock had a telling and lasting effect on his life. Three months after Carmela’s death, Salvatore, his father, fell seriously ill. He died on November 1, 1930.
The shock of his parents’ death, just within four months of each other, was followed by the frightful ordeal of being locked by mistake inside a boiler at the dockyard, along with two other labourers while they were repairing it. The mishap very nearly ended in asphyxiation. These two traumas suffered by Borg contributed to the emergence of diabetes, which caused him much suffering for the rest of his life.
At home, Borg was held as a very holy man. He was serious when the occasion demanded it, and he commanded natural respect from everyone. None would dare commit any misdemeanour in his presence. Whenever anything improper happened in his presence, he would show his disapproval by a slight but significant eye movement. That was an adequate rebuke, indeed a silent but searing admonition.
Borg was completely detached from any worldly possessions. Whatever presents he received he was delighted to give away to others immediately and without any hesitation. In his old age, whenever anyone, particularly his relatives, asked him if he needed anything, his constant reply was that he did not need anything and that he lacked nothing.
His sister Giorgina, who for long years, ever since the death of his mother, looked after him, died on July 11, 1942, during one of the air raids of World War II. Ten months later, Borg thought that it was high time for him to fulfil his long-felt desire to join the Soċi Interni, a residential community of members of the Society, at Żebbuġ (and at Żabbar since 1954). This he did on May 27, 1943.
From Dun Ġorġ he imbibed a great desire to spread the teachings of the Catholic faith. Constant to the main aim of the Society, he took the initiative of opening centres for catechism classes in various parts of the island. Rain or shine, on bicycle or on foot, in season and out of season, he would leave his residence for some other town or village to conduct these classes.
Borg also saw the Society expand to Australia and Canada. Truly, he could repeat with St Paul: “the love of Christ overwhelms us.” (1 Cor. 5, 14). One may ask from where he obtained the boundless energy to carry on even against so many odds. The answer lies in the reservoir of spirituality he built up in himself with the grace of God.
Borg was a man of God. Before speaking of God’s presence, he would smile in rapture. When speaking of God and things spiritual, he proved himself very knowledgeable and very convincing. In quoting the Scriptures, it was evident that for him these were no mere scholarly extracts, but the very word of God Himself. One could feel this by the look of his face and the sound of his words.
In silence before the Blessed Sacrament, he used to spend ample time in prayer and meditation. He did not simply believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist; he conversed with the Lord, his eyes fixed on the tabernacle, shining with love. No one knows what conversations passed between Borg and the Lord Jesus. The fruits of these contacts he passed on to the members of the Society.
Borg also had a distinct filial love towards Mary, the Mother of God. He delighted in speaking about her virtues and listening to others singing her praises. He would point out that in the Bible we read that “the souls of the upright are in the hands of God” (Wisd. 3, 1), and he liked to add, “and those of sinners are in the hands of the Virgin Mary”.
Being chosen, in 1926, as the first Superior General of the Society, Borg presided over its activities with competence, prudence and great love.
Fifty years ago Superior General Borg passed away. He died alone in the corridor outside Male Medical Ward B of St Luke’s Hospital, for there was no room for him in the ward
In its early years the Society was not very well looked upon, even by high ecclesiastics. They did not take too kindly to the idea of lay people preaching, because that is what in effect the members of the Society do. And yet Borg, with the help of those close to him, managed to keep the Society alive. He loved the Society, and his loyalty to Dun Ġorġ was steadfast, sincere and suffused with Christian love. When Dun Ġorġ died on July 26, 1962, Borg knew that the holy priest had gone to reap his reward in heaven. But being also human, he intensely felt the separation from Dun Ġorġ and mourned his loss.
On April 23, 1958, Borg was decorated with the medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontefice in recognition of his deep commitment to the propagation of the Word of God.
Fifty years ago, at 1am on Sunday, March 12, 1967, Superior General Borg passed away. He died alone in the bay of the corridor outside the Male Medical Ward B of St Luke’s Hospital, for there was no room for him in the ward.
Originally interred in the vaults of the MUSEUM Society at Santa Maria Addolorata Cemetery, Paola, his remains were, on March 20, 2001, exhumed and transferred to the Society’s church of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, Blata l-Bajda.
Thirty years after his death, on March 12, 1997, Mgr Joseph Mercieca, as Archbishop of Malta, started the process for his beatification and eventual canonisation. It is ardently hoped that like his mentor, who in 2007 became Malta’s first canonised saint, Eugenio Borg will be added among the elect of the Church in the not very distant future.