Migrant Voices – Connie O’Dea

Connie O'Dea writes on her experiences migrating from Malta to Australia. Connie has worked as an Orchardist and School Teacher and lives in Arcadia.

When I came to Australia I felt as though I had left a fertile/lush religious background for a dry desert. Religion in Australia was diverse and private against the Maltese religious experience which was demonstrative and entwined with our daily life.

In Malta where I grew up, we had the Re-diffusion (a type of cable P.A. system) all over the country, which had two switches one for the BBC and the other for Maltese Broadcasting Corporation. Normally we would have it switched on the Maltese Band. This channel always started with a morning prayer and ended with a night prayer. The talks during the day were always uplifting and edifying.

Programmes were heavily censored but mostly enjoyable; especially the international musical requests time.

The Church bells rang three times a day for a reminder and reflection on the Angelus or Raegina Ceoli depending on the Religious Season. People used to genuflect if they passed in front of a church. Every thing seemed to happen by the will of God.

I came to Australia in my late teens. I was taking it all in as an adventure and lived on the spiritual/psychological nourishment I received in Malta. The spiritual nourishment obtained through the religious environment and the Catholic Action groups, and education in general.

During the first week in Australia I was invited to join the NCGM and eventually I joined the Softball teams of our Parish. But, the statues and icons, on the corners of the streets, reminding one of the heavenly connection or public processions proclaiming and celebrating the patron Saint of one's Parish, were no longer a part of my life, neither the people praying the Holy Rosary on the street corners at certain time of the year.

But, looking back I feel it must have been hard on my mother, for her to lose all that spiritual nourishment to a very secular society for which God was in oblivion or at least hidden and only recognised when one went to church or to an organised religious meeting.

She, too, I suppose, had to live on her memories of special meetings for specific homogeneous groups, which of course, included mothers. These were given at a time when husbands and children were likely to be out of the way at work and/or at school.

These talks were given during Lent and were run by the church close to where one lived. And I suppose, the new atmosphere would have been a source of anxiety for her when things were not as black and white as in Malta and as members of the family younger than I were exposed to a different upbringing, were influenced by the new culture around them.

Jesus to us young Christians was a constant invisible companion leading us to emulate him in all our daily lives. And as a youngster one had an obligation to give good example and encourage conversion when this is called for. Hence, on the other side of the coin, we were experiencing what it was like to live in another country.

Our religion was practised by those who chose to do so by joining in the Mass and activities of the Catholic Church, and behave accordingly, practised our religion.

Each nationality was accommodated with providing a Priest that spoke their language from time to time. But, I think we were in danger of comparing our upbringing with the upbringing of the children in Australia. We were questioning who was doing it right? Were we brainwashed? Did we have too much exposure to religion? Can one have too much exposure?

Of course then there is the time when reality hits. When one realizes he or she is too far away from the things that helped to shape ones life, provided friendships and the enjoyment of familiar things in life. A vast ocean is between these experiences and the new way of life.

In saying the above I also want to share how my life developed in the new country. My sister who was here before us had a job interview lined up for me. She saw an advertisement on one of the Retail shops saying "A smart girl needed as a sales assistant" as I was still on the boat, my sister went in and told them that she had a sister who is still on the boat coming in about a week from Malta. So, they gave her an appointment and booked me in, to go for the interview just one week after our arrival. (What a compliment! - "a smart girl.")

It was the first week in June 1958. To do this I had to go to the neighbouring town. My sister took me to the place. I was given a reading and a math test, and was asked to start the next day.

So, the next day I started work and the manageress went to take the sign for the position from the window and said to me; "We do not need this any more we have the smart girl we needed."

I was also a surprise for the customers. They used to ask where did I hail from and I proudly said from Malta. The next question was; "How come you can speak English?" So I told them that in Malta we learn it at school. I could have added, " and I can speak fluent Italian and read French." but I didn't. I realised how lucky I was to have had this exposure early in life.

I was fortunate to have had other experiences that not many would have had. Before we dreamt of coming to Australia around the age of nine I was on the stage. I was taking part in my father's vaudeville type company. I enjoyed being involved in plays, (some of which my father wrote and went with him to the censorship office to have them censored, as all play writers did) dancing and singing. I was also doing well at school, which I enjoyed.

I suppose this was a time for the Maltese people when the war with its devastation was still fresh in their mind and were trying to get over it.


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