9 September 2023

Significant symbol to Illawarra's Maltese community celebrates a half-century milestone

| Keeli Royle
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religious statue

The Our Lady of Victory statue holds a special place in the hearts of the local community. Photo: Louis Parnis.

Hundreds from across the state will unite in celebration at a Warrawong church this Sunday to mark the half-century milestone of a culturally significant statue to the Maltese community.

The figure of Our Lady of Victory, which is displayed at the St Francis of Assisi parish, has become an important symbol for the diverse Illawarra community since it was shipped here from across the globe thanks to a local family who wanted to give back.

“Fifty years ago there was a family, the Scerri family, they made a wish and they said if their wish is granted they will pay to import a statue of Our Lady of Victory,” said event organiser Louis Parnis.

“I believe that the statue was made in northern Italy, in a place called Val Gardena, and then imported to Warrawong church.”

For the vast Maltese community that moved to the Illawarra to live and work after World War II, the statue provided another key connection to their culture and heritage, and was an important addition to the church that had been built to bring them together.

“Back in 1951, when the steelworks was beginning and there were fumes everywhere, a lot of immigrants from Malta, like my in-laws, they arrived in Cringila and lived in hostels,” Louis said. “You can imagine how homesick they were and some of them wanted to go back but it takes six weeks on a ship, so that wasn’t an option.

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“Eventually, some of our community leaders decided, if we can have a church and Maltese priests, it’s more likely that they will adapt to the conditions. And that’s why the church was built in the hub of Warrawong on the top of the hill, welcoming everyone from the surrounding areas to come and celebrate.”

And on Malta’s Victory Day, 8 September, the church and statue represented an important event on the community calendar.

But in recent years the annual feast did not go ahead.

group of people with religious statue

Choir members in front of Our Lady of Victory at Warrwong’s St Francis of Assisi Church. Choirs and bands will join the massive celebration on 10 September.

Louis, the president of the George Cross Falcons Community Centre and a key figure in the community, felt that the event needed to be brought back.

“Around November there was a voice that said to me to have this feast. I didn’t know it was 50 years but the voice said to organise the feast,” he said.

“We thought the community centre in Cringila has got enough backing to organise the whole lot.”

Louis said it had taken six months to plan the one-and-a-half-hour program and ensure the word got out to everyone who wanted to come.

“We believe we’ll have families coming back from Queensland to visit their relatives, people from Canberra, there’s one bus coming from the north of Sydney, people coming from Penrith, but mostly the locals,” he said.

And it was not just the Maltese community that would join the celebration, but also Portuguese, Italians and Australians.

“It’s not just an old Maltese tradition, it’s a diversity of people coming to this special feast of celebration,” Louis said.

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Bishop Brian Mascord will be the celebrant, with local, state and federal politicians also joining the event, which includes a Mass and procession around the grounds.

“The statue doesn’t actually stay in the church for the afternoon, it will be lifted and moved around the perimeter of the church while people carry it on their shoulders,” Louis said.

And among those carrying the statue will be the family members of those who made it happen.

“The father that brought the statue succumbed to illness during COVID but the three kids, the three boys, will be part of the lifting of the statue,” Louis said.

Everyone is welcome to the event, with attendees urged to arrive at St Francis of Assisi Warrawong at 1:30 pm on Sunday, 10 September, before the procession.

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