By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer
BRANDENBURG, Ky. — Four Augustinian Sisters Servants of Jesus and Mary who live and serve at St. John the Apostle Church here in Brandenburg are being honored this year for 50 years of service.
Three Augustinians initially left their homes in Malta — a tiny island nation located in the Mediterranean Sea 50 miles south of Italy — to serve as missionaries in America. They made the arduous journey from Malta to Meade County knowing they would likely never return home.
Fifty years later, parishioners call the Augustinians the “heart and soul” of St. John. Two of the original trio — Sisters Rosalba Gatt and Lucilla Mangion — still serve at St. John along with Sisters Lydia Falzon and Teresa Aquilina, who came later. They have educated generations of students and served in countless ministries at the parish.
The sisters describe St. John as their home and call the parishioners their family.
“The people here are very, very important to us. They think the world of us. They think we have wings but we don’t,” Sister Falzon said in an interview at the sisters’ home last week. “These people have inspired us, helped us grow, helped us love — because that’s what they’ve shown to us.”
Arriving in the U.S.
Originally three of the sisters — Sisters Gatt, Mangion and Andreina Sammut (who later left to serve in the Philippines) — were sent to the U.S. in 1965 to work at a school in Baton Rouge, La. Upon their arrival, the sisters learned they were no longer needed at the Louisiana school. Dismayed, the sisters looked for guidance from the superior of their order, Sister Teresa Saliba.
The superior’s brother — Alex Saliba — worked as a physician at Hazelwood Sanitorium in Louisville and knew Archbishop John A. Floersh and Auxiliary Bishop Charles G. Maloney.
After learning of the situation, Archbishop Floersh heartily welcomed the Augustinian Sisters to the Archdiocese of Louisville, said Sister Falzon.
The Maltese sisters were invited to stay at the convent at St. Thomas More Church with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, said Sister Carmelita Dunn, who lived and taught at St. Thomas More at the time.
“We got the call late at night that these sisters needed a place to stay. We immediately got out the Lysol and water and cleaned out three rooms,” said Sister Dunn, noting adjacent rooms were chosen so the sisters could pray together.
The Augustinian Sisters fondly recalled the hospitality and welcoming nature of the SCNs and said they felt “so much at home.”
“They included us with their community. The ‘Charities’ were a big part of the welcoming we experienced,” Sister Falzon said, with traces of her Maltese accent still audible.
The sisters stayed with the SCNs during the first half of 1965 and attended education classes at then-Spalding College in order to earn American teaching certificates.
Those months were a time of acclimation and assistance. Sister Isidore Edwards, an SCN at St. Thomas More, accompanied the Maltese sisters to Spalding and even traveled to Brandenburg to assist the Augustinians with the opening of the school, Sister Dunn said.
Opening the school
The sisters opened St. John the Apostle School in the fall of 1965 with first, second and third grades. They conducted classes in the convent’s dining room and basement, said Sister Mangion, who served first as a teacher and later as principal from 1988 until 2004.
They moved into the newly-constructed school the following year.
Each additional year, another sister arrived from Malta to open a new class until the school had six grades. Sister Aquilina arrived in 1967 and Sister Falzon arrived in 1972.
Not only did they have the daunting task of opening and running a new school, but the Augustinians were 5,200 miles away from home in a small town in Central Kentucky. The language, the food, even the climate was different. But, in time, St. John and Brandenburg became home for the Maltese sisters, they said.
“Beginnings are always hard until you get used to it. The food was different. In the old house, where we lived for 18 years, there was one bathroom for six of us. I didn’t even think about it at the time. We came here as missionaries,” said Sister Gatt who served as principal from 1965 to 1988 and later as a teacher.
The sisters continued to solely staff the school until the early 1990s, according to The Record archives. Eventually, they left their administrative posts in the school as more lay teachers joined the staff. But they remained in the classroom until the parish school closed in 2005.
Continuing to serve
Following the closure of the school, the Augustinian Sisters remained an invaluable part of parish life, said Karen Bonn, social outreach coordinator at St. John. They continue to teach Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and religious education classes. They also tutor students and visit parishioners who are homebound or reside in nursing homes. They serve as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and assist with sacristan duties. They also lead the rosary for parishioners on Wednesdays.
“People still look to us. We are able to invest more time in prayer. Every day we get calls to pray for specific intentions,” Sister Falzon said.
Kim Devries, who has been a parishioner of St. John since 1994, described the sisters as “the heart and soul” of the parish and said they “welcome and love and pray for us.”
“They are so gracious, so authentic in their love of God and everyone they encounter,” Devries said. “They are humble, prayerful, fun-loving. They are just beautiful examples and role models of how we should live our lives.”
Bonn said the simple presence of the sisters is invaluable.
“You see them all the time on the campus. I can’t imagine the parish without them,” Bonn said.
Brandenburg is home
The sisters, taking turns, visit Malta every two years. While they share a deep love of their mother country, they consider Brandenburg and St. John their home, Sister Falzon said.
“I love my Malta. My family is there. But, I love the way of life here, the space. The people are very different here; there are no strangers.
Here, I am surrounded by those I love,” Sister Falzon said.
The sisters were recognized by the St. John community at a special Mass and gathering in October.
Father Kevin Bryan, pastor of St. John, called the sisters “icons” and said they continue to be an important part of the parish.
“They have brought prayer, talent, commitment and dedication to the parish,” he said.