Twenty three years later he is still here, serving as chaplain to the ageing Maltese community which showed its gratitude and deep affection for the priest when he celebrated his 75th birthday and 50th anniversary as a priest in March.
Based at the parish of Lockleys, the Maltese community chaplaincy has its origins in the years immediately after World War II when the Maltese began emigrating to countries like Australia in search of a more secure future.
But for Fr Gabriel, the reason for his journey to South Australia goes back to World War I when his father and a group of young men from Gozo were based in Thessaloniki in Greece and served alongside Australian soldiers.
“I am here because of my father,” Fr Gabriel said.
With 11 other young Maltese men from the island of Gozo, Fr Gabriel’s father came to South Australia in 1922 and worked on the bridge at Murray Bridge.
“It was a very cold winter and so they decided to leave and go to Port Lincoln to work in the tuna industry but the industry closed down because of the Great Depression and they started walking eastwards from farm to farm as helping hands,” he said.
“They (the farmers) would give them something to eat and then they would go to another farm. They walked all the way to Sydney.”
Some of the group married and stayed but his father returned to the family farm in Gozo.
“When we were growing up he always told us how beautiful Adelaide is.”
Named Stephen at birth, Fr Gabriel came from a large family – he was the 17th of 18 children. Several of his siblings died at a young age and he now has only one brother living in Gozo and a sister in Queensland.
“We were poor but happy,” he said of his childhood in the picturesque fishing village of St Lawrence, Gozo.
After attending primary and secondary school on the island, Stephen joined the Franciscan Order and was given the religious name of Gabriel.
“As a family we were always around priests,” he said of his decision to join the priesthood.
“My father used to take care of the fields of the priests in the village, and their houses and estates.”
He was ordained priest on March 22 1969 and after a year of further study he started teaching at secondary schools.
In the 70s he volunteered as a missionary priest in Tripoli, Libya, where he catered for the members of Maltese and English-speaking Catholic communities, many of whom worked in the oil industry. He met the controversial President Colonel Gaddafi several times.
In 1979 Fr Gabriel was called to be Superior of the Novitiate House on Gozo and fulfilled his dream of building a centre for youths. His other achievements include renovating a retreat house and building a new church and friary.
In 1995 he was given the opportunity to attend a renewal theological course at Notre Dame University in Indianapolis, USA, but first he came to Australia to visit his sister in Queensland.
While in Australia, he learnt that the Franciscans were thinking of closing their mission in Adelaide.
“I told the Provincial please don’t close it, I will come here,” he recalled.
“He told me to do the course first and then come.”
However, at the next chapter meeting, it was decided again to close the mission and Fr Gabriel was given permission to come and assist Fr Edward at the Lockleys parish, where the Maltese community is based, and to do all the “necessary things to pack and go home”.
“But when I saw the need of the community we rang Malta and kept pushing and they gave us permission to stay,” he explained.
“With every Province chapter they wanted me to go back but we would get signatures and they let me stay.”
Having reached retirement age Fr Gabriel is now looking forward to returning to Gozo to be with his brother and many nieces and nephews.
“When we all get together there is always over 100 of us,” he said. “Malta is my home.”
In the meantime, he continues to be in great demand: “Our people still love the priest and the Church, and they are very strong in their faith so I find myself being used a lot.”
His friend and fellow countryman the new Bishop of Darwin, Charles Gauci, sent him a message of congratulations on his 50th anniversary and thanked him for his “loving care of so many for so long”.
“When my own father was dying it was Fr Gabriel who he asked for and I know from many conversations with him that he’s had a heart for the people,” Bishop Gauci said.Jump to next article