My Dad: A Tribute to the Incomparable Alfred Fenech

Mentor. Hero. Pillar. Legend.

These are just some of the words people have used to describe Alfred Fenech over the past week.

But to me, he’s Dad. And that makes him a mentor. A hero. A pillar. A Legend.

He’d have to be, to raise five kids as amazing as us.

And each of us possesses qualities so uniquely Dad—compassion, faith, intelligence, creativity, integrity, a sense of justice. His big heart. I inherited his impatience as a driver.

But how do I begin to describe a life as full as our dad’s? How do I capture 86 years in a few words?

Despite being a central figure within the Maltese community, Dad never liked to be the centre of attention—so this would have made him a little uncomfortable…. He never bragged, never spoke in a loud voice about his many accomplishments, always carried himself with quiet dignity. But we, his family, we will speak of our dad the way he deserved, and heaven knows, our family is loud.

Dad touched countless lives with his soulful presence. His father Luigi passed when Dad was 18, and he helped provide for his mother Pauline and siblings, Mary, Rita, Margaret, Victor, Joe, Charlie, and Tony, many of whom are also dearly departed.

Reputed as honest, hard-working, passionate, and very generous, Dad came to Canada from Malta in 1958 and served briefly in the Canadian Armed Forces. He met our mom Doris at St. Paul the Apostle church in Toronto’s Junction district, where he served as the parish organist for over six decades. Upon arriving in Canada, Dad lived with his sweet sister Mary, and she had a piano he loved to play. One day, the parish priest walked by as Dad’s music spilled into the street through an open window. Deeply impressed, the priest knocked on the door and immediately asked Dad if he would play for the church. And as ever, he said yes.

His Maltese heritage and love of media came together when he began bringing news to the Maltese-Canadian community as a radio and television broadcaster. In the many years he anchored the show, he sat across many highly esteemed guests, including former Maltese Prime Minister Dom Mintoff. Another such guest was the director of id-Dar tal Providenza, House of Providence, a home for adults with special needs. Viewers flooded the studio with calls to donate money to the home. In a single evening, he raised seven thousand dollars—a significant sum in those days. This inspired our dad to host an annual Telethon, which he took on once a year for many decades. During his time producing the Telethon, he helped to raise over half a million dollars. A wing of the House of Providence is named Villa Paola for our grandmother.

Our parents set such a profound example of giving, volunteering, helping others. And, how to make a marriage last. Mom and Dad reminded us of a comedy duo, their banter, their exchanges always lively, always coloured with vivid Maltese expressions. They had social lives far more active than mine – going to dances, meeting friends at the Melita Club, or hanging out with their crew at McDonalds. And whether at home, at a function, or in their living room, if Unchained Melody began to play, they would dance.

In the past few years, our dad came to rely more on our mom for simple tasks – zipping up his jacket, putting on his shoes. Our mom doted on our dad, and there was nothing but adoring appreciation on his face as she did so. A marriage of over sixty years is a remarkable feat worth celebrating. And our mom never stopped remarking about our dad’s full head of beautiful hair.

Dad’s connection to his Maltese roots inspired his kids. For a time, he stepped into the role of President of the Maltese-Canadian Society of Toronto. In March 2006, our dad was invested into the Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem, the Knights of Malta, for his remarkable contributions to the Maltese community.

Those lucky enough to visit Malta with him always got a tour of the Mosta Dome, complete with the history of the bomb that dropped through the structure but did not detonate, capped off by a visit to his favourite pastizzi shop. Those pastizzi were good. Dad’s were better.

And that’s something that stood out about our dad – he could just do anything. Fix anything. Learn anything. He worked as a mechanic for the Toronto Transit Commission but was also a television broadcaster, an organist, a baker, a video technician, a storyteller, a philanthropist, and later, a YouTube star. His mind worked like an engineer’s but also an artist’s. His creativity knew no bounds. He even made his own tools when the ones he had on hand didn’t do the job.

As my brother Steve said, Dad wasn’t just a resourceful guy but a miracle worker, never hesitating to tackle the toughest jobs no one else would touch—and succeeding where no one else could. My sister Carm affectionately recalled the number of times our dad would drop everything to go fix her family cars or malfunctioning appliances. The same held true for his own vehicles, which our mom didn’t particularly love, since it meant he’d keep a car well past its expiration date, like the giant red 1975 Catalina or its replacement, the 93 Intrepid he’d only recently retired. Both cars carried our family on road trips across the US, probably stuffed with more occupants than legal.

1975 Catalina

He loved gadgets. Understanding how something worked fascinated our dad. He saw wonder in the littlest things. Seldom would you see him without a video camera, capturing all the details of the world that surrounded him. Something for which I am now very grateful—a way to hear his voice and see through his lens.

He travelled extensively across the globe and had a keen sense of curiosity and openness. My brother Dave spoke of when Mom and Dad visited him in Japan. He took them to temples, shrines, and festivals. They witnessed a Shinto wedding and a Buddhist funeral. Dad so appreciated drawing similarities between our cultures. When a Buddhist monk blessed a couple’s car, Dad videotaped it and said, “We did the same thing with our car but by a priest!”

Mom and Dad also stayed with Brad and me when we lived in Singapore, and I found great joy in watching him take everything in—he asked questions, marvelled at architecture, drank straight from a coconut, and of course, filmed everything and anything with his camcorder.

Dad took pleasure in small things. A cup of tea over breakfast with Mom. A good slice of pizza. A beautiful strain of music. A little bird hopping on his bench. His heated sweater. And he loved his word searches – I remember his proud declarations every time he’d complete another book of word searches. He’d hold it up and proclaim, “I finished another one.”

Dad was fiercely protective of his family. My brother Lou recalled the day our dad charged into his elementary school office because the principal, a rather cantankerous nun, had wronged my brother terribly. I cannot repeat what Dad said that day, but suffice it to say, the issue was resolved. Each of us has a similar story – indeed, our dad earned his title of Knight.

As the youngest by a decent gap, I had the privilege of having our dad all to myself when my older siblings were in school. He worked nights, but that didn’t stop him from taking me to the park or the “big playground” at “the faraway” McDonalds. He’d sing Yellow Submarine and invent songs about my favourite blue blanket. He’d let me “help” him cook. I’d sit up in the choir loft while he played the organ for Mass. He was a constant, steady presence in my life. He never stifled my big imagination. He told me there was nothing wrong with blue being a girl’s favourite colour or pink being a boy’s. He’d brush my hair and braid it into pigtails. Pick me up from school and make me lunch. I often tell people my dad was an unapologetic feminist.

He poured that same sweetness onto his grandkids, Michael, Catherine, Chris, Hanno, and Agatha, who lit up his world. All have wonderful memories of their nannu, whether watching him bake or clean the swimming pool, or spending time with him in Malta as he excitedly shared his homeland with a new generation. And as my niece Catherine relates, the bond that forged between them forever occurred in Malta, when they were both separately blamed for “the Scottish bag incident of 2007” – though neither was at fault.

Dad also delighted in his role as father-in-law to Steve, Christine, and Brad. He enjoyed taking their sides in poking fun at his birth children. He so loved his many nephews and nieces, proud to be their Uncle Freddie. As my husband said, Dad just had this immense capacity to give – whether insisting he pay for dinner, providing mechanical expertise, making a meal, or simply giving his time. Mr Fenech (Brad always called him Mr Fenech) would spend a weekend making pastizzi for the family. Or pour hours into digitizing old home movies so we could relive our happiest memories. More recently, he discovered a talent for baking tea biscuits. And knowing that we loved them as much as he did, he always sent us home with an entire Tupperware full.

During my last visit with Dad, that’s exactly what he was doing. I can see him so clearly, kneading the dough on the countertop, cutting out the circles, and putting them in the oven to ensure they’d be ready before I left so I could bring some home.

Rest now, Dad, and rest easy. Cruise around in that big, red, 1975 Catalina, stop for a coffee and some pastizzi, a smile on your face and a little laugh in your heart as you watch over us from above.

Mentor. Hero. Pillar. Legend.

You are all of this and so much more. Thank you, Dad. We will always love you.

Alfred “Freddie” Fenech – January 20, 1938 – May 7, 2024

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Marthese

Marthese Fenech is the author of historical novels set in sixteenth-century Malta and Istanbul. Research has taken her to the ancient streets her characters roamed, the fortresses they defended, the seas they sailed, and the dungeons they escaped. Read More

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  1. jumpingbeans222@hotmail.com'Karen Schwartz says

    Mar, your father sounds like a beautiful man. We haven’t known each other for very long, but after reading this tribute, I can see where your kindness and generosity come from. You have a beautiful family. I’m sending you best wishes. Karen

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