Church on historic resistance hill turned into a sanctuary
A historic church involved in the uprising of the Maltese against the French 1798-1800, has just been elevated to the grade of Sanctuary. Built in 1630 in the area covered by the parish of St Gaetan in Hamrun, this church is dedicated to Our Lady of Atocia and the icon on the High Altar reflects the image of Our Lady of Atocia, venerated at the Basilica of Atocia in Madrid, Spain.
This church is built on a hill in the oldest part of Hamrun known as of Atocia. Close to it there were palaces some of which still stand but have been turned into apartments by local tenants or have become derelict buildings. Next to this church there is also a World War II shelter which has been recently cleaned up. This area was known as Xaghret Mghewwija but for some time it was known as that of Sancti Nicolai de la Braxkyrie or ta’ Braxia as in 1449 in the same place there was another church dedicated to St Nicholas. Then when Papal investigator Mgr Pietro Duzina visited the place in 1575 he found this chapel to be in a very dire state and ordered that it should be desecrated. Eventually this chapel was pulled down and the present church was later built on the site. It was declared open in 1630 and was dedicated to Our Lady of Atocia which later became to be known as Our Lady of Tas-Samra (the Dark Madonna).
The surroundings of the church and especially the hill on which it had been erected is also considered as a historic site because it was used extensively during the uprising of the Maltese against the French and was the scene of more than one battle between soldiers from the French garrison and the Maltese who had formed themselves into militias. Two cannons which had been embedded in the ground but recently restored and placed in front of the church, attest to the historic background of the site. The hill of Atocia, or as it had become known the hill of tasSamra, because of the Dark Madonna in this chapel had been turned into a make-shift fort complete with barricades and stonewalls inside which were placed canons acquired after fights with the French. Around this sort of fort a ditch had been dug up and was filled with water brought over from the well covered by a tower which formed part of the aqueduct erected by Grandmaster Alof de Wignacourt and which still exists in St Gaetan’s Street just a few metres away. This ditch was unique and the Samra Battery was the only one which had such a line of defence. This battery was a very important strategic point because it had an excellent view of the bastions of Valletta, those of the three cities where the French had blockaded themselves.
One day the French decided to attack the strategic point on Atocia hill. Their plan was to take over this hill so that they could freely proceed forward towards Mdina
through Birkirkara, Ghargur, Naxxar, Mosta and Attard because they knew that the Headquarters of the Maltese Militias was in a Palace known as Dar L-lljuni (today the Ministry of the Environment) at the far end of Strada San Giuseppe which actually led from Valletta to Rabat today still known as St Joseph High road which runs from what is now Sta Venera and through Hamrun to Blata l-Bajda. Somehow they managed to make a foray and managed to arrive within the area of the hill of Atocia. On the way they came across some Maltese peasants who ran away immediately and took refuge in this church. The French arrived in the area and tried to surround the church but the Maltese insurgents manning the Battery which had been set up there were ready for them. The French did not know that this Battery had been strengthened by more guns and the Maltese militia stationed there was armed to their teeth with arms and munitions which craftsmen had created from powder and other material which had been scrounged from here and there. A fierce battle took place as the French called for reinforcements. The Maltese fought like lions and Samra hill stood well the onslaught which at times involved a gun salvo of five hours from the French guns at Floriana. Tradition says that at one time a youth came out of the church holding a stick with a black flag and a cross in the other and crying out “it is better to die then live under French rule”. His cries encouraged the Maltese to fight harder. The black flag was hoisted up to show the French that the Maltese were not afraid to die and the cross was put on top of the church. Meanwhile the Headquarters of the Maltese at Palazzo Leoni at the end of Strada San Giuseppe which at that time was an area attached to what was later to be called Il-Hamrun had seen what was happening and immediately sent a Maltese militia to Atocia Hill. Patriotism and heroic fighting won the day for the Maltese and the French leaving behind dead and wounded scuttled back to the bastions of Valletta. Later with the help of the British, the Maltese finally managed to evict the French out of Malta.
The building of the church and it being dedicated to Our Lady of Atocia also has its own story and significance. This church was built with the money of a certain couple Giuseppi Casauri and his wife Isabel nee Spinaci. It was Isabel who wished that the church be dedicated to Our Lady of whom she was a great devotee because she believed that it was through Our Lady’s intercession that she was saved from certain death. She used to recount how her relatives had told her that when she was just a baby, she had been buried under the debris during the Great Siege of Malta and miraculously she was found alive, her relatives saying that it was their prayers to Our Lady that had saved her and Isabel grew up with a great love for Our Lady. Giuseppi immediately complied with his wife’s wish and himself suggested that they place an icon of Our Lady he had brought from Zarogoza in Spain in 1603 on the high altar of this new church. Giuseppi used to travel a lot especially to Spain because of his business and one day he brought with him a picture on canvas in the form of an icon, which was representative of the image in the form of a statue venerated at the Basilica of Atocia in Spain. The Ecclesiastical Authorities complied with their wish and had this icon placed on the High Altar and dedicated the Church to Our Lady of Atocia. As the face of the Madonna on this icon is black, this Madonna became known as il-Madonna s-Samra, the dark Madonna by locals and the namesake stuck up to this very day giving its name to the church which became also known as Tas-Samra church and also to the area which among locals is known as the hill of Tas-Samra. By time this church developed a certain devotion both among the people of Hamrun as well as with other devotees who came to visit the church from outside this town so much so that it had been bestowed with indulgences by Popes and Bishops among them Pope Sistu V, Pope Clement XIII and Benedict XIII, Bishop of Malta Mgr Gaetano Pace Forno and Archbishop of Malta Mgr Michael Gonzi in 1948.
St Gorg Preca himself, who lived in Hamrun since the age of eight, was greatly connected with this church. In fact as soon as he became a priest he started his pastoral life by working in this church where he set up religious activities helped mainly by a certain Pawlu Mifsud and Ganni Borg who were procurators of the church at that time. St Gorg Preca himself founded the monthly devotion known as the 15th of the month devotion. On this day the church is kept open all day and people come to visit and recite the visit written by St Gorg Preca himself. This consists of the recital of the Glorious mysteries of the Rosary, the recital of the Salve Regina, Our Father and a Hail Mary for the intentions of the Pope, the Litany and a prayer written by St Gorg Preca himself which was given the imprimatur of the Curia, in 1926. The functions on that day continue with solemn High Mass during which the celebrant delivers a panegyric, the blessing with the Blessed Sacrament and the hymn to Our Lady of Tas-Samra. St Gorg Preca himself used to say Solemn High Mass and give a sermon on the 15th of every month up to the time his health permitted. It is said that during a panegyric St Gorg Preca delivered circa the year 1910, he had made a prophecy that this devotion of the visit every 15th of each month will continue to be followed even after his death and in fact has continued up to this date. Along with the setting up of this devotion, St Gorg Preca also set up another tradition which is still being followed today, that of the procession with baby Jesus during the Christmas festivities. The first ever procession in Malta in 1921 was launched as a demonstration with the statue of Baby Jesus in a manger carried shoulder high by boys members of the Societas Doctrinae Cristianae (the M.U.S.E.UM) which he himself had founded and others carrying paper lanterns with words of praise to Baby Jesus. The statue made of papier mache in Lecce Italy used in that first procession belonged to Fr Gorg Preca himself and later was presented to the Church of Our Lady of TasSamra and can still be seen in a small niche on the altar of St Lawrence. During the celebrations for the inception of this church as a sanctuary this statue was taken out of its niche and placed underneath the High Altar and during a Solemn High Mass, H.G. Archbishop Paul Cremona blessed it and took it in procession towards the altar of St Lawrence where it was again placed in the niche for the veneration of the faithful.
Another statue venerated at TasSamra Sanctuary is that of a lifesize figure of Our Lady ascending into Heaven, heads of angels underneath and four lovely statues of Biblical women personalities Judith, Gajell, Esther and Deborah attached to the golden gilded pedestal on which stands the whole statue. On 15 August of every year when this sanctuary, highly decorated for the occasion with elaborate antique decorations and damask, celebrates the feast of Our Lady’s ascension into Heaven, this statue is taken out in procession around the main streets of the area which are also decorated for the occasion.
This sanctuary also has connections with Madre Theresa Nuzzu, foundress of the Congregation of Sisters of the Children of the Sacred Heart of Jesus who not only used to visit and pray in this Sanctuary but also founded a convent next to it. Sisters from this Congregation are greatly involved in functions at this Sanctuary. When Madre Theresa Nuzzu died her remains were interned in this sanctuary on the instructions of the Ecclesiastical Curia
All this devotion and holy traditions, urged the actual rector of the sanctuary, Fr Andrew Borg to suggest that this church should be elevated to the grade of a canctuary. For this purpose contacts were opened with the Basilica of Our Lady of Atocia in Madrid Spain to ask for the spiritual aggregation of this Basilica with the Church of Our Lady of Atocia popularly known as Our Lady of Tas-Samra in Hamrun Malta. On 22 July 2016, Rev Fr Juan Jose de Lastra OP, Prior of the Convent and of the Parish and of the Basilica of Our Lady of Atocia in Madrid, in consultation with the Community of the Order of Dominicans responsible for that church since 1523 and on the advice of Padre Xavier Gomez OP, officially gave the Spiritual Agregation. In civil terms this aggregation is known as twinning between the Basilica of Our Lady of Atocia in Madrid Spain and Tas-Samra Church in Hamrun Malta.
After this step the parish priest of the parish of St Gaetan in Hamrun under whose jurisdiction falls the Tas-Samra Church, Fr Walter Cauchi applied to the Maltese Ecclesiastical Authorities asking that this church be given the status of acanctuary. It is apt to mention that during the celebrations held to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the icon of Our Lady of Atocia in TasSamra Church, H.G. the Archbishop of Malta, Mgr Joseph Mercieca, when replying to the address given by the late Rector Rev. Mgr Canon George Bonello, had called this church a sanctuary, a title which was greatly acclaimed by the faithful present.
The application of the parish priest of St Gaetan’s Fr Walter Cauchi was accepted by the Maltese Ecclesiastical Authorities and a decree by the Archbishop of Malta, H.G. Mgr Charles J. Scicluna announced on 31 August 2016, the church formerly known as that of the Madonna tas-Samra was officially elevated to the grade of a Marian Sanctuary. On 12 September H.G. Mgr Charles J. Scicluna himself led the concelebration at Tas-Samra Church instating this church as a sacred sanctuary of Our Lady. Bringing the ceremony to a close, Fr Andrew Borg thanked Fr Walter Cauchi for his help and support, all the people involved in the running of the Sanctuary among them Twanny Muscat for the upkeep and maintenance, Louis Ciantar acting sacristan and Rita Chrixti as well as Prof. Raymond Mangion B.A.M.A.LLD.PH.D, a historical authority, for his help and speech on the historical background of the sanctuary and all others for their support and help.