Church on his­toric re­sis­tance hill turned into a sanc­tu­ary

Malta Independent - - LIFESTYLE & CULTURE - Joe C. Cor­dina Our Lady of Tas-Samra

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.

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