The chequered history of a convent and a church
Vetustior Glorior Grajjiet l-Irhieb ta’ Santu Wistin firRabat u l-Imdina Authors: Mark Cauchi and Simon Mercieca C. 1300 - 2000 Published: Horizons Year: 2015 Pages: 540
The Latin title is taken from the church and the convent themselves: I rejoice that I am the oldest.
It has always been a matter of controversy which religious congregation had settled in Malta first. There were times when the controversy became so heated the Pope had to intervene.
At the end, it all boils down, at least according to this book to a straight fight between the Franciscans and the Augustinians.
This book says there was a Conventual Franciscan community even during the life of St Francis and there was an Augustinian community just a few years after the death of St Augustine.
Till some years ago, the Augustinians used to have the letters OESA after their name, the E standing for hermits, which is how the first disciples of Augustine were.
They seem to have settled first in Gozo and there is an area, near Ramla Bay, known as Ta’ Gajdoru which seems to be a broken down version of a hymn dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. The first hermits may have been from St Augustine’s community in Algeria forced out by the Vandals’ invasion at the time of the saint’s death.
Next we hear of the Augustinian friars in Mellieha, around the shrine of the Lady in the cave that still exists today. Then, around 1429, the friars moved to Mdina after an attack by 18,000 Turks or Muslims that depopulated Mellieha.
They seem to have built their convent just outside Mdina. But when the Turks attacked Malta in 1551, the Maltese themselves dismantled the convent and the church so that the building could not be used by the attackers against Mdina. For many years, the Turks were blamed for this.
That attack over, the friars found it hard going to rebuild the convent and the church. It would seem that many who worked land belonging to the community hid or destroyed all notarial evidence regarding the ownership of the land so that it could become theirs.
In time, and through the help of benefactors, the convent and the church were rebuilt. Meanwhile the friars found refuge in the Santo Spirito hospital and the St Nicholas church in Mdina, while the rest went and lived with their families.
After some time, the friars managed to obtain the grand master’s permission to take over the St Mark church, just outside Mdina and settled in and around it.
One must mention here that the community included Marco Gandolfo who together with the Vice-Chancellor of the Order and later Bishop of Malta Royas took part as experts in the Council of Trent. Gandolfo was the only Maltese present at Trent.
Those were the times of the Great Siege, during which no work was done. Once the siege was over, the friars began in earnest to rebuild the church and they chose a person who had just finished studying as an architect and whose family was well-known to the community – Glormu Cassar. The Rabat church, in fact, is one of his earliest works while he later built St John’s in Valletta.
This is the same church that exists today, except for the steeple, which was pulled down after the 1693 earthquake and rebuilt in another style.
Around the church dedicated to St Mark there were some ruins of rooms and the friars began to turn these into a convent but it seems they did so half-heartedly for some began planning to move to St Paul’s Grotto and others to Tal-Virtu’. Some even campaigned to move to Mosta or Zebbug. A friar from Cospicua even persuaded his brethren to move to his home town. But for one reason or another all these plans fell through and the friars remained on the Saqqajja Hill and began the rebuilding of the convent.
There were three applications by architects for the building of the convent and that by Andrea Belli was chosen. He had just completed the façade of the Seminary in Mdina (today the Cathedral Museum) and is also held to have designed the façade of the Auberge de Castile in Valletta.
One of Belli’s masterpieces in the building is the Scala Regia, which may have been the first of its kind in Malta and copied from similar grand staircases on the continent.
The church, originally dedicated to St Augustine but later rededicated to St Mark, has a number of works of art, which the book amply describes. It mentions the very old triptych (originally a polyptych with five panels) which used to hand in the choir behind the main altar and which today has been relegated to the convent but it fails, in my opinion, to give adequate artistic background to what is perhaps one very important pre-knights heritage in Malta.
The FAA, which is restoring it, related it to a triptych in Agira, Sicily, dating to 1430.
The book then describes all the chapels in the church as well as the various confraternities, sodalities etc. related to the church.
From earliest times, the convent was used for State occasions. Grand Master L’Isle Adam rested in the convent on his way from Birgu to Mdina for his enthronement. Other grand masters followed suit and the ceremonies grew grander and grander with triumphal archs erected on the way. When the Order was gone, the bishops replaced the grand master by stopping at the church, changing to pontifical robes and climbing on to a horse for the triumphal entry into Mdina. The tradition was only broken by the late Archbishop Mercieca.
After the Knights, came the French. The story runs that on his last day in Malta, Napoleon was taken to Mdina but one wheel of his carriage broke down. While waiting for the wheel to be repaired, he went to the church where until quite recently there was in the sacristy an armchair which people said Napoleon had sat on it.
After he left, the French began their extortion. They ordered all religious convents to be closed and all religious to be lodged in one house per order. Then they ordered the Augustinians to leave and instead lodged Conventual Franciscans in the building. Then they confiscated all silver, gold, etc. The story goes that a priest hurriedly organised a procession with the ciborium with consecrated hosts to the church of St Paul, emptied it and returned with the empty ciborium to give to the French.
The church was also somehow involved in the riot that began the Maltese insurrection. The church was celebrating, as it still does till this day, the feast of Our Lady of the Girdle (Cintura) and many people had gathered in Rabat for the feast and also to witness the auction of objects taken from the confraternities. But the objects for sale that day happened to belong to the St Joseph Confraternity from the nearby Ta’ Giezu church in Rabat.
The crowd became restive and the French decided to move to the Carmelite church in Mdina to take down the tapestries but a boy began ringing the bell and the crowd attacked the French and threw the commandant down from the balcony.
When the French ended up in the besieged Valletta, the Augustinians tried very hard to get back to their convent but this was not easy because the Franciscans would not leave. It took quite a while and a lot of pressure but finally the Augustinians re-entered their convent on Christmas Eve 1798.
When the British replaced the French, in 1800, they asked to billet some soldiers in the convent, but in this case, according to the book, they were very well behaved.
The British, however, pushed for a quite different situation – they wanted Maltese religious orders to become autonomous, ie not subject any more to a hierarchy in Sicily.
Once again, the convent took in non-religious persons when it took in people during World War II who were refugees from places like Cottonera which were under the full impact of the German blitz.
The book ends with a full description of all statues, etc installed in the church over the past 200 years.
I was quite surprised to read, in the opening pages of the book that the authors were not given permission to do research in the convent’s archive at Rabat.
And I want to point out that the Augustinian archbishop of Pisa, Mgr Paul Micallef, has quite a bad press in Oriana Fallaci’s book Un Cappello pieno di ciliegi where he is described as a sadist torturer of seminarians. But that, objectively, is beyond the scope of the book.