The che­quered his­tory of a con­vent and a church

The Malta Independent on Sunday - - BOOKS - Noel Grima

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.

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