MALTA DIARY: Christian worship in Malta, St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral
Prince Charles in Malta last year made a substantial donation to Cathedral’s restoration fund.
Two decades ago Malta, together with the Republic of Ireland, were classed as being the most staunchly Roman Catholic conservative countries in Europe. In Malta’s case the transition to liberalism came less than a decade ago when the country legalised divorce. The trot to liberalism became a gallop during the last five years with the wholesale adoption of LGBTIQ legislations in which now, Malta is the most advanced in Europe.
There are many indications that St Paul was shipwrecked in Malta at about 60AD, accompanied by the Apostle St Luke. Since then, Malta has been Christian, a chain that was however interrupted for virtually 400 years by the presence of the Arab Caliphate in Malta. During the period, the inhabitants were sparse and possibly harshly dealt with by the conquerors who began habilitating the emptiness themselves.
Obviously, the religion was Islam. All came to an end when in 1127, following an internal rebellion Count Roger of Normandy expelled the Caliphate and began rehabilitating the country with Christian communities mostly coming from Sicily. Since then, Christianity has remained predominant although current statistics highlight a sharp drop in Church attendance and an increase of civil marriages over religious marriages.
No ruins or remains of Arab sojourn have been found because either they built none or otherwise these were completely destroyed by the restoration of Christianity. However, the name of the then capital city Mdina retained its Medina semblance and to the Phoenician Semitic they left the Arabic-based Maltese language existent to the very day.
Contrastingly, there is more evidence of Jewish civilisation, dating back to 1.500 BC when the Phoenicians occupied Malta as a central Mediterranean trading post. With them they brought allied Jews from one of the tribes of Israel who had made a trading pact with the Phoenicians.
A number of Jewish artefacts remain, particularly in catacombs in which Jewish inscriptions remain. These blended in a neighbourly manner with Christians and the catacombs are mixed cemeteries. The friendliness and neighbourly spirit remained until the Inquisition which brought division.
When Valletta was built in 1568, one of the gate entrances was the “Jews’ Gate” which clearly underlined discrimination as Jews could only enter the city via this gate.
However, there is still a presence of Jewish families today and they have their own Synagogue.
There are also clear and existing symbols of various forms of Christian worship which were enabled to exist.
Our Lady of Damascus of the Melkite Greek Rite was constructed by Giovanni Calamia who planned to build two shrines when Valletta was still a new city. These were to glorify two Greek icons which his family brought from Rhodes when the Knights of St John were expelled by the Ottomans and took up tenure in Malta.
The building of one of these churches had already started during his lifetime, but he did not live long to see its completion. He died in Sicily in 1579. The executors of his last will however proceeded with this work and this church was ready in 1580. Seven years afterwards, in 1587, the Damascena Madonna was solemnly transferred from Vittoriosa to the new church at Valletta, where it attracted the devotion of the Maltese people.
In 1637 it is clearly stated that the Maltese held this Greek icon in high esteem. The present ‘Damascena’ church is in Byzantine style and was inaugurated in 1951 to replace the previous building lost to enemy bombing during WWII.
With the emergence of Protestantism in the early 16th Century and the rise of Calvinism, Martin Luther and then Henry VIII and under the influence of the Inquisition, opposition to any form of Protestantism was enormous. Rumours were put about that Protestants killed, cooked and ate children! Ignorance prevailed widely.
However, the arrival of the British in the early 19th Century modified all this and standing outstandingly above these is the Anglican Cathedral dedicated to St Paul in the lower part of Valletta.
This was commissioned in 1838 by Queen Adelaide during a visit to Malta when she discovered there was no place for Anglican civilian worship on the island. It was built between 1839 and 1844.
It was however surrounded in controversy because it was built on the site formerly occupied by the German Langue during the time of the Knights, which building was demolished to make way for the new Cathedral. This certainly did not go down well with the Maltese!
The Cathedral we see today is the original, with its prominent 200-foot steeple and its external classical style features.
This steeple continued to cause controversy over the years because its 200-foot steeple overshadowed the nearby Roman Catholic Church dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The controversy was further highlighted that the Anglican “Tower of Babel” dwarfed the nearby church and from the sea in Marsamxett Harbour, only the spire could be seen.
The irritation filtered down into the mid and late 20th Century and finally it was decided to rebuild the church to have an extremely large dome that would compete with the steeple!
Sadly, time and tide have taken their toll on the Cathedral and it has now fallen into disrepair and needing urgent restoration and renovation.
The Save Valletta Skyline appeal
From an original estimation it is now established this restoration will cost out at €7 million. A Save Valletta Skyline appeal was launched and €5 million has been made available from EU funds, to be paid in stages.
The Prince of Wales and heir to the British Throne, Prince Charles, was in Malta last year and gave a substantial donation, as did British millionaire Cameron Mackintosh who owns a home in Valletta.
Restoration works will take at least three years.
In Valletta too there is also a Scots Church dedicated to St Andrew and is shared by Methodists while there is another Anglican church in Sliema dedicated to the Holy Trinity in Rudolph Street.
In recent years there has also been the introduction of various Christian sects, the largest of which is Jehovah’s Witnesses while in the mid 1970s an Islamic Mosque was constructed in Paola with Libyan funding.
“Untie and let down your hair and come bearing oil”
Be prepared – signs of trouble ahead and it has to be faced and the consequences may not be good so best to pacify with an offering of oil.