The Return of the Statue of Saint Lawrence to Birgu in 1944
– A historical account
The attack on the HMS Illustrious
On Thursday, January 16, 1941, at 1.50 pm, the Maltese islands suffered the first of a long series of bombardments by the German Luftwaffe. These very first air raids were aimed at destroying the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious which had limped into the Grand Harbour some days earlier and was now being tended to at Parlatorio Wharf, below Corradino Hill. It was a ferocious and terrifying attack, the likes of which Malta had never experienced before.
On the sounding of the air raid warning, a few dozens of residents in the maritime town of Birgu, promptly sought shelter inside the sacristy of the church of Saint Lawrence. Several others, amongst whom was Dun Pawl Galea, the then archpriest designate of Birgu, scurried off for shelter inside the belfry, adjacent to the church.
When years later, Dun Pawl was interviewed about his experience, he said that his place of refuge happened to be a mere 40 metres away from where the bomb had exploded. He recalls that he felt a powerful rocking blast and heard a tremendous noise, then he was suddenly engulfed in thick dust that fanned out from the stonework of the bombed sacristy. On emerging from his hiding place he witnessed a horrifying scene. Not only was the sacristy razed to the ground, the Aula Capitularis and the festa furniture repository too were completely reduced to a large heap of rubble. During that air raid the sacristy walls had caved in, trapping more than thirty persons who had sought shelter inside.
The Statue of Saint Lawrence is removed from the church
Thanks to Frans Gatt, a Birgu resident, we have a first-hand account of what happened next. Following the attack, Frans had taken it upon himself to ensure the safe keeping of the statue of Saint Lawrence. What follows is extracted from his article published in the Saint Lawrence Festa Programme booklet, 1988.
‘On that day I was stationed in Valletta and saw with my own eyes the assiduous attack on the Illustrious as it occurred. As soon as the air raid was over I immediately boarded a passenger boat (dgħajsa) and crossed to Birgu. On landing at the jetty I hurried up to reach the parish church situated a stone’s throw away. There, I encountered a motley of volunteers who strove to pull out those buried under the debris of the sacristy. The church dome had been shaken by the blast of the explosion but luckily did not collapse. Plenty of damage had been inflicted however, and many decorative items stored in the festa repository were totally destroyed. Amongst these were a beautiful set of chandeliers, and the titular statue’s artistic wooden pedestal that had been smashed to smithereens. Thankfully, the statue of the patron saint inside the church had escaped destruction.
‘Dumbstruck, I called Geraldu Barbara, a friend of mine and a close collaborator of the parish church. Together we brought out the statue from its showcasing, which is the statue’s permanent place of reverence, and shift it to the altar of the Holy Crucifix. Geraldu and I deliberated for some time what to do with the statue next, in order to protect it further, in case another bombardment occurred. On the spur of the moment, we decided to carry the statue to my own residence at 43, Triq il-Kwartier, as there I knew the statue could be somewhat better protected under a massive vault inside the house. As we made our way, with the statue of Saint Lawrence in tow, many people stopped in their track at the sight and some recited a prayer in front of the effigy.
‘When my father saw us in front of his house with the statue of the patron saint standing near us, he was speechless. He bade us in and immediately lit a candle in front of the statue he so dearly loved. However, we soon realised that it would not be safe to keep the statue anywhere in Birgu. A more secure place of storage was needed, away from Birgu, that would be less susceptible to air raids.The Collegiate Chapter of St Lawrence approached the Benedictine nuns in their cloister in Birgu, to see if the statue could be transferred and stored in their sister-cloister in Mdina for safekeeping. These accepted and so my father, together with a certain Joseph Dalmas and I, loaded the statue onto a truck and off we drove to Mdina’.
Inside the Monastery of Saint Peter, Mdina
Frans Gatt does not mention how long the statue was kept at his residence, but it seems that it was kept there for about a week. This is confirmed by an article in the Leħen is-Sewwa of 24th January, 1941, wherein it was stated that the statue was transported to Mdina on Thursday, 23rd January. On arriving with the statue at Saqqajja, around 2.30 pm, an emotional scene ensued. ‘Although the timing of the transfer of the statue had not been made public, rumours travelled fast and those refugees from Birgu who were staying in Rabat, somehow got wind of the operation. Many emerged from their temporary lodgings to hail the statue, with tears in their eyes. Some approached the statue and planted kisses on it’.
Other sacred and artistic objects too were shifted to the Benedictine cloister in Mdina for safekeeping. These objects were retrieved from beneath the same debris of the sacristy and the surrounding buildings. Amongst the items that were handed over to the nuns were the ostensory that held the relics of Saint Lawrence and the monstrance of the Holy Sacrament, both having luckily escaped the destruction.
The feast of Saint Lawrence throughout the war years
In 1941, the religious celebrations on August 10 the feast of Saint Lawrence were held in two different places: one was held inside the police station at Couvre Porte in Birgu, which at that time was serving as a makeshift chapel to substitute Saint Lawrence parish for religious functions, while the other was held inside the historical and ornate Mdina cloister’s chapel.
On the feast day of Saint Lawrence of , 1942 the statue was transferred to the parish church of Saint Paul in Rabat, where it was set up on the presbytery to be feted. A set of candelabra, and a set of statues of the Apostles and many floral ganutell arrangements were brought over from Birgu and set up on the main altar for the occasion. By August 1943, the threat of enemy action on Malta had diminished considerably and so it was decided that the feast should be somehow celebrated once again in Birgu. In spite of the fact that the Collegiate church of Saint Lawrence had its dome missing – the dome of the church had collapsed April 4, 1942 – the festa’s religious services were held inside the church. A procession in the streets of Birgu was held, using another statue of Saint Lawrence to subsitute the titular one. This other statue belonged to a set of statuary known as San Lawrenz taċ-Ċorma, referring to a particular effigy of Saint Lawrence that was surrounded by other figures. This statuary was normally erected for the feast days on a column in a street close to the church. A military band accompanied the statue throughout the procession.
The Statue of Saint Lawrence is brought back to Birgu
Hardly a month later, Italy surrendered and so the risks of further air raids were practically eliminated. Once the war for Malta was practically over, the parish church was quickly given some superficial overhaul so that it could revert back to its normal functions, albeit without its dome. Yet, the absence of the beloved titular statue was too much to bear. Both the Collegiate Chapter as well as the parishioners were keen to have the statue brought back from Mdina and placed where it belonged as soon as possible.
Eventually, a date was set for the statue to be ceremoniously brought back to Birgu. The date chosen was July 30, 1944, that is, eleven days prior to the feast of Saint Lawrence. It was arranged that the statue would enter Birgu triumphantly in pomp and circumstance, precededby a cortege that would start from the Bormla parish at 5 pm. A petition was sent to the Bormla Collegiate Chapter for the church to serve as the departure point for the pilgrimage. The Bormla Collegiate Chapter readily approved this request and the statue was brought over from Mdina to Bormla, and set up on the pedestal which was normally reserved for the parish’s own statue of Saint Joseph.
A nation-wide announcement was made prior to the day of the pilgrimage to urge all faithful to attend. Indeed, on the day, thousands of people turned up from all over the island for the occasion. In order for one to understand better that which unfolded, it is best to quote from the newspaper reports:
…the church was decorated as befitting the occasion … a huge crowd had congregated from all over the island. The crowds thronged the streets that led from Bormla parish toBirgu.
‘Emotions ran high, as soon as the church bells started pealing joyfully and the statue exited from the Bormla parish, accompanied by the Collegiate Chapter of Saint Lawrence’.
‘The pilgrimage turned into a demonstration of unbridled joy that emanated from the heart and soul of all those present. The continuous applause along the way added to the happy sound of the church bells of Bormla, L-Isla and Birgu. It was an unforgettable and emotional scene for all those who attended’. In his words, the Archbishop of Malta compared the entry of the statue of Saint Lawrence into Birgu to that of Christ entering Jerusalem’. (Il-Berqa, 2, & 9 August, 1944).
This triumphal episode, tainted as it was with the recent tragic events of the war years, is grafted into the history of the maritime town aptly known as Vittoriosa. These episodes tangibly demonstrate the passion and reverence of the faithful towards their patron Saint.
Today, 75 years since the statue of Saint Lawrence was returned to Birgu, it is with great notalgia and devotion towards Saint Lawrence that the people of the Cottonera will commemorate this historic event by holding another pilgrimage on July 30, 2019.
Għandu mnejn jinteressak ukoll dan l-artiklu..
This book deals with the story of Maltese humour since Roman times up to present.
The author tackles humour both on the individual level as well as that which was and is presented in the theatre and on screen. The writer draws from many past and present anecdotal episodes and situations to elucidate on the genral state of the Maltese psyche. Humour is a two way style of communication that sizes up the temperament of both the presenter as well as the receiver of humour.
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Paperback published 2017 Pages: 226 illustrations and photos Available in all libraries please click link below to read more ....
‘Ajjut ….!’ … ‘Help …!’
Frans Gatt was my dearest father. What a brave man he was and so loved St. Lawrence. In Australia every year he would set up his little Statue of St. Lawrence with flowers and candles. Also playing the linu and marches, always with tears in his eyes. Also collected money from other migrants from Vittoriosa to send to the church for flowers etc. He left his belived Vittoriosa for the future of us his four children. Thank you dad. He passed away on 29th December 1991 .
Good to hear from you Carmela … i am glad that the story proved to stir nostalgic family memories…Martin
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