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St Paul's Shipwreck Church
at Valletta

from "The Hidden Gem" by J. Ciarlo'

When the Order of St. John of Jerusalem established itself in Malta in 1530, the capital of the island was the old citadel of Mdina, referred to as Città Notabile by the Aragonese kings of Sicily. The Knights Hospitaller who had by then become an important sea-power, did not occupy the old capital, which lies several kilometres inland; instead they fixed their abode in the little town of Il Borgo, known today as Vittoriosa, which nestled behind Fort St. Angelo, the main castle of the Grand Harbour; it soon became their administrative headquarters since Mdina was considered to be too vulnerable.

The Knights of Jerusalem had been over thirty years in possession of the island, when in 1565 Suleyman, the mighty Turk who earned the title of "the magnificent" for his exploits and personal qualities, sent a great army to seize Malta and to suppress the Order of St. John, which was becoming a serious obstacle to the Ottoman Empire. But the Knights, under the inspiring and brave leadership of their Grandmaster Fra Jean de Ia Valette, a Provencal, heroically resisted the formidable attack of the Turkish army. The shattered and dispirited Ottomans finally left the Island on 13 September, 1565 - a victory still commemorated by the Maltese.

Following the lifting of the siege, the defences of the island were in a very poor state. Members of the Order, fearing another Turkish attack, were in favour of relinquishing the island; La Valette, however, was convinced that the Order should not leave. He was determined to build a new city in Malta, so strong as to defy the powers of the Infidels, and so beautitul as to be a fit abode for the glorious and illustrious Order.

A city is born
La Valette immediately sought the help of Christian Princes and of Pope Pius V to assist him in building a new city. His request was fulfilled and aid came from a number of Christian Kings and Princes in Europe. Pius V was particularly generous: He offered financial help and sent to Malta one of the leading military architects of the 16th century, Francesco Laparelli da Cortona (1521-1571), who had already assisted Michelangelo in St. Peter's, and was the principal architect of Cosimo dei Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Assisted by Gerolomo Cassar, a Maltese, Laparelli soon submitted the plans of the new city. The site chosen for the building of the new city was the rocky Xiberras peninsula, which commands the sheltered ports of Marsamxett and Grand Harbour.

When rumours of another Turkish expedition against the island reached the Order, the Grandmaster immediately directed that the building of the City, together with the necessary repaim and reinforcements to existing fortifications, ramparts and towers to resist and repel any eventual Turkish attack, should be taken in hand without delay.

On Thursday, 28 March, 1566, after an invocation to Almighty God, to the Virgin Mother and the Saints to grant that the work commenced would lead to the prosperity and the happiness of the whole Christian community and bring benefits to the Order, the Grandmaster himself laid the foundation stone of the City, amidst the cheers of the Knights and the people assembled to watch the magnificent spectacle. The Grandmaster wished the new City to be called by his name, and granted for its arms a golden lion on a red shield. Thus Humillima Civitas Vallettae was born.

Soon after the foundation stone was laid, the Xiberras hill became the scene of great activity. Thousands of hands were engaged in digging, building and transporting material. La Valette with determination enlisted the help of all able-bodied workmen in Malta, as well as all available slave labour - local and imported. As the funds made available by the Christian Princes were not enough for such a project, La Valette convinced members of the Order to come forward and help. The local population too, willingly submitted to a new taxation on imported wheat and wine, the money accrued going towards the building of the new City. However, La Valette died in 1568, when the building of the new City was still in its initial stages.

La Valette not only founded the City which still bears his name, but also started off more than two hundred years of great works which when completed, were described as one of the wonders of Europe. After La Valette's death work proceeded rapidly under his immediate successor, Fra Pietro dcl Monte (1568-1572). Valletta grew to be "a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen" as Sir Walter Scott aptly put it. It was built when the Reiiaissance style was at its peak.

With the rapid erection of the City, the number of its inhabitants increased progressively, especially after the Order had transferred its headquarters from Vittoriosa to the new city of Valletta in 1571. The decision of the Order to move to Valletta convinced all that the new City was no idle dream. Consequently, the City not only became a hive of activity with impressive buildings everywhere but also home for a substantial number of people.

In the prevailing circumstances, Grandmaster Del Monte himself petitioned the Church authorities of Mdina to send a priest to Valletta to see to the spiritual welfare of the new residents; subsequently, the Cathedral Chapter of Notabile delegated for the purpose a diocesan priest to carry out pastoral duties to the city's inhabitants. Moreover, the Cathedral Chapter bought a piece of land, on which to build a church at its own expense. For several years until the proposed church was actually built and completed, the priest in charge carried out his pastoral duties in the church of the Carmelite Friars in Valletta itself. It seems that the new church was built on the site where the Jesuits' College was later built.

Very soon after the Cathedral Chapter had acqufred the site, plans for the proposed church were drawn up by the well-known Maltese architect Geronimo Cassar, the building of the church was immediately taken in hand. It was a very simple church, having five altars. In December 1582, on completion of the church, the priest in charge moved from the Carmelite church and took possession of the new parish church, which depended directly on the Cathedral church of Notabile, the seat of the Bishop of the island.

Since early times, there existed on mount Xiberras, where Valletta was built, a small niche dedicated to Saint Paul, to commemorate the miraculous and providential shipwreck of the Apostle on the shores of Malta in AD 60 an event remarkably recorded by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles in chapters 27 and 28. The shipwreck of Paul the Apostle, whom the Maltese dearly call their spiritual father, was always and still is considered by them as the greatest and the noblest episode in their island's chequered history

It was, indeed, fit and proper that the Cathedral Chapter had decreed that the new parish church, from amongst several others which were concurrently being built within the walls of Valletta, should be dedicated to the Shipwreck of St. Paul on the shores of Malta at the dawn of Christianity. This church was to become a national monument and a fitting tribute of the love and devotion of all the Maltese towards St. Paul, the Apostle, who was the instrument chosen by Divine Providence to preach the Word of God and found the Church in Malta, twenty centuries ago.

Not long after its completion, the new church was ceded to the Jesuit Fathers who offered a new site to the parish priest whereon to build a new church. A small church was built in due time. As the City continued to grow, and its population continued to increase, a bigger church was needed, so that the existing one was pulled down and rebuilt on a modified plan. The building of the new church was begun in 1639 and continued over forty years. Grandmasters Jean Paul Lascaris Castellar (1636-57), Nicolas Cotoner (1663-80), Gregorio Carafa (1680-90) and Bishop Laurentius Astirias (1669-78) all contributed large sums of money towards the new project as also did the Università (the local Commune), the clergy and parishioners.

St. Paul's Church present church
The church is 35 metres long and 22 metres wide, and consists of the main nave, which is 9 metres wide, two aisles, the sacristy on the left and the oratory on the right. In the aisles are ten small chapels each having a dome.

A number of pilasters and columns render the internal architecture ionic in style. Originally, the plan showed a Latin cross, but with the addition of the side chapels, it now bears the plan of a patriarchal cross. Behind the main altar is the choir, which is accessible through a small door with a narrow passageway from the sacristy. On entering the church one admires its artistic architecture, the elliptical dome, designed by Lorenzo Gafà, the colourful fresco paintings of Palombi, and the lavish glittering carving decorations.


 











9/5/01 - Malta


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