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Will you find any place more devoted to Mary than this Mediterranean island?

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Jean Pierre Fava - Malta Tourism Authority - published on 08/15/22

It helps that St. Luke himself may have told the islanders of Malta about Mary. They've loved her fervently for 2,000 years, particularly as Our Lady of the Assumption.

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Perhaps you may happen to know the Maltese Archipelago for its stunning coastline, its reputation as a diving hotspot, or its famous festas. But Malta is best known for its millennial Marian devotion, and is also home to several Marian shrines recognized for being miraculous.

The fact that St. Luke shipwrecked with Paul in Malta in AD60 [Acts 27, 28] might explain why both historical artifacts and oral traditions provide evidence of a very early Marian devotion, spread throughout these islands. Luke’s Gospel is the most Marian of them all and is brimming with the seeds of what would later grow into full Mariological, theological developments. In fact, Maltese traditions hold that it is likely that Luke spoke to the islanders about the Mother of the Savior. 

It is equally probable that this ancient and deep Marian devotion stems from the Byzantine occupation between the 5th and 9th centuries of the Christian era. It is a historical fact, proved by impeachable documentary and architectural evidence, that special and intensive devotion to the Blessed Virgin was one of the chief characteristics of the Christian Orthodox Church and society.

During the First Crusade, Bishop Adhemar, the Papal Legate, wrote that it is almost impossible to visit a Byzantine church or monastery and not find an icon dedicated to the Theotokos (The God Bearer; in Latin Mater Dei – Mother of God). So, it is plausible too, that the Orthodox Byzantines brought with them the Marian devotion that had entered the souls of the inhabitants. In the 5th century, that is during the early Christian era, the Orthodox Byzantines had also erected a Basilica at the Tas-Silġ site in Marsaxlokk.

The many different chapels found throughout the Maltese landscape are also evidence that Malta was, from the beginning, a center of unambiguous Marian devotion. In the Maltese archipelago there are enough churches, small and big, for one to be able to attend Mass in a different knisja (Maltese for church), almost every day, throughout a whole year: an impressive 359 in total, most of which (over 200) are dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Some of them are Marian sanctuaries known for being places where countless special, miraculous graces have been granted to many throughout the centuries.

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The Hodegetria Icon at the Mellieha National 
Marian Shrine | Courtesy of Atelier del Restauro

The Assumption, patroness of the Archipelago

Devotional life in Malta has always given special prominence to the Assumption. Indeed, it is the advocation by which the Blessed Virgin Mary is the patroness of the Islands. In Malta she is known as Santa Marija Assunta (or just Santa Marija) – St. Mary of the Assumption. Santa Marija has always been the most popular feast and fount of widespread devotion. Its early origins however are difficult to trace. While the Assumption into Heaven of Mary was only declared a Dogma of the Catholic Faith by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950, the devotion has enjoyed considerable prominence in Christian tradition since time immemorial both in Eastern and in Western Christendom, and has been for many centuries commemorated on August 15. 

Some churches dedicated to the Assumption were already very old when Mgr. Pietro Dusina did his Apostolic visit in the island in 1575. By the year 1800, Malta had 92 dedicated churches and 22 altars. Also, it was an age-old tradition to have more than one altar for the same title. But how many of these numerous medieval churches and chapels survived? Not many, since most were neglected and were very likely profaned canonically. Along the years about 50 churches were lost, not including those whose title was changed. Among the lost chapels is the chapel of Santa Marija Assunta on Filfla (an islet of just 0.023sq mi, 2.8 miles south of Malta); while among the survivors, there is the Santa Marija Chapel of Kemmuna, which is already mentioned in 1274 documents. 

So, for centuries the Assumption was literally in every corner of the Maltese archipelago. Notwithstanding changes and transitions, today, the Assunta is still the Patroness of the people of the Maltese Islands and resides in the profoundness of their hearts. Indeed, we have today nine parishes in Malta (Attard, Birkirkara, Dingli, Gudja, Għaxaq, Mġarr, Mosta, Mqabba, and Qrendi) and two in Gozo (Victoria and Żebbuġ) whose main feast is Santa Marija Assunta – celebrated on August 15 or a close date. 

Both the ancient National Marian Shrine of Gozo, the Madonna Ta’ Pinu Sanctuary, and the Cathedral of Gozo, in Victoria, are dedicated to the Assumption. A centuries-old tradition recorded by the Gozitan historian De Soldanis, in the mid-18th century, relates how the Gozitans, soon after the shipwreck of St. Paul in Malta, dedicated their principal Roman pagan temple to the Blessed Virgin. The account may not be 100% accurate, but it contains a lot of truth. Indeed, during the building of the present cathedral church (1697 – 1711), abundant archaeological remains of a temple dedicated to Juno dating from c. 27 BC were unearthed. The area had been the site of a church dedicated to the Assumption since Antiquity. In 1435, the said church was already the matrice or major church for the whole island of Gozo.

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Titular statue of the Gozo Cathedral of the Assumption | Courtesy of VisitGozo

Graces granted 200 years apart

Following are the stories of two beautiful chapels built as votive offerings, for graces granted by the Blessed Virgin to two young women, two centuries apart – both under the mantle of the Assumption.

A severe disease is cured (The Sanctuary of the Assumption of taż-Żellieqa)

A lovely little church dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady is found at the limits of Għargħur, generally known as taż-Żellieqa (Maltese for slippery). It earned this sobriquet because when it was first built in the 16th century, the road was in a bad state. People also called it thus to distinguish it from a nearby small chapel, also dedicated to the Assumption. Tradition has it that this church was built on the site where the Blessed Virgin appeared to a young village woman in 1560 and cured her from a severe disease.

To show her gratitude, the healed youngster built this church and dedicated it to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into Heaven (to Santa Marija). This happening was also mentioned by Mgr. Pietro Dusina in the report of his pastoral visit in Għargħur in 1575. The pope’s representative also indicated that during his Malta visit the woman was still alive, however, he did not mention her name or the date of the apparition.

The church we find today is not the original, since throughout the years the devotion towards the Madonna and this church kept growing. In fact, a larger structure was built in 1650. This is also indicated through what is written in the book Malta Illustrata (An Illustration of Malta – written by Commendatore Fra Gian Francesco Abela and updated by Count Gian Antonio Ciantar), in 1772:

In the narrow path towards this parish [Għargħur parish] there is a church dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin; inhabitants from across the island visit this church, not only for the church itself, but they come with great frequency for the devotion they have and for, as tradition remains, the miraculous apparition, in this blessed site, of the Glorious Mother of God to a sick young virgin, to cure her infirmity, which is expressly mentioned in the visit of Mgr. Dusina”[Translated from Italian]

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Santa Marijataż-Żellieqa Sanctuary in 1955 | Photo from Santa Marijataż-Żellieqa Community

The Maltese people have always had a great devotion for this sanctuary. Chev. Achille Ferres mentions this devotion when writing about this church in 1866. In addition, some bishops left documents that shed more light on the devotion held by our ancestors towards Holy Mary, venerated here where She appeared. An indulgence of 200 days is also granted to anyone who prays the Salve Regina before the holy image found in the church.

In 1950, on the proclamation of the Dogma of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, after obtaining permission from the Metropolitan Archbishop Mgr. Michael Gonzi, two marble tablets were affixed to the façade of the church, one in Latin and the other in Maltese. These denote Mgr. Dusina’s words in reminiscence of the prodigious event, which gave rise to the building of this church, and of the devotion of the Maltese to this sanctuary. 

The titular painting is a magnificent work of art by the Maltese painter Rocco Buhagiar, depicting the Madonna’s heavenly assumption body and soul (this painting is currently undergoing restoration).

The church also holds two antique paintings – one of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the other of the Annunciation – brought from the parish church, besides another work painted by artist Chev. Emvin Cremona in 1962, depicting the apparition of Our Lady to the unknown youngster.

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The Apparition of Our Lady by Chev. Emvin Cremona, after restoration 
by Restawr Arti in 2021 | Courtesy of Restawr Arti

Although the devotion towards this sanctuary may have declined in the present day, the people of Għargħur and its surroundings continue to preserve it with deep love and great devoutness. Many make pledges and several others continue to present their babies in the church with special affection to Our Lady, Mother of Jesus. Devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary is also preserved through the celebration of Holy Mass on the first Saturday of the month. Very recently Fr. Christopher Galea, the parish priest of Għargħur, commissioned restoration and conservation works of the building and the paintings housed in this little gem. The restoration of the church was inaugurated on August 26, 2021; while the restoration of the paintings by Restawr Arti commenced in 2020 and is ongoing.

Rescued from pirates – The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Good Hope, Mosta (Under the Mosta Parish of the Assumption)

The filial church dedicated to Our Lady of Good Hope (or Our Lady Hope of Christians) is situated in a valley which takes its name from this church – the Valley of Good Hope, in the limits of Mosta (Maltese: Il-Wied tal-Isperanza)

Mosta is a town where devotion to the Assumption goes back many centuries. Reports of apostolic visits show that this devotion was already quite fervent in the 16th century. Mosta has the most renowned and largest parish church dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – the Mosta Dome Church popularly known as the Rotunda (the main structure was begun in 1833 and completed in 1860). A minor basilica since 2018, it is perhaps the most monumental church in Malta, with its massive unsupported cupola that is one of the largest in the world. The way this church was built also shows the love that the Mostin have always had for Santa Marija. At the time of the building of this gigantic church, there only lived in Mosta a small number of inhabitants, mostly peasants and poor.

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Painting of Our Lady of Good Hope Chapel in the Valley of Good Hope in Mosta by Anthony Calleja, 2012 | Courtesy of Anthony Calleja

However, the locals did their best while experiencing great hardships to build this massive church, doing so for the love of Our Lady. It is very hard to imagine that for 27 years these villagers forfeited living decently with the little they earned. Instead, they used their little savings, over and over, until the Rotunda was completed, giving their work for free, seven days a week. Indeed, the actual construction of the Rotunda is a miracle of human effort and dedication. Building such an imposing church in Malta during those times, in a small village of “no importance,” is a touch from the Divine.

The story of the legendry church of Our Lady of Good Hope begins in the cave beneath it. Tradition says that around 1750, a peasant family from Mosta who were working in fields close to the village saw a party of Barbary corsairs approaching them. During those times assaults by pirates were commonplace. They stole whatever they found on their way and took people into slavery. So, the only thing these poor farmers could do was flee for protection towards Mosta. While the others reached the village, one of them, a young woman in her early 20s, could not keep up with the rest of her siblings as she was lame. With the corsairs at her heels, the poor woman saw a cave and entered, hoping to hide from her persecutors. The terrified girl huddle inside the cave and prayed to Our Lady for protection and deliverance. She promised to build a church on the cave where she was hiding if the pirates did not find her.   

The Barbary corsairs arrived hastily to the place where they had last seen her and suspected that she may have hidden among the surrounding rocks and boulders. They searched everywhere because a young female fetched a good price in the North African slave-market. They passed the cave where the girl was hiding, and seeing that the whole entrance was blocked by a cobweb, they thought that no one could have entered there without damaging that spider’s mesh. Indeed, as soon as the girl had entered the cave a spider had spun a net across the whole entrance. When the Barbary pirates saw that their search was all in vain, they returned to their vessel empty-handed and prepared to sail off — since they were also worried about a possible counterattack by the Mosta inhabitants.

As time passed and the frightened girl heard no noises outside, breathlessly she emerged from the cave and hurried back to her family. As thanksgiving to God and to Our Lady, she wanted a church to be built in the place where she had evaded her captures, so that her story would be remembered. Her desire was fulfilled, and the church was built over the cave, as it still stands today.

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The cave beneath the chapel of Our Lady of Good Hope | Courtesy of the Mosta Parish of the Assumption

The Church of Our Lady of Good Hope was erected around 1757. Above the façade there is a coat of arms with the monogram of the Nome di Maria (Italian for Name of Mary), and the letters A and M for Ave Maria. The façade also holds the statues of St. Joseph and St. Anthony of Padua flanking on each side a statue of the Madonna holding her son Jesus, who has an anchor in his hand – symbolizing Hope (Maltese: Speranza / Tama).

The titular painting is the work of the Maltese artist Rocco Buhagiar and depicts Our Lady holding her son Jesus. In the lower part of the painting there is a galleon struggling in a storm, denoting Our Lady as the hope of sailors. Another painting in the church depicting Our Lady of Good Hope is by Raffaele Bonnici Calì and shows the Madonna holding her son Jesus who has an anchor in his left hand. The titular statue is the work of Gerolamo Dingli.

On the right-hand side of the parvis, a staircase leads to the legendary cave. This is situated under the parvis itself, and here one finds a small niche with a stone statue of St. Michael the Archangel triumphant over the devil, placed on top of the entrance to the cave.

In 1896 the cave was embellished with sculptors of the girl kneeling before the Madonna who holds the Child Jesus. On 23 June 1914, the Bishop of Malta conceded a 100-day indulgence to those who recited the Salve Regina before this image. 

Many pilgrims and ailing people have travelled to this Marian sanctuary to plead for healing. Indeed, the sacristy and the cave itself house numerous ex votos. These are testimony of the gratitude for graces granted to those who beseeched Our Lady. The letters V.F.G.A. accompanying the ex votos stand for votum fecit et gratiam accepit, (a vow was made, and a favour was received). Indeed, this Marian shrine has given comfort to so many in need. 

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Altar area of the chapel | Courtesy of the Mosta Parish of the Assumption

I would like to heartfully thank Fr. Christopher Galea (Parish Priest of Għargħur), Comm. Prof. George Cassar (from the Institute of Tourism, Travel and Culture – University of Malta) and Mr. Giovanni Chetcuti (Director of the Mosta Parish), for their invaluable help in providing information and images which made this article possible.

References

Pace F. Il-Gargur – In-Nies u il-Knejjes Tiegħu (The Village of Għargħur – Its People and Churches). Commissioned by the Għargħur Local Council, 2000

Brincat J. L-Assunzjoni taż-Żellieqa, Għargħur(The Assumption of Żellieqa, Għargħur). Kappelli Maltin (Maltese Chapels)

Busuttil R. Il-Knisja tal-Madonna tal-Isperanza, Mosta (The Church of Our Lady of Good Hope, Mosta). Kappelli Maltin (Maltese Chapels)

You can learn more about Malta, its spirituality, and its traditions, by visiting our dedicated Malta Page here.

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