Posts Tagged ‘Second World War’

  • Take me to church

    “ ‘They have hit our church!’ cried a man as he stumbled down in the tunnel which was located under the Mall Garden. We were huddling in there for shelter together with many other people as the bombs came down over Floriana,” reminisced Pawlu Piscopo who was eight at the time.

    Bombed St Publius' church (Photo provided by Pawlu Piscopo)“At this horrible news, my father grabbed me and my brother by the hand and took us out of the tunnel and over to the granaries where a very sad spectacle awaited us. St Publius’ Church had suffered a direct hit. Its dome was gone and the area was surrounded in rubble. Thirteen people who were taking cover in the church’s crypt were killed and eleven more were injured. That was the blackest moment in the history of the parish church of Floriana: April 28, 1942 at 7:50am.”

    After their house had been bombed, Pawlu’s family were allowed to take some respite in a large residence which today houses the Floriana Local Council. Yet for four years, they lived mostly underground in this tunnel which probably saved their lives. They took with them only a few belongings and the most cherished items, including a statue of St Publius which dated back to 1928 and used to adorn the model altar that his father had constructed at home.

    “Most families in Malta had a model of an altar or a miniature church at home at the time.  Unfortunately, many of these had to be abandoned during the war and a good number of them were destroyed when the houses were bombed.”

    The craft of church model-making had been introduced to our islands by the Knights of St John back in the 16th century, and therefore its knowledge was a distinct tradition. However the adversity of war ravaged even this precious memory until eventually this craft was almost completely forgotten.

    The entrance to Pawlu's model of St Publius' chucrh (Photo provided by Pawlu Piscopo)“After the war, people tried to get on with their lives as best as they could. Shops started to open again but those that used to sell miniature items with which to decorate our religious models, dwindled down to almost none. Nevertheless, the passion for model-making was much engrained in our family and when I bought a miniature structure made of four columns and a dome from a man who was leaving Malta to go to live in Australia, my father Carmelo was inspired to use it as the foundation for a model of St Publius’ church,” explained Pawlu.

    Carmelo was a very skilled carpenter. He would go from time to time to have a look at the church and then go back to his model and construct an exact copy of the section that he had seen.

    “He used the material which was handy at the time, mostly cardboard, wood and gypsum. I helped him out too in order to build the whole church which included ten altars. Eventually, this model reached a huge size of three by four metres and we could walk in it and look above at the beautiful dome,” Pawlu said proudly.

    Once his father grew old, Pawlu continued with the work on this church which they had started back in the early 1960s. As he embellished this model, the wish to set up a group for model-makers in order to share this passion with them, burnt within him.

    Pawlu Piscopo at the exhibition (Photo - Fiona Vella)“On February 26, 1986 which happenned to be the tenth anniversary of my father’s demise, I discussed this idea with two of my friends, Raphael Micallef and Tony Terribile, who were very interested in this sector. We all agreed to do something in order to revive this craft and we sent out adverts in the newspapers to announce the set up of this group which we called Għaqda Dilettanti Mudelli ta’ Knejjes (Church Modelling Society). We were very happy when we received a great response from enthusiastic individuals all over Malta. Soon, a commitee was formed and on March 1986, we organized the first exhibition during the first two weeks of Lent wherein the members displayed the works that they had.”

    It was certainly a great satisfaction to see this society thrive and grow along the years, always adding up new members of various ages. Today, around 400 members form part of this group which operates from its premises at 37, East Street, Valletta.

    John Paul Buhagiar Smith, one of the youngest members of the society, decorating his model-altar (Photo - Fiona Vella)“This year we are delighted to celebrate the 30th anniversary from the establishment of this society,” Pawlu said. “The annual exhibition has been taking place each year. Besides offering the opportunity to showcase our members’ works, this event has served to help our members and the public which visits it, to meditate during the Lent period and to prepare for the Easter celebrations.”

    A bi-monthly magazine, Il-Knisja Tiegħi (My Church), which was also initiated by Pawlu, is marking its 30th anniversary too. Members have been writing features in it related to different aspects of religious folklore, thereby kindling even further interest in model-making.

    Once again this year, the society has organized this exhibition which saw the participation of several of its members. Exhibits varied and included small to large statues of the passion of Christ and Easter, statues of Blessed Mary and several saints, models of altars, church facades and whole churches made of different materials.

    Detail from Pawlu's model dome (1) (Photo provided by Pawlu Piscopo)“I hope that I’ll have enough strength to exhibit my large model of St Publius’ church,” revealed Pawlu at one point. “It takes me four weeks to set it up on a large platform and to connect the miniature chandeliers and light fittings to electricity. I am getting old now and such work is very tiring.”

    Pawlu has been exhibiting this model in a building besides the Floriana Cathecism Museum for many years now, during the feast of St Publius which takes place two weeks after Easter.

    “Many people come to visit my model and they are fascinated with it. Tourists take photos besides it and they ask me how I managed to construct it section by section and yet making it look as a whole. I tell them that there are lifetimes of passion invested within it and that it is imbued with a blend of religious meaning and local traditional skills and creativity.”

    At 82 years, Pawlu is serene and thankful to see the society which he has founded together with his friends strengthen itself and adding members to it.

    “I just wish that it will continue to flourish for very long,” smiled Pawlu as he looked contentedly around him in order to appreciate the beautiful displayed works of the society’s members.

    (This article was published in the Easter Supplement which was issued with The Times of Malta dated 21st March 2016)

    2016.03.21 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK

    450 years ago, the Maltese Islands were in the spotlight of several European sovereigns after they had succeeded to come out victorious from the massive siege that was laid upon them by the powerful Ottoman Empire. Fort St Elmo lay in ruins and the other fortifications and houses which had been targeted by the enemy were in no better shape. The land still seeped in the blood of the thousands who had lost their lives during the fighting, whilst many others remained maimed.

    Amid this devastation, the eminence of the surviving Knights of the Order of St John surged, and their fame reached legendary proportions. Letters of congratulations which they received from all over Europe, uplifted their spirits, whilst generous donations eventually helped them to build the new city of Valletta.

    The Knights of St John continued to rule the Maltese Islands until 1798, when they were ousted by French Military General, Napoleon Bonaparte. Although, some might believe that at this time, the Order was obliterated, in reality, these mythical Hospitallers are still present amongst us, and are as real as ever.

    The Russian Grand Priory of Malta

    Saviour Garcia (photo - Fiona Vella)Since the early years of the Hospitallers’ foundation by Blessed Gerard, the Order protected the faithful and provided aid to the sick and poor. These elements have always remained deeply rooted in the mission of the knights who followed throughout the centuries.

    “Even today, as Knights and Dames of the Russian Grand Priory of Malta who form part of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitallers, under the constitution of the late King Peter II of Yugoslavia, we strive to continue to live up to our motto “Pro Fide, Pro Utilitate Hominum,” declared Chev. Saviour Garcia as we stood in front of a large painting of Blessed Gerard at Palazzino Sapienti in Valletta.

    “Today, the Order’s mission still incorporates the duty to profess the Christian faith. However, its present members are not fighters but humanitarians who swear to act for the common good of all people without distinction of race or religion.”

    Garcia outlined a number of philantropic projects which the Russian Grand Priory of Malta have been taking care of without much pomposity. Amongst these he mentioned St Joseph’s Residential Home for children in Żabbar, Dar Nazareth’s Residential Home for people with disability in Żejtun, and the construction of a hospital and a hostel in Thailand which caters for the needs of dying children with AIDS.

    “The first investiture and the official institution of The Malta Priory took place on March 8, 1964. A few days after, His Majesty King Peter II of Yugoslavia legitimized the Order by giving it a new Constitution to meet 20th century demands. Within the first decades of its existence, The Malta Priory made several notable achievements which ultimately led it to be elevated to Grand Priory by Royal Warrant from King Peter II on Feb 22, 1970. This Royal Warrant gave our Grand Priory the name of Russian Grand Priory of Malta.”

    Palazzino Sapienti, Valletta

    Library at Palazzino Sapienti (Photo - Fiona Vella)Interestingly, it was the same king who donated the sum of 1000 dollars in order to open a fund for the purchase of a large house which was expected to serve as the World Head Quarters of this Order. The choice fell on the prestigious Palazzino Sapienti which today is located at 223, St Paul Street, Valletta, right opposite to the University of Malta Valletta Campus.

    An original letter held at the archives of Palazzino Sapienti that was sent to Czar Paul I by Grand Master Hompesch in 1797, indicates that at the time, the Russians had an interest to involve themselves in the Order. That is why, after the Knights of St John were expelled from Malta, some of them opted to find refuge in St Petersburg, where they elected the Russian Emperor, Paul I, as their Grand Master, thereby replacing Ferdinand von Hompesch who was then held in disgrace and had to abdicate in 1799.

    Prior to its present distinguished function, Palazzino Sapienti had its fair share of interesting history.

    “Whilst researching about the origins of this building, I discovered that its construction was commissioned in the late 16th century by the English Grand Prior of the Order of St. John, Sir Richard Shelley. However, he did not have the opportunity to enjoy his residence for long, since he got into disagreement with the Inquisitor after he failed to present to him his correspondence to the Protestant Queen Elizabeth for censorship, as was the regulation at the time. Soon, matters got worse when Shelley had also a dispute with Grand Master Peter del Monte, and in a diplomatic way, this building was taken away from him after he was offered another property. Instead, Palazzino Sapienti became the residence of Fra Nicolo Sollima, the Collegium Melitense Rector,” revealed Garcia.

    Palazzino Sapienti (Photo - Fiona Vella)“Stone used for the building of the house was quarried on site. Once the building was complete, the resultant small quarry was used as a water cistern and basement. This process of cutting stones directly from Monte Sciberras hurried the process of the building of the new city.”

    “The facade of the palazzino was imposing, having a main door flanked by two others. The main entrance was decorated by a barrel vaulted ceiling, typical of the 16th century. Traces of a blocked arch located under the staircase which leads up to the piano nobile points out that originally, the level of the street was lower than it is today.”

    “On 12th September 1634, a gunpowder magazine located in the whereabouts of the palazzino, blew up, killing 33 persons. The devastated site was left abandoned for thirty years until Grand Master Nicholas Cotoner established the Fondazione Cotoner in order to rebuild the houses in Strada San Paolo. The palazzino had suffered some cracks in the walls and its glass windows were shattered. Some structural changes were done to it, however, this structure was never intended to be built higher than two floors, since it would have been higher than the opposite building and would have cast a shadow on the University’s sundial.”

    “Traces of red paint on the walls show that this building was painted in this colour. Meanwhile, the limestone balcony supports, the internal courtyard and the main staircase were adorned with seashell carvings that represented St John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Order of St. John. The seashell is also representative of the water element, in this case creativity and knowledge, as befits the University Rector’s house.”

    It was a pleasure to explore this palazzino which I had never visited before. In the meantime, Garcia recounted some curiosities about the notable tenents who lived there.

    A room in Palazzino Sapienti (Photo - Fiona Vella)“In 1919, the tenant of Palazzino Sapienti was the lawyer Luigi Camilleri. On 7th June, 1919, Prince Lobanov-Rostovsky and Count Andrey Bobrinsky, both Russian Imperial refugees, were visiting Camilleri at his residence when suddenly the ‘Sette Guigno’ riots broke out. A large crowd made its way to the Royal Malta University and started to attack it, tearing down the English Imperial flag. These two Russian nobles who were witnessing this from the opposite palazzino were scared stiff since the remembrance of the Bolshevik revolution still haunted them. They stayed at the premises till the 12th June when they were escorted back to San Anton Palace in Balzan by Police Superintendent James Frendo Cumbo.”

    “During the Second World War, the premises were used by the British Royal Air Force for the decoding of enemy aerial operations. Palazzino Sapienti survived two enemy bombs which were dropped in the vicinity. Yet tragedy still struck this place when two children, who were attending school in this building after the Valletta school was hit, found their way down a spiral staircase which led to the city’s undergrounds and got lost there. No one ever found them and these stairs have been blocked ever since.”

    Chapel with reliquary of St John the Baptist (Photo - Fiona Vella)Today, this building is also proud to possess three saint reliquaries: a first degree bone fragment from the Order’s Patron Saint St. John the Baptist, and two third degree relics in the form of a throne chair on which St. John Paul II sat during one of his Papal visits to Italy, and a hand signed dedication by Sister Mother Theresa of Calcutta who was also a member of the Order.

    “Besides housing the Seat of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, Knight Hospitaller, Palazzino Sapienti has now opened its doors to the public who might be interested to visit it. Moreover lectures regarding various subjects are organized inside one of its rooms wherein we are also giving the opportunity to university students who would like to present talks about their studies or thesis.”

    Certainly, an invitation to such a prestigious, architectural, and historical gem, should not be missed.

    (This article was published in ‘Focus Valletta’ Suppliment issued with The Times of Malta dated 30 September 2015)

    2015.09.30 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

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