A great book about a little church
David Mallia: The Church of St Cecilia in the Island of Gozo, Wirt Għawdex, 2012, 56pp. €10
A heritage jewel, eagerly flirting with extinction, has been saved. St Cecilia in Gozo was a stretcher case and has now rejuvenated, with a new lease of life that may well see it through more centuries yet.
David Mallia has just published a full and detailed study of this ancient shrine, its locality, its history, its agony, its future. He has consulted every scrap available in manuscript and in print, but has also given the stones a voice to tell their story. Stones are mute, but turn eloquent with those whose soul is trained to listen to silence.
Weighty professional research, beautified by Daniel Cilia’s, as ever, dazzling photography.
Santa Cecilie del Mugiarro is documented since 1424, a hundred years before the Order of St John lost Rhodes to the Ottomans. But it may well be considerably earlier. So far it has been impossible to identify the date of construction of the present, or of other cult structures which may have preceded it (most pre-1551 documents relating to Gozo have perished).
Vigour and illness, love and rejection, liturgy and desecration, peaks and troughs have left profound imprints, including an episode of daft, criminal arson in 2007, the moment the church was protected by scheduling as a Grade A building.
Two years after the blighting fires, work began in earnest on its regeneration. Now, thanks to Wirt Għawdex, together with some public and private sector sponsors, the historic fabric is facing yet another moment of resurrection.
This unpretentious vernacular structure, never seduced by baroque flair nor by any ambition to turn into a drama queen (other churches did that, with different degrees of success), witnessed everything that went on in Gozo, experiencing times of major tragedy, savagery and endless tears. But it survived to be reborn.
The restoration team seem to have followed only one objective: to respect the healthiest canons of conservation and restoration – love and deference going hand in hand, to confound those who do not believe in miracles. They have done wondrous things to redeem this ancient chapel.
And so has Dr Mallia in researching and recording. St Cecilia church found an enthusiastic biographer in Dr Mallia, and in Daniel Cilia its most flattering portrait painter.
May Wirt Għawdex also find the right inspiration and support to put this resurrected marvel to the finest cultural uses, that it may stand, for many future generations, as another symbol of continuity, of Christian identity, and of a myriad humble triumphs of the spirit.