‘I never missed the feast day in 91 years’
The statue of St Helen may be 175 years old but it still is up for a race.
As the traditional morning procession reached the parish square in Birkirkara, the statue bearers flexed their shoulder muscles and, in a concerted effort, sped up the steps of the parvis holding it up high.
The run was met with euphoric jubilation by the thousands of Karkariżi gathered in the pjazza, singing along with the band playing the anthem marking the saint as “the chosen one”.
The heat – it was 33°C yesterday – did nothing to stifle the people’s enthusiasm.
They stood shoulder to shoulder, in their Sunday best – suits, heels and gold jewellery – vying for the best spot to see the effigy of their beloved patron saint.
“I would never miss this for anything,” said Elena Fenech, 67, who prays to her namesake every day.
The large wooden statue carved by master-sculptor Salvu Psaila is the pride of the Karkariżi.
“Make sure you write down that we have the most impressive statue in the world,” said Marlyn Camilleri, 57.
She fanned herself in an attempt to ward off the heat as she proudly pointed out it is the only feast in Malta where the procession is held in the morning. “We want to be original,” she joked.
The procession leaves the basilica at exactly 8 a.m. and returns to a jam-packed church at 10.45 a.m.
As the procession reached the square, John Muscat, 74, barely took his eyes off the statue.
“We are so lucky to have such a beautiful feast. I can’t even bring myself to talk to you about it because I get all emotional,” he said, his eyes welling up.
Perhaps the oldest in the congregation was Vincent Grech. In all of his 91 years he never missed the feast day.
“Even as a baby, my mother brought me here. You will always find me here to celebrate the feast of St Helen,” he said, flanked by his two daughters, who are equally passionate about the event.
Mr Grech recalled the day that the largest bell on the island was installed in the belfry in 1932: “They gave us a day off school to come and watch it being put in place. I still remember it to this day.”
Some years later he was appointed as one of the bell ringers, which he said, “was an honour”.
Most of the people approached seemed to agree that the love of the feast is inherited.
Paul Buhagiar, secretary of the feast committee, was busy directing the procession, aided by his five-year old son who was testing his walkie-talkie.
“Our love of the feast is passed down from generation to the next. That’s why it means so much to us,” he said. As if on cue, little Jean-Pierre squeezed his father’s hand and said: “I’m a Karkariż and I love St Helen!”
For David Borg, 33, who is involved in the street decoration, the feast is the be-all and end-all.
“I live for the feast all year long. It means everything to me,” he said.
Will he feel the void in the evening when it is all over?
“We’ll start packing up but for us the important thing is that everything goes well.”