The princess saint and the philosophers
One of Malta’s oldest parishes, Żurrieq, yesterday celebrated its patron saint, Catherine of Alexandria
The church clock has barely chimed 9am and the church parvis is already crowded with men of all ages, discussing yesterday’s traffic accidents and today’s weather forecast.
An old man with a toothless grin and kind eyes, sitting in the shade cast by a statue pedestal, holds up a glass brimming with a pale brownish liquid and offers some tea.
“I can tell you’re not from around here,” he says, when his offer is declined. “But everyone’s welcome in this town... especially during the week of the feast,” he smiles.
The Żurrieq St Catherine celebrations are known for the thousands of people that flock to the town to feast their eyes on the work carried out by hundreds of volunteers that dress up the town in festive colours.
The square to the left of the parish church is bustling with activity as ornaments used during the previous night’s celebrations are packed away, making way for new ones.
Joseph Mangion, 46, an active member of the St Catherine’s Musical Society, says the town’s devotion to the patron saint goes back hundreds of years, most probably to the time when the Byzantines landed on the island.
When Bishop Senatore de Mello was commissioned to do an inventory of the parish churches found in Malta in 1436, he made reference to a chapel dedicated to St Catherine.
But seeing the continuous increase in population, work on a much larger parish church started in 1632. Although the building was finished 25 years later, the church was altered throughout the years until 1907.
Today, it houses six Mattia Preti paintings and a 200-year-old titular statue which had been sponsored by the residents themselves.
Mr Mangion says the neo-classical statue cost 700 skud, and those who could not afford a donation gave a chicken instead.
The devotion to St Catherine echoes through every crevice of the quiet rural town. According to a 16th century inventory, girls were already being called after the patron saint.
Catherine was a princess and noted scholar who converted to Christianity as a teenager and then converted hundreds of others.
It is said that when she attempted to convince Roman Emperor Maxentius that he was morally wrong to persecute Christians, the emperor arranged for a plethora of the best pagan philosophers to dispute with her, but Catherine won the debate and managed to convert all of them to Christianity.
Catherine even managed to convert the empress, and Maxentius tried to win her over by a marriage proposal. But when she declared that her spouse was Jesus Christ, the emperor condemned Catherine to death on the spiked breaking wheel.
As legend has it, Catherine was beheaded after the wheel was miraculously destroyed in answer to her prayers.
Some 1,700 years later, Żurrieq remembers the dispute as parishioners lift a statue of Catherine in the square which is already lined with statues of philosophers, depicted as if they are taking part in a discussion.
At the other end of the square is another treasured decoration: a 200-year-old triumphal arch that was used until World War II and which was restored and set up again last year.
The villagers’ dedication is also reflected in the work that went into building the 1956 golden band stand. The detailed bronze and ferro battuto handrail was cast by former dockyard workers who were also members of the St Catherine’s Musical Society that was set up in 1864.