Pilgrims ride high for a wheely special feast
Honking, cheering and bursts of “Viva l-Madonna tal-Grazzja” echoed across the square in front of the Żabbar parish church yesterday as the locality celebrated its patron saint.
With his hands in the air, parish priest Fr Sebastian Caruana welcomed some 7,000 cyclists and bikers who, for three long hours, rode in the scorching sun behind a truck carrying a picture of Our Lady of Graces.
Fr Caruana compared the pilgrimage to real life: some riders took a shorter route or ran out of breath and others followed the picture devotedly.
The pilgrimage has been held since 1951, soon after the Vatican pronounced Our Lady of Graces as patron of roads upon a request by cyclists in northern Italy.
And it has been growing since then, said Tarcisio Magri, secretary of the organising committee.
Mr Magri, 73, started taking part when he was just 12.
Five years later, he began to help organise the pilgrimage and has driven the van carrying the picture of Our Lady of Graces since. He believes most of the riders participate year after year out of devotion.
“I remember an incident some three years ago when a man suddenly started swearing heavily because someone had picked on him.
“When I asked him if he was joining the pilgrimage and whether he knew what the ride was all about, he hugged me tightly and, with tears in his eyes, told me he had turned up because he believed Our Lady of Graces could help him cut down on the swearing,” Mr Magri recounts.
The riders started from two different localities. Cyclists left Rabat at 9.30am and motorbike riders took off from Mosta about 15 minutes later. But they made it to Żabbar as one crowd by 12.30pm to the singing of Marianne prayers.
Some riders extended the ride to Żabbar from as far as Mellieħa, “all in devotion to Our Lady of Graces because no one can do what she’s done for us”.
Pilgrims have been flocking to Żabbar since the late 15th century when devotees would head to a small rural chapel there, the only one on the island dedicated to Mary, Mother of Grace.
Historian and former teacher Carmel Bonavia, 83, remembers people heading to Żabbar on foot or on a horse-drawn cart to celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Graces.
In 1951, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Malta, Michael Gonzi, crowned the miraculous image of Our Lady of Graces and local feast organisers started holding the motorbike and bicycle pilgrimage, which turned into a national event.
Żabbar is one of the largest localities in Malta, with a population of more than 15,000.
It originally formed part of Żejtun and became officially recognised as a parish in 1615. The Sanctuary, dedicated to Our Lady of Graces, started being built in 1641.