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Senglea’s church of Our Lady of Porto Salvo

Prior to its foundation by Grand Master Claude de la Sengle in 1554, the land on which Senglea was built was mainly used by hunters. This explains the presence of the earliest known church built there, that dedicated to St Julian, the patron saint of hunters.

It was first erected in 1311, then rebuilt in 1539 by the Portuguese knight Fra Diego Perez de Malfreire, and finally built on the design of Lorenzo Gafà, which was completed in 1712. In 1575, before the building of the parish church proper, this church became the vice-parish of Vittoriosa.

Foremost among the churches in Senglea is its parish church, which was completed in 1581, and declared a parish prior to March 11 of that same year. Following its consecration on October 20, 1743, by Bishop Alpheran de Bussan, Pope Pius VI issued the bull for the erection of the collegiate on May 21, 1786. It was elevated to the status of a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XV on January 3, 1921.

After its reconstruction following the destruction of World War II, it was consecrated anew by Archbishop Michael Gonzi on August 24, 1957.

In 1596, Senglea witnessed the building of a third church, this time at the far end of the peninsula. It was the Porto Salvo church, which is the subject of this feature. It was built on the initiative of Fr Vincenzo Caruana, Senglea’s second parish priest, who was very anxious to see this project accomplished so that parishioners who lived on ‘the height of the mill’ (as the area was known in those days) would be easily reached and assisted in their spiritual needs.

This new church was dedicated to Our Lady of Porto Salvo (the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St Elizabeth) a name that definitely means much to sailors, boatmen, and those who earned their living from the sea​​. In fact, a good number of local mariners contributed towards the building.

The church was large enough to host four side altars, besides the main altar. These four altars were dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, St Andrew, St Leonard and St Anthony of Padua. On September 12, 1596, Bishop Tommaso Gargallo chose Fr Leonardo Felici as the first rector of this new church.

Around 1625, boat races were organised by local barklori (ferrymen) and sajjieda (port fishermen) as part of the external festivities of the Visitation of Our Lady, held annually on July 2. The rector of the church of Porto Salvo, after watching the boats from near Torre d’Orsi (Ricasoli Point) and giving the starting signal by firing a petard, used to distribute prizes in the form of a palio (a flag generally made of linen) to the winners of each category on the church parvis, overlooking Grand Harbour.

Around 1655, Fr Domenico Attard, Senglea’s fifth parish priest, built a small house next to the church. His aim was to facilitate encounters with those living in that area of his parish, which in those days was a quite popular, albeit neglected quarter.

Fr Simon Schembri in a portrait in the church’s sacristy. Photo: Victor Caruana. Right: The titular painting of Our Lady of Porto Salvo by Stefano Erardi. Photo courtesy Porto Salvo churchFr Simon Schembri in a portrait in the church’s sacristy. Photo: Victor Caruana. Right: The titular painting of Our Lady of Porto Salvo by Stefano Erardi. Photo courtesy Porto Salvo church

In 1661, two priests – Fr Gio. Simone Schembri and Fr Evangelista Gandolfo – and two deacons – Giuseppe Lamagna and Orazio Mifsud – all natives of Senglea, submitted a request to Bishop Miguel Balaguer, expressing their desire to live in a community under the rules established by St Philip Neri for the Oratorians in Rome.

For their own spiritual needs and to be of service to the parishioners, they asked him to hand over to them Porto Salvo church, together with the small house and a piece of land next to it. They promised to expand the church and to give the house the character of a convent and pledged to finance most, indeed almost all, of the necessary expenses out of their own pockets.

Eventually, the bishop gave his consent to their supplication and March 28, 1662, marked the beginning of the Oratorians of St Philip Neri in Senglea. The first provost (superior) of the Oratorians was Fr Schembri.

On entering or leaving port, mariners used to pay their respects to the statue with the firing of petards, while the church’s bells were tolled to acknowledge their salute

The Oratorians of St Philip were not monks. They did not even take the monastic vows of poverty and obedience. Like diocesan priests, they merely promised their obedience to the bishop. Nonetheless, they lived a community life dedicated mainly to prayer, study and the apostolate. The bishop had the right to transfer them to whereever he felt the need in the diocese. As a result, they never grew in number as a congregation.

From the start, the Oratorians wholeheartedly devoted themselves to spiritual retreats, spiritual direction, confessions and preaching. The people of the area appreciated their presence and were so drawn to the church that over time, since it was in the care of the Oratorians of St Philip, its dedication to Our Lady of Porto Salvo was forgotten and it became commonly known as the church of St Philip Neri.

In 1669, the small house was demolished and a convent with a middle courtyard surrounded by an arcade in the form of a cloister, was built on the same ground. This is the same convent we can see today. While the convent was being built, the Oratorians decided to include a large beautiful statue of their patron in the facade.

In 1670, they also demolished the old church and rebuilt it under the supervision of the Senglea-born architect Carlo Vella. This church was designed in the shape of a Latin cross. The four altars, all adorned by unique front ele­vations and placed in the main aisle, were dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, St John the Baptist, St Leonard and St Michael. The main altar on the right transept was dedicated to St Philip Neri and that on the left was dedicated to St Andrew. Due to the plague (1675-1676), construction took until until almost 1690.

Towards the end of the 17th century, when the church was near completion, a large stone statue of the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus was placed in a central niche in the upper part of the church’s façade. This statue, facing the Grand Harbour, has always been coloured white and set against a blue background so that it would be clearly visible from afar. In fact, on entering or leaving port, mariners used to pay their respects to the statue with the firing of petards, while the church’s bells were tolled to acknowledge their salute.

The new church of Our Lady of Porto Salvo was consecrated by Bishop Vincenzo Labini on April 22, 1781. Although the Oratorians took great care of the church and the convent, the chief responsibility for the administration of both fell under the archpriest pro tempore of Senglea.

The Grand Harbour continued to host the previously mentioned boat races, this time organised by the Oratorians. The races were by now held on a bigger scale. Unfortunately, there were times when expenses increased to such an extent that it became impossible to the church’s rector to continue organising the races.

Bishop Davide Cocco Palmieri, after being consulted about the matter, encouraged the con­tinuation of these races due to their popularity among the locals and to carry on the tradition. In due course, the Oratorians continued to organise the races but not on a regular basis.

Eventually, the parish itself stepped in, and took upon itself the responsibility for organising the races. Documents attest that since 1822, instead of on July 2, they started to be held on September 8, feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the parish’s titular feast. However, once again financial difficulties cropped up. It was at this point that the government stepped in and continued to organise these races itself.

The races were popular, and cash prizes and linen flags were given to the winners of the first, second and third places of each category. When in 1884, September 8 was acclaimed as Malta’s national day, the regatta, being the most popular boat race of that time, was chosen to form part of the festivities held in Valletta and in the Grand Harbour to mark this eventful day. This is clear proof that the annual regatta held on September 8 in Grand Harbour owes its origins to the church of Our Lady of Porto Salvo.

Between 1795 and 1798, the convent of St Philip served as a place of detention for 10 priests and clerics who were arrested by Mgr Giulio Carpegna (1793-1798), the last Inquisitor of Malta. During the French blockade, the convent was hit by cannon balls fired by Maltese batteries at Tal-Borg (Paola), causing damage to the roof of the building.

Furthermore, during the first cholera epidemic, in June 1837, the friary adjacent to the church, and the church itself, served as a quarantine place for poor infected victims since the Central Hospital in Floriana became overcrowded. Due to this situation, the Governor of Malta, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Frederick Bouverie, ordered the Oratorians to leave the convent and go to their family home until the end of the contagion.

Porto Salvo church in Senglea is adorned with interesting works of art. The main altarpiece is an impressive work by Stefano Erardi painted around 1690. Here, Our Lady of Porto Salvo is depicted pouring her blessings upon Grand Harbour. In the painting, she is seen accompanied by four other saints: St Paul and St Agatha, patrons of Malta, and St Catherine of Alexandria and St Elmo, protectors of mariners.

Other altarpieces represent Our Lady of Guadalupe, by Tommaso Madiona, which is the only altarpiece in Malta dedicated to that Marian apparition in Mexico in 1531, the Nativity of Jesus by Pietro Paolo Caruana, the Baptism of Jesus by Rocco Buhagiar, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel by Alessio Erardi. The front elevation of the transept of Our Lady of Guadalupe is beautifully decorated with several refined works in Malta’s globigerina limestone.

The titular painting of the altar of St Philip Neri. Photo courtesy of Porto Salvo churchThe titular painting of the altar of St Philip Neri. Photo courtesy of Porto Salvo church

The altarpiece of St Philip Neri, though not a great masterpiece, possesses a certain amount of charm, and is framed by elaborately carved Baroque stone-work by Maestro Petruzzo Debono. The painting is des­cribed in the acts of Bishop Michael Molina’s pastoral visit of 1680. The author of this painting was Don Pedro Nunez de Villavicencio, a capable painter-knight from Seville. The painting, though not an exact copy, is largely inspired by Guido Reni’s rendering of the same subject in the Sanctuary of Vallicella in Rome.

The dome of the church, built in 1743, is a distinctive feature of Senglea’s skyline. The eight panels of the dome itself, featuring biblical personalities Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Jeremiah, Ezechiel and Daniel, together with the choir’s vault, were painted by Lazzaro Pisani in the early years of the 20th century. The four pendentives beneath the dome, painted by Ignazio Carlo Cortis, portray St Anne with Our Lady, St Joachim, St Elizabeth and St Zachery with St John the Baptist.

Between 1943 and 1957, while the parish church was being rebuilt after it was destroyed by enemy action during World War II, the church served as Senglea’s parish church

Sculptural works include a crucifix (1794) by Giuseppe Casha who studied at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome in 1760, and the Immaculate Conception by Jose Steval, said to have been the tutor of Mariano Gerada in Valencia. The latter sculpture was brought from Spain by Giuseppe Fenech.

The last Oratorian was Mgr Angelo Raggio. Admired by everyone as preacher, as spiritual director and, above all, for his spirituality, he was provost from 1882 till his death on September 29, 1928. With his demise, the Oratorian presence in Malta came to an end.

Between 1943 and 1957, while the parish church was being rebuilt after it was destroyed by enemy action during World War II, the church served as Senglea’s parish church. Once these parochial duties were resumed, the parish community sought to give a new meaning to the church of Porto Salvo.

In 1958, a community of Jesuits moved in and started to give pastoral assistance in the church, the parish and the people of Senglea, especially those in the vicinity of the church. The church of Our Lady of Porto Salvo and St Philip’s convent were placed under their care. The first superior of this new Jesuitcommunity was Fr Joseph Galea.

The Jesuits continued the same pastoral work that was previously done by the Oratorians. People living in that area of Senglea took them to heart. Soon the church became a hub for confessions and other spiritual services, much more than it was before.

Unfortunately, the Jesuits also lacked vocations and it was impossible for them to sustain their community in Senglea. Against his wish, the provincial of the Jesuits had to inform the archbishop that another congregation had to be found to take over the church. Due to this, the presence of the Jesuits community came to an end on March 31, 2008.

Since October 20, 2008, Porto Salvo church and St Philip’s convent have been entrusted to a Salesian community. Fr Victor Mangion was the first rector. Since their arrival, they have embarked upon a project for the improvement of the physical structure the better to serve youths and the local community.

Besides the opening of an oratory for young people beneath the church, the Salesians collaborate closely with those around them, strengthening and developing social networks in the neighbourhood. They are also involved in supporting individuals, couples and parents of children who seek their counsel, or are sometimes specifically referred to them for some particular reason.

A rich and abundant eccle­siastical heritage has been handed down through past generations at Porto Salvo church. It is now up to the present and future generations to see that all this legacy will continue to receive the necessary care and attention. For it is within the maritime setting of the conurbation around the Grand Harbour, which includes the city of Senglea as one of its essential focal points, that the real soul of the Maltese archipelago can probably be best identified.

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