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Francesca Teresa Parlar: A life eminently and exclusively ascetic

Parlar on her death-bed.

Parlar on her death-bed.

Francesca Teresa Parlar was born in Valletta on November 24, 1842, and baptised that same day by Fr Salvatore Pace OP, in the parish church of Our Lady of Porto Salvo, Valletta. Her godparents were Don Luigi Fernandez, parish priest of Żabbar, and Marianna, wife of notary Michele Claudio Debono.

Her parents were Gio Andrea Parlar and Carmela d’Amato. It appears that they were a wealthy family which, unfortunately, experienced misfortune and fell upon hard times. In fact the family once owned three schooners which eventually all sank.

A blood-stained neckcloth and (right) a pair of shoes, both belonging to Parlar.A blood-stained neckcloth and (right) a pair of shoes, both belonging to Parlar.

Faced with this situation, the Parlar family emigrated to Constantinople (present day Istanbul, Turkey) in the hope of recovering financially. There, Gio Andrea started trading in clothing but, due to lack of flair for business, he was compelled to close down the enterprise and the family returned to Malta after just three years.

Teresa had three sisters and two brothers. Two uncles from her mother’s side were her godfather, Don Luigi Fernandez, canon at the Cathedral, and Don Giuseppe Fernandez, canon at Vittoriosa’s Collegiate church. Don Luigi sought to take care of Teresa himself and leave her as his heir. However, since Teresa felt detached from earthly wealth from a very young age, she refused the offer. Instead, she wanted to live with her mother and look after her.

Very little is known about Teresa’s childhood and youth. One known fact is that when she was eight years old, she ardently wished to receive her First Holy Communion. It was the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, celebrated at the church of Our Lady of Porto Salvo, Senglea. When she was told she was too young to receive Communion, Teresa suffered a severe headache and ended up in bed. With the consent of her confessor, Fr Salvatore OFM Cap, Teresa received Communion.

Teresa lived with the family of Lorenzo and Vittoria Ebejer in 74, Point Street, Senglea, until 1881. At the time, Teresa’s father was already dead and her mother was very ill. Teresa’s mother herself wished that when she died, Teresa would stay with the Ebejer family.

In the Ebejer home, Teresa lived alone in a small, humble room. She used to wear a black dress with a black faldetta and white neckcloth around her face.

Parlar once lived in a house that used to stand at this site in Point Street, Senglea. Bombed during World War II, the plot remains desolate to this day.Parlar once lived in a house that used to stand at this site in Point Street, Senglea. Bombed during World War II, the plot remains desolate to this day.

On February 13, 1882, Fr Vincenzo Schembri OP enrolled Teresa in the Third Order of St Dominic in which lay men and women lived a Christian life with a Dominican spirituality in the secular world. During the admission ceremony, which was held three days later and in which she was named Suor Caterina di San Giuseppe, Teresa entered a state of religious ecstasy.

Teresa’s reputation for sainthood soon flourished among the Maltese. The ecclesiastical authorities felt obliged to verify the gossip. They therefore called Fr Antonio Bottalla SJ to investigate what people were saying. On October 16, 1885, Fr Bottalla visited Teresa together with Fr Enrico Vella OP, her confessor since December 1881. He concluded that she was possessed by evil spirits. It was a Friday, a day on which Teresa used to strictly fast.

Fr Bottalla submitted his report to Bishop Antonio Buhagiar OFM Cap, administrator of the diocese at the time, who on his part informed Fr Enrico that it was the bishop’s wish to have Teresa examined by Prof. Giuseppe Galea. So on November 2, Fr Bottalla visited Teresa, accompanied by Prof. Galea. Although no one had informed her in advance about the visit, she still knew the professor’s name and the aim of the visit.

The most mystifying fact surrounding Teresa Parlar’s life remained her complete abstinence from food from the early age of eight until her death at 85

After that, the eccesiastical authorities decided that Teresa should be taken to Ta’ Saura Institute, Rabat. Teresa was prepared to obey the orders given to her by the superiors but the Ebejer family objected vehemently and Teresa continued to live with the family.

From the time he became bishop of Malta in 1889, Bishop Pietro Pace showed particular interest in this case, and on January 30, 1891, he visited Teresa at her home together with Can Paolo Cachia Abela. Like Bishop Buhagiar, he also was of the opinion that Teresa should be taken to Ta’ Saura. Once again this idea was opposed.

Francesca Teresa Parlar meditating on the Holy Crucifix with rosary beads in hand.Francesca Teresa Parlar meditating on the Holy Crucifix with rosary beads in hand.

On the bishop’s initiative, a commission was set up to examine Teresa’s life and give its judgement. The commission consisted of Mgr Isidoro Formosa and Fr Lorenzo Caruana OP, together with the eminent Professor of Medicine Dr Salvatore Luigi Pisani and Dr Giuseppe Odiardo Galea. They held their first meeting on April 5, 1896, at the Bishop’s Palace.

The commission continued to meet on various other occasions and heard various witnesses who knew Teresa. Among these there was Can. Giuseppe Tagliaferro, archpriest of Senglea, and Don Emanuele Galea Flores. All the witnesses spoke of Teresa as a person endowed with extraordinary virtues. The commission met for its last meeting on June 9, 1897.

The decision was taken to take Teresa to the Central Hospital in Floriana. Assistant Police Superintendent Dr Costantino Salvatore Magri, together with Inspector Salvatore Cassar and Sergeant Carmelo Formosa, went to the house where Teresa lived to take Teresa to the Central Hospital. Today it is truly inconceivable to think that the Church and the police expended so much effort to interfere and control the life of such an inoffensive woman at worst, and a wise and holy woman at best.

Teresa became so agitated on seeing them that Dr Gian Felice Inglott, the district doctor, was called in. After examining Teresa, he concluded that she was on the verge of having a stroke. So her relocation to the hospital had to be postponed. Dr Magri also called two Franciscan sisters Sr Crocifissa and Sr Agnese, to take care of Teresa during the night.

On August 4, 1897, Dr Magri, together with Assistant Superintendent Alfredo Gouder, Dr Gian Felice Inglott and other police officials went to Teresa’s house. This time they found no opposition.

In the meantime, Crown Advocate Dr Alfredo Naudi presented in court a petition, together with a medical certificate signed by Prof. Salvatore Luigi Pisani and Giuseppe Odiardo Galea, which declared: “...that Teresa Parlar is affected with a severe form of hysteria which renders her incapable of taking care of herself and of her property”.

Parlar’s tomb in the chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows of the Vittoriosa Dominican Friars at Santa Maria Addolorata Cemetery.Parlar’s tomb in the chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows of the Vittoriosa Dominican Friars at Santa Maria Addolorata Cemetery.

In the meantime, in hospital, Teresa was kept in solitary confinement. Nobody was allowed to visit her for several months during which court-appointed experts prepared reports after medically examining her. Not even the bishop’s delagates, Mgr Isidoro Formosa and Fr Lorenzo Caruana OP, were allowed to visit her.

People could only visit Teresa as from October 27, 1897. Throughout her stay in hospital, she suffered various mortifications. Fr Enrico used to visit her regularly and Teresa herself spent hours in prayer in the hospital’s chapel.

Plans were under way for Teresa to be taken to Cini Institute, Santa Venera. However she insisted on returning to live with the Ebejer family in Senglea. During a visit by Dr Carmelo Mifsud, in August 1898, Teresa was informed that she was going to be taken to St Vincent de Paul Home for the Elderly.

Although she protested against being taken there against her will, on September 3, 1898, Teresa was transferred to this residence by decree of the Civil Court. Her sister, Ursola Galea, presented various petitions asking that Teresa be allowed to live with her. These were all refused due to the fact that there was a medical report stating that Teresa was suffering from a severe hystero-epilepsy.

Teresa spent 14 months at St Vincent de Paul under strict surveillance by both the ecclesiastical and civil authorities. There she was treated better than when she was at the Central Hospital. While at this hospital, she took care of those suffering from leprosy.

On July 6, 1901, she was given permission to leave the hospital and went to live in that small, humble house at Point Street, Senglea. It was a solitary life, spent in prayer and penance.

After a truly extraordinary life, Francesca Teresa Parlar breathed her last on August 12, 1927, in Senglea where she spent the last years of her life. It was a Friday, a special day for her, and the day on which she had wished to die and which she had predicted. Her funeral was held at the Basilica of the Nativity of Mary, Senglea.

The most mystifying fact surrounding Teresa Parlar’s life remained her complete abstinence from food from the early age of eight until her death at 85. Receiving only Communion for 77 years, this enigma aroused both devotion and suspicion.

During her life, facts she foretold came to be and astonishing things, that can be called miracles, ensued. After her death, many attained no small graces by her intercession. She is said to have experienced bilocation. She also predicted that the house in which her room stood would one day be destroyed and eventually remain empty ground. Bombed out during the Second World War, the plot remains desolate to this day.

The altar of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Senglea’s Porto Salvo church.The altar of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Senglea’s Porto Salvo church.

On the announcement of her death, people flocked to pay homage to this woman who died in odore di santita. Francesca Teresa was buried in the chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows of the Vittoriosa Dominican friars at Santa Maria Addolorata Cemetery. Her tomb is found in the middle of the chapel in front of the main altar. It is sealed by a marble slab on which are inscribed the words: Qui giacciono le spogli mortali – della – Serva di Dio – Francesca Teresa Parlar – Terziaria Domenicana – Morta il 12 di Agosto 1927 – all’eta di 85 anni.

Francesca Teresa Parlar’s life was eminently and exclusively ascetic, interwoven with prayer and spiritual aspirations, built on suffering and spiritual mortifications, purified by persecutions caused by incredulous people.

Today, 90 years after her death, flowers and lit candles are still laid on Teresa’s tomb, a clear indication that, after so many years, her memory survives in the lives of many.

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