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Remembering Mgr John Sladden on the centenary of his birth

Fr John Sladden (standing, third from right) in 1959 during one of the summer camps.

Fr John Sladden (standing, third from right) in 1959 during one of the summer camps.

“My life does not have any other purpose than to be with you all day, to rejoice and to weep with you. Every hour of the day I ponder how to give a hand to each and every one of you. Today, the parish of Senglea became my sole world. Whether in a governmental, ecclesiastical or private office, I do not know of what to speak except on Senglea. God forbid it was not so, otherwise what type of parish priest would I be?”

John Sladden (first from left, standing on a chair) together with his two eldest brothers Francis and Leo.John Sladden (first from left, standing on a chair) together with his two eldest brothers Francis and Leo.

This declaration, written by Fr John Sladden in May 1967, just three months after he became archpriest of Senglea, was a statement he faithfully fulfilled till the very end.

The son of Richard and Mary Magdalene née Grech, he was born in Senglea on September 21, 1918.

The environment provided by his hometown as well as his own family were important factors that influenced Sladden’s decision to enter the seminary and proceed to the priesthood.

On August 11, 1946, he was ordained priest by Archbishop of Malta Michael Gonzi at the Cathedral, Mdina.

Although still a young priest, Mgr Gonzi appointed him vice-rector of the Minor Seminary. Fr Sladden took on this responsibility with great vigour and delicacy. He did his utmost to support the development of a strong and disciplined character in the students entrusted to his care.

He also dedicated considerable time for teaching, mainly English, at the Seminary, St Aloysius’ College and St Edward’s College.

Fr Sladden cherished the Catholic Action. Though he was newly ordained, the Archbishop appointed him ecclesiastical assistant for the adult male and the male youth sections in the Senglea centre. Later on, he was also appointed ecclesiastical assistant general for the male youth branch of the same organisation. He was much admired by young people as a man of character and moving spirit.

John Sladden as a seminarian taking part in a Corpus Christi procession from St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, as a censer bearer.John Sladden as a seminarian taking part in a Corpus Christi procession from St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, as a censer bearer.

Subsequently, he was nominated national director of the Catholic Action’s Summer Camps Commission. These camps, organised for children of families in need, were often held at Tal-Providenza, limits of Siġġiewi.

For a period of time, he was a member of the board of directors of the newspaper Il-Ħajja.

On July 5, 1953, a month after he was chosen canon penitentiary of the Senglea collegiate chapter, Archbishop Gonzi nominated Sladden as vicar curate of Kirkop parish.

On December 17, 1966, Canon Sladden was appointed archpriest of Senglea. On February 12, 1967, he took the oath and was given possession of the parish in the presence of Mgr Emmanuel Galea, Auxiliary Bishop and Vicar General.

From day one, he directed his entire energy towards the pastoral work demanded by the parish. Indeed, being Senglea born and bred, he knew the parish very well and was well aware of its needs.

At a time when the Church was going through changes brought about by Vatican Council II, he warmly welcomed all directives for the renewal of the Church, especially with regard to sacred liturgy. While encouraging people to participate, he loved seeing the liturgy celebrated with the dignity it deserved.

Archpriest Sladden assisting Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro while placing the sprig of three gold roses at the foot of the statue of Maria Bambina.Archpriest Sladden assisting Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro while placing the sprig of three gold roses at the foot of the statue of Maria Bambina.

Archpriest Sladden launched a parish bulletin so that all families within the parish could be reached. This monthly leaflet was a first for Malta. Through the publication he never failed to deliver a meaningful message to his parishioners, giving guidance with reassuring and paternal affection. By means of the bulletin’s few pages, many felt involved in the pastoral life of the parish.

Sladden encouraged customs such as the recitation of the rosary in the family, which for some, though beneficial, seemed outdated. In this regard, he inspired existent parish organisations and helped others that did not fall directly under his leadership.

On December 12, 1968, Archpriest Sladden convened for the first time the Parish Pastoral Council according new directives issued by Vatican II. The council was formed by representatives from all parish organisations, together with other collaborators.

Canon Sladden worked hard to embellish Senglea’s rebuilt basilica, which had been severely damaged during the war. Indeed, with tireless zeal he undertook ambitious projects. In all these projects, while consulting the best minds of the island, he worked hand in hand with his collaborators.

In 1971, an ad hoc committee chaired by Sladden organised a series of activites to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the solemn coronation of the statue of Maria Bambina.

The climax of these festivities was reached on September 4, 1971, when Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, Archbishop Emeritus of Bologna, Italy, led a concelebrated Mass at the basilica, at the end of which the Te Deum was sung. Subsequently Cardinal Lercaro, assisted by Archpriest Sladden, placed a sprig of three gold roses at the foot of the statue of Maria Bambina to the delight and applause of all present.

The Redeemer caused moments of both joy and sorrow in the life of Archpriest Sladden

The 75th anniversary of the coronation was commemorated in 1996. The climax of the celebrations was reached on September 4, when Archbishop Joseph Mercieca led a solemn high Mass at the Senglea Marina. That evening, the congregation assisted to the blessing of the statue of the Bambina, now covered with plates of gold and silver. Indeed, another dream of Archpriest Sladden, which started being realised in 1985, was accomplished.

Canon John Sladden as archpriest of Senglea collegiate church.Canon John Sladden as archpriest of Senglea collegiate church.

In 1981, the Senglea parish celebrated the fourth centenary since its erection. Besides the special celebrations held to mark that particular jubilee, Archpriest Sladden offered another major contribution to the parish. He commissioned Fr Alexander Bonnici, OFM Conv., the renowned Franciscan historian and specialist in Church history, to publish the first of three volumes encompassing a documented history of the Senglea parish.

Sladden was very keen to improve Senglea’s Good Friday procession. With this in mind, in 1974 he formed a commission which discussed various suggestions. The eight portable platforms (bradella) of the statues were replaced, and the procession itself took the form of a pageant with the introduction of biblical personages.

Years before, in 1969, having received permission from Archbishop Michael Gonzi, he resumed the Easter Sunday procession which had been suspended since 1879.

Throughout his years as archpriest, Sladden gave special attention to encourage devotion towards Jesus the Redeemer; a devotion which spread all over Malta and among the Maltese who had emigrated to Australia, Canada, UK and America.

In reality, the Redeemer caused moments of both joy and sorrow in the life of Archpriest Sladden.

He welcomed enthusiastically the invitation to take the statue of the Redeemer to Floriana where, on April 7, 1974, worshipers prayed the Via Crucis in preparation for the 1975 Holy Year. On October 2, 1982, ahead of the Year of Redemption, a pilgrimage with the statue was held from Vittoriosa to Senglea. And on March 20, 1983, the Redeemer was carried from the Porto Salvo parish up to St John’s Square, Valletta.

Conversely, it was of great sorrow for Sladden when, on June 15, 1984, thieves entered the basilica in the dead of night and stole several valuables and other offerings from the niche of the Redeemer. Less than a year later, on March 22, 1985, a similar robbery occurred. This time, gold objects were stolen from the niche of Maria Bambina and that of Our Lady of Sorrows found in the Oratory of the Holy Crucifix.

From 1983 onwards, Sladden’s health started to deteriorate and Archbishop Mercieca offered to relieve him from the parish responsibilities, but he held on. By early 1985, he was very ill and was frequently admitted to hospital, at times, even to intensive care. On March 5, 1985, he became critically ill; indeed his illness totally separated him from Senglea.

In July 1985, Sladden was finally relieved of his duties and was awarded the honour of Monsignor Ad Honorem of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Malta.

Mgr John Sladden passed away on April 3, 1986, at St Luke’s Hospital. Two days later, his coffin was placed at the church of Our Lady of Porto Salvo, Senglea, where the Senglea parishioners were able to pay him their last respects. From there, on Saturday, April 5, a solemn funeral cortège, accompanied by Senglea’s Queen’s Own Band, walked through Victory Street towards the basilica. The funeral Mass was celebrated by Mgr Carmelo Xuereb, Vicar General, while the rite of committal was recited by Archbishop Mercieca. This was followed by burial at the Santa Maria Addolorata Cemetery.

Throughout his 18 years as archpriest, Sladden offered his time, his intelligence, his effort, his health and his spiritual interior life to the people of Senglea.

Mgr Sladden felt anxious in situations when he found himself helpless. He literally cried when the parish endured tough experiences. Frequently, he helped, even from his own pocket, whoever was in need. He was always ready to serve his parishioners at all times and in all circumstances.

Indeed it must be said that although no one, in his family or among his relatives, was bestowed with the title of nobility, his magnanimous character showed in the kind and generous heart he possessed, a heart genuinely moved by the needs of others. Maybe that was the reason why it failed so often during the last years of his life among us.

Christmas Day 1985 was Sladden’s last visit to Senglea. He is seen here with (to his right) Can. Vincent Cachia, his successor as Senglea archpriest, and (to his left) Fr Faustino Ellul, his vice parish priest, together with other family members and parish collaborators.Christmas Day 1985 was Sladden’s last visit to Senglea. He is seen here with (to his right) Can. Vincent Cachia, his successor as Senglea archpriest, and (to his left) Fr Faustino Ellul, his vice parish priest, together with other family members and parish collaborators.

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