The Santa Marija Chapel
Being a Friday, we had thought that there would be no possibility to visit the only chapel on Comino. A pleasant surprise awaited us, for the First of November is All Saints' Day and the celebrant would be arriving from nearby Gozo to celebrate mass. One can approach the chapel, by walking a hundred metres
or so from the sands of Santa Marija, trudging past the police station until one is met by the delightful one storey building, hugged on the sides by cypresses and date palms.
The whitewashed façade is simple, not following any particular school of architecture. With the bells clinging away, we gather inside to hear mass. Stepping inside one is confronted with an unusual layout for a Catholic church. The seating is laid at the right; the celebrant and altar boy are on the left. The starkness of the place is pleasing to the eye. For it is not austere but welcoming, warm. Sacred art aficionados shall notice the titular painting, The "Flight of the Blessed from Egypt", attributed to Maltese artist Francesco Zahra. It is the chapel’s simplicity that makes mass much more spiritual. Opulent décor can be enjoyed on the other islands. In summer the Comino chapel offers reprieve from the swelter outside, in autumn, its overwhelming aura of silence, quietness and peace drifts you away. You can hear your heart beat, your mind think.
There are only fourteen benches, each holding three abreast. Today the congregation
numbers fifteen. On other days it is much less. Three lesser-than life-size statues, one of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, another of Our Lady, the third of St. Joseph and Child complete the Holy Family. Pictures of the 'Via Sagra', The Way of the Cross, encircle us. Beneath, a plain azure mosaic layer, added some five decades ago. The celebrant’s hollow voice reverberates, as it must have done for years. He has seen this community grow smaller and smaller. Dun Karm Scerri has been celebrating mass since 1963, only a year after his brother; Dun Lawrenz had become chaplain of Comino. Both are from Qala, as was their predecessor Dun Frangisk Camilleri Tal-Bedeq, even though Comino falls under the aegis of the Gozitan parish of Ghajnsielem.
No collection is made and the mass progresses. Nevertheless, there is a wooden collection box. The wording is written in old Maltese, unlike the 1921 orthography approved by the Ghaqda tal-Kittieba tal-Malti.
Most probably, the collection box dates to the 1930s, given that it was in 1934 that the Maltese alphabet received official recognition. Some geraniums and chrysanthemums are potted in six Bofors and four pom pom anti-aircraft shells, placed on the altar and beneath the statue of Our Lady. The presence of anti-aircraft shells in chapels, and many Maltese homes, is probably a phenomenon peculiar to these islands. Karmnu Said, the island’s only active soldier in the last war, had brought them over to Comino.
An elderly Comino resident, Karmenu’s sister Marija, leaves the congregation, moving into the small sacristy, and soon the small Comino Chapel begin peeling, if only for ceremonial reasons, bearing that the Comino community is present. Dun Karm reminds us that another mass shall be said at 5.45 am the following morning.
We are unsure when the chapel was first built. It was deconsecrated in 1667 by Bishop Bueno but reopened in 1716 by Bishop Cannaves. Its origins probably go back to the Middle Ages.
Historian Gan Frangisk Abela, writing in 1647, mentions the existence of a Comino chapel dedicated to Our Lady. It may have fallen victim many a time to the pillaging and ransacking exploits of Muslim raiders from the Barbary Coast, as was the norm with many other countryside chapels in Malta and Gozo. This, perhaps, explains the buttress at the back of the chapel.
Every village in Malta and Gozo celebrates feasts, il-festi, that include brass band marches, Catherine wheels and aerial pyrotechnic displays. This is the time of merrymaking, exuberance and at times, senseless joy. The celebrations are of such grandness that even a minute Gozitan village of a few hundred inhabitants can present fireworks that exceed those presented by an American city the size of Boston. Comino is an exception to all this.
The Santa Marija chapel used to celebrate its feast, that dedicated to The Sacred Heart of Jesus every 24th of July. This until tragedy struck in 1949. Salvu Said, the dry-stone wall keeper, then in his twenties, lost his life when a petard exploded on the ground. Since then all outside celebrations have been cancelled, and with the island community dwindling, the street decorations are stored away for posterity.
It is the unpretentiousness of the Santa Marija chapel, set within such a unique setting that makes is such a memorable place, not only to hear the word of God, but also to visit and enjoy the timeless atmosphere it presents us with.
Steve Borg (left) with Dun Karm, and
with Marija Said, 01-Nov-2002
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