I have just been spending some time in Malta, which is why I have been absent from the Herald website for a few days.
Malta is one of the most interesting places on earth – a hundred square miles, more densely packed with history than any other place on earth. And because its history is so many-layered, one is always discovering new things about it.
Just a few feet from Dockyard Creek, Grand Harbour, stands the parish church of the Immaculate Conception. This particular area, the city of Cospicua, the home of the dockyard workers, was the traditional heartland of the Malta Labour Party. The Labour Party was led, you may remember, by the avowedly anti-clerical Dom Mintoff. Of course, Mintoff had a brother who was a priest, and like a lot of socialists, sent his daughters to Cheltenham Ladies’ College – but enough of these contradictions. Quite apart from being the spiritual home of the radical workers’ movement, Cospicua is also one of the beating hearts of Malta’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin.
When Italy declared war on Britain in 1941, that very morning Mussolini sent his bombers to attack Grand Harbour and the dockyard. The loss of life in the next few years and the widespread destruction are well known.
Less well known is that the parish of Cospicua decided to send the statue of the Virgin and the painting of the Virgin over the high altar away for safe-keeping, vowing that if their church were spared, they would bring both back with suitable solemnity.
One can imagine the fervour of the prayers of the Maltese as the bombs rained down on them. This prayer card gives one a flavour of them.
Almost alone of all the buildings near the dockyard, the parish church, which is an exceptionally fine one, was spared. Accordingly, the statue and the altarpiece were brought back in procession on November 19, 1944, by the parishioners, accompanied by most of the population of Malta. It was supposed to have been the largest manifestation of its kind in the island’s history. One account I read says laconically: “As the statue entered Cospicua, the atmosphere became almost ecstatic.” I wonder if anyone filmed it? Or if anyone reading this was actually there?
To get a picture of modern fervour, here and here is the return of the statue to the church in 2009, which provides a picture of the beautiful church, which is not on the tourist trail. There are also some fine pictures of the treasures of Cospicua here on this Maltese website. The pictures are at the bottom. Funnily enough, the impressive staircase up to the church is a postwar innovation, but quite fine. The architect was, I believe, none other than Dom Mintoff himself.