Written by C. Rolé
The Żurrieq Parish Church is one of the oldest churches found in the Maltese Islands. In fact, when in 1436 Bishop Senatore de Mello was commissioned to do an inventory of the parish churches found in Malta, in his texts he referred to a cappella di lu Zurrico (Zarb & Buhagiar, 1978). Adjacent to the church, there was a cemetery with a chapel dedicated to Saint Peter. Even though the church already existed before 1436, the first description of this church can be found in a report dating back to 1575, compiled by Mons. Pietro Dusina (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989).
Due to the continuous increase in population in the early 17th century, it was concluded that a new parish church was needed in order to accommodate all the locals' religious obligations (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989).
It was around 1630, when Rev. Antonio Demos, who at that time was the parish priest of Żurrieq, started to plan for the building of a new church. It was decided to pull down both the old church of Saint Catherine as well as the church of Saint Peter so as to make space for the new church to be built. The project started in 1632-1633 under the leadership of Dun Matteolo Saliba, who was also the architect of the new church. The project took 25 years to be completed. In the first year, the building of the church proceeded at a very quick pace. In fact, by September of 1634, the nave was practically ready and it started to be utilized as a church. It is also said that the people of Żurrieq worked on a voluntary basis in the building of the new church (Zarb & Buhagiar, 1978). The building of the church was completed in 1658 and during the visit of the Bishop Mons. Balaguer, it was described as being the finest on the island (Mangion & Zerafa, 1986).
A few years after the completion of the church (precisely in 1676) there was an outbreak of plague in Malta. A cherished tradition holds that Fra Mattia Preti, who owned a summer residence at Żurrieq, took shelter precisely in this village when Malta, especially Valletta (being in the Harbour area), was infested by plague. However, this story was never confirmed by historical evidence and what is known for sure about Mattia Preti's affinity with Żurrieq, are the masterpieces which are still present and taken care of, at the parish church at Żurrieq (Mangion & Spike, 1998).
The parish church's collection of Mattia Preti's paintings consists of eight masterpieces, which also include the altarpiece which shows the Madonna of the Rosary. This painting was lost during the air raids of the Second World War. The other paintings commissioned to Mattia Preti include the Martyrdom of Saint Stephen, Martyrdom of Saint Andrew, Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Eternal Father, The Visitation of the Virgin to Saint Elizabeth, Saint Roque, Blaise, Dominic and Nicholas of Tolentino as well as the painting of Our Lady of Graces (Mangion & Spike, 1998).
Another cherished painting present in our Parish Church is that dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a work of art by Antonio Zammit (Xuereb, 2007). This work of art was inaugurated in fl-1908 and in 2008, the Confraternity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel together with the Żurrieq community celebrated the 100th anniversary of this painting through a number of events, including an event dedicated to music and literature.
Apart from these prestigious paintings, the parish church of Żurrieq boasts of a number of artefacts which by time have been classified as treasures of the church. These treasures include silverware, vestments and also statues.
One of the greatest works of art that is found in the parish church at Żurrieq is the cross of the clergy that was completed in 1699. This cross is considered to be one of the most beautiful crosses of the clergy in the Maltese Islands. This cross, being a precious silver ornament has the image of Christ on one side and the image of Saint Catherine on the other. As the money needed for this cross was collected from donations given by village people it used to accompany every funeral ceremony performed in this church (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989).
Another treasure found in this church has is a silver monstrance designed by Francesco Zahra and the silversmith Giovanni Bessiera in 1744 (Terribile, 2004). A few years later, another artefact was commissioned. This was a silver oil-lamp that was done in 1744 when the priest Ġużepp Testaferrata left a considerable amount of money in his testament for the purpose. This was also designed by Francesco Zahra and was done by the silversmith Aloysio Fenech (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989).
Apart form prestigious silverware, the parish church of Żurrieq is also the custodian of a number of ecclesiastical vestments. The most esteemed set of ecclesiastical vestments are those worn in the titular feast of Saint Catherine. The cape was designed by Luigi Portelli and was inaugurated in 1903 during the village feast. A year after, the chasuble and the two tunicles were inaugurated. These were designed by Arturo Galdes. All the work was done in Lyons, France (Terrible, 2004). These treasures nearly got lost in 1942, when a bomb hit the sacristy and damaged the stores where these vestments were stored. Although apparently they remained undamaged, the blast damaged the velvet and they became so fragile that, they could be easily thorn apart (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989).
The titular statue of St. Catherine of Alexandria is another piece of art embellishing the Parish Church of Żurrieq. This statue is a work of art by Marjanu Gerada and the works were carried out in a workshop in front of the parish church. This statue was inaugurated on the 24th of November 1818 and was taken into the parish church in a form of a procession from the chapel in Nigret, conducted by Parish Priest Rev. Karlu DeGiovanni. In 1915, this statue was gilded by Francesco Coleiro and in 1966, the statue was decorated with a golden aureole (Terribile, 2004).
The Parish Church of St. Catherine in Żurrieq is also embellished with another statue dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This statue is a work of art by Salvu Psaila and was commissioned by the parish church in 1840. The expenses related to this statue were collected through donations from the location population and in order to have the work finished as soon as possible, the parish priest, Rev. Karly DeGiovanni, donated the rest of the sum requested by Psaila. The statue was completed in 1842 and was guilded in 1928 by Francesco Coleiro (Camilleri, 2006).
The parish church of Żurrieq has a number of Confraternities that still take part in processions. These Confraternities are listed below in date order:
- Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament (established in 1575)
- Confraternity of Our Lady of the Rosary (established in 1588)
- Confraternity of Saint Roque (established in 1606)
- Confraternity of Saint Joseph (established in 1783)
- Confraternity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (established in 1801) (A. Xuereb, personal communication, April 2010)
Camilleri, A (2006.). Ġrajjiet is-soċjetà Karmelitana u banda Queen Victoria Żurrieq. Qrendi: Bestprint Co. Ltd
Mangion, A. & Spike, J. (1998). Preti's Paintings for the Parish Church in Żurrieq In J. Manduca (Ed.). Treasures of Malta (Vol. 1). Malta: Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti.
Mangion, A. & Zerafa, K. (1989). Santa Katarina: il-festa u s-soċjeta mużikali tagħha fiż-Żurrieq. Valletta: Peresso Printing Press.
Terribile, T. (2004). Teżori fil-knejjes Maltin: Ħal Kirkop, l-Imqabba, il-Qrendi, Ħal Safi u ż-Żurrieq. Pietà: Publikazzjonijiet Indipendenza.
Xuereb, C. (2007). The creation of a church museum at Zurrieq, a tourism potential for the South. Unpublished B.A. (HONS). Tourism Studies dissertation, Faculty of Economics, Management and Accountancy, University of Malta.