Written by C. Rolé
Present in the Zurrieq Parish Church is a small but lovely statue of Our Lady of Fatima. This masterpiece was worked in Portugal and imported to Malta on the sixteenth of March, 1952.
In the late forties, Rev. Michael Spiteri, parish priest of Kirkop embarked on a visit to Bolzano, Italy to commission a statue of Our Lady of Fatima to the renowned sculpture Stufflesser. Rev. Salvatore Gauci, the parish priest of the neighbouring village of Zurrieq heard about this venture and asked him to enquire on his behalf the cost of another statue from this artist. The Parish Priest of Zurrieq wanted to know the cost of an exact replica of the Madonna statue in Fatima. The Kirkop priest was soon back from Bolzano, and informed Rev Gauci that this statue would cost 27 Sterling excluding transport. But apparently the latter was not much convinced about the designs described by his colleague and the project was abandoned.
Although there was no statue, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima was still celebrated in the month of May. In order to carry out the procession, the Parish Church of Zurrieq used to borrow a statue from a neighbouring village. The procession would take place around the streets and alleys of Zurrieq accompanied by the village's children. Still, the idea of acquiring such a Madonna was never forgotten by those who had at hearth these celebrations.
In the early months of 1951, the Parish priest Gauci got very ill and had to spend many days in bed. Nonetheless he still retained his role as Parish Priest. One of his friends, Guiseppe Gava used to visit him frequently during these days, and in one of their conversations there was a reference to the children's procession. Both men had at hearth the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, and the priest confessed to his friend that he still hoped that one day Zurrieq would have such a statue. Days later Gava made another visit to Rev. Gauci, and reported to the priest that he had shared this dream with some fellow peasants and two of them agreed to finance the project as far as it did not exceed the cost of 50 Sterlings. Delighted, the parish priest asked Guiseppi Gava and another priest Dun Pawl Farrugia to enquire for the address of the sculpture which had crafted the Fatima statue that used to be share amongst the villages of the area .The idea was to have an artefact from the same artist.
It was not a simple task, but after various enquiries they discovered that this sculpture was Josi Ferriera Thedim, and on the 24th of May 1951 they send their correspondence to Josi Ferriera Thedim,Escultor, Casa Thedim, Quinta da Vela Vista, S.Mamede de Coronado,Portugal. Later that month Gava and Dun Farrugia were informed by a letter from the artist's niece that her uncle was in New York and that she had forwarded their letter in the new address. In fact a reply was received from this Josi Ferriera around mid June in Portuguese language which stated:
"A Statue of Our Lady of Fatima, similar to the one which I worked and which is venerated in the Adoration Chapel, measuring 1.02 meters and made of Brazilian cedar wood, sculptured and fine painted would cost £ 85.If you would like to order a crown plated in filigranu and embellished with gems would add an additional £ 35. Package and Postage to Malta would amount to an approximate £ 14".
Even though the parish priest was still bedridden, he was being informed about the developments of this venture. When Gava informed him of Thedim's reply, he urged him to go and explain this idea to Carmela Camilleri, the wife of Emanuel Camilleri, also known as 'Ta'Psajla'. Camilleri who at the time was spending some time in Switzerland had previously informed the parish priest that his wife was intended to pay herself for a statue of Our Lady of Fatima statue to fulfil an oath she had made.
After being informed about the whole amount of the expenses required for this project it was concluded that Camilleri would pay for the statue with the share of other contributors.
Consequently, on the 16th of July 1951,a letter was sent to Thedim requesting various information, including the amount of time required to finish such a statue, and what will the cost be if the statue would be acquired without crown. While awaiting the answer from Thedim, Gava and Dun Farrugia made a formal application to the Ministry of Industry to be exempted from all taxes. They also applied for an import licence to be able to bring this statue to Malta. The Government reply was received on the 25th October 1951, where they were informed that an exemption of 25% was granted on the import duty.
Around mid August of that year, a letter was received from Thedim in which he informed them that the ordered statue was finished and that it had been personally blessed by the bishop of Fatima himself-Don Joseph Alves. Moreover he stated that this statue was to reach Malta in a month's time. A fortnight later, Gava was informed through other correspondence from Thedim that the Madonna was at the silversmith in Lisbona, and was ready to be shipped to Malta.
Two months passed and still no news was received. Gava and his friends decided to write back to Thedim and ask him what had happened to the statue, and why it was taking so long. No reply was received from Thedim. Another two letters were sent on the 16th November and 12th December respectively, but still there was no reply.
An explanation was received by Gava on the 14th January 1952 where Thedim informed him that the statue was to leave Lisbon on the 'Exton' and the delay was due to difficulties encountered recently by the mentioned ship. This vehicle entered Grand Harbour on the 4th February 1952, but when Gava and Dun Farrugia enquired with the chief mate, they were informed that neither he nor the captain were aware of this statue.
On the 10th of March, Gava made a further order to Thedim for a crown of filigranu for the Madonna. He also asked him to send both items together and at his earliest convenience. But six days later the much awaited statue arrived without the crown on the ship 'Birkholm'. The next morning Guiseppe Gava and Dun Pawl Farrugia went to this ship's agent to collect the Fatima statue, but they were unable to do this without 'bill of landing' documents. They procured a bank guarantee against a 100 Sterling deposit from Barclays Bank and after paying the 28 Sterling duty, they were given the statue and transported it to Zurrieq. It was kept temporarily at Gava's house because the Parish Priest was seriously ill.
At the news of the arrival of the Fatima Madonna, many villagers went to visit this masterpiece. Parish Priest Gauci's sister was one of them and donated to the Madonna a filigrano rosary that Mr Rosario Sammut has once donated to her brother.
Days later Gava wrote to Thedim informing him that the statue arrived at destination in perfect condition and asked him to forward him the necessary papers requested by the customs office. With this letter, Gava also confirmed the order for the crown. These documents was received shortly afterwards, and late in March a cheque of 99 Sterling was sent to this artist. These expenses included the cost and transport cost of the statue. Coincidently, on the same day, they received a letter informing them that the crown of the Madonna was ready awaiting the license to be exported. When the arrival of the crown was further delayed, Gava rewrote to Thedim urging him to send it because they wanted to use the statue to celebrate the Madonna of Fatima feast in May. But the celebrations were to be carried out without the crown, because its delivery was still awaited. On the 12th of May, this statue was taken to the Chapel of St. Agatha from where it was carried in a procession aux flambaux to the parish church accompanied by the rosary. Following this celebration, this statue was temporary left on the Crucifix Altar awaiting a permanent place in the church.
Towards mid June, Gava reminded Thedim that the crown had still not been sent, and the latter informed him that due to the silver material in the crown, he was finding difficulty in obtaining the necessary permits. In fact, this crown did not reach our shores before November of the same year.
Overall, the statue of Our Lady of Fatima costed £124-16s-6d, and the crown £35 excluding transport. Carmela Camilleri, Francis Gauci, Salv Camilleri, John Gauci, Jos Bonnici and Carmelo Bonnici were the benefactors of this statue, while John Camilleri, John Camilleri and Joseph Gauchi were the sponsors of the filigranu crown.
To further adhorn this statue, a pedestal and a cradle were being projected and planned. Sculpture Buhagiar finished these designs by end January 1953. Carpentry works were commissioned to the craftsman Guseppi Xuereb, and he completed the works by mid May of the same year. The sculpture works of the pedestal was carried out by Salv Tonna, while the gold gilding was done by Pawlu Xuereb. The pedestal and the cradle were only used for the days of celebrations, while another set was used during the rest of the year. On May 1974, it was discovered that the pedestal used for the everyday use was rotting and had to be replaced. It was replaced with no charge by carpenter Carmelo Xuereb.
Although the feast of Our Lady of Fatima feast is no longer being celebrated in Zurrieq, this statue is still held with great esteem. In fact one can still pay a visit to this Madonna which is situated on the Altar of the Holy Rosary in the St. Catherine's Parish Church.
Gavà, G. & Portelli, G (Sac.) (1984.). Prokura tal-Madonan ta' Ftima tal-Knisja Matriċi u Arċipretali taż-Żurrieq. Arkivju tal-Knisja, Żurrieq.