Written by C. Rolé
Air-raid drills were the nightmare of the whole nation. Maltese families were terrorised by the Italian aerial warfare and could find only protection in the excavated shelters. Another form of retreat was in prayers to the Holy Mary, asking Her to spare their beloved ones.
War was not only the cause of various deaths, but also the destruction of many buildings, some of them historical treasures. Many monumental buildings were disintegrated including the majestic Royal Theatre and various other priceless dwellings which dated back to the days of the Knights of St John. Our beloved churches had also their share. St Publius church in Floriana, the church of the Holy Trinity in Marsa and other religious structures scattered proudly around the Grand Harbour are an example.
In the remote village of Zurrieq, this damage was on a much smaller scale, although still of a certain significance. Towards the late 1941, some damage was reported in the dome's windows. A bomb blasted in the vicinity and shattered all the glass. The Parish Priest Ghigo ordered to secure them and helpers barred them with wooden planks to prevent further exposure (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989). Later these apertures were replaced by the craftsman Guzeppi Xuereb (Xuereb, 2010).
More ill fate struck the church on the twenty third of July 1942. Leonard Sacco, Manuel Grixti and Rev Salv Farrugia recall how a bomb rolled over the far end of the church. This bomb-shell exploded against the wall that stretches from the archives hall towards the sacristy and demolishing it and another wall belonging to the neighbouring family Bugeja. In the same incident a wooden bench full of torches belonging to the Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament was totally destroyed. Later that day, the air-raid siren was heard again announcing further damage including a house in St. Michael's Street. A special constable appointed for that area-Salvatore Zammit was sent to investigate the devastated house and later, accompanied by Rev Guzepp Zammit Psaila and Rev Guzepp Cuschieri inspected the church's sacristy (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989)
Present on the site were a number of volunteers cleaning up the debris. Toninu Gauchi, pharmacist Guzeppi Saydon and Guzeppi Xuereb were amongst those involved. Rev Guzepp Zammit Falzon and Salvatore Farrugia were also studying the sacristy's ruins. During the cleaning of the site, a member of the adjoining Bugeja family informed the authorities that there was still an unexploded shell in their garden (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989). Unfortunately, this time bomb was still active and blasted with no further delay (Berqa, 1942). The bomb alert had barely reached all the helping party, when an explosion destroyed the sacristy and the ceiling of the main crypt (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989).
This incident was duly reported in the local newspaper-Berqa, on the twenty eight day of that month, announcing the death of ten people. Amongst the victims were Dun Guzeppi Cuschieri (sixty three years old), Rev. Guzeppi Zammit Psaila (sixty three),Guze Saydon(fourty six),Salvu Zammit(fifty six ) and Toni Gauchi (fifty six years old).Other victims included Katerina (thirteen) and Giovanna (eleven) of the Bugeja family. There was also the new born daughter of Guza Bondin-Josephine ( four months) and Carmel Ellul (seventy) (Berqa, 1942). It is no surprise that Remig Sacco in his writings consider the July of 1942 as a 'black month' for the village of Zurrieq. An interview to Guza Bondin reported by Laurence Mizzi reveals more information on this accident. She recalls that on her way to a local store in St Michael's street to collect the 'raxin' (free supplies of food to help families in time of war), she stopped at the shoe repair shop of her father for a chat. The explosion struck her and the baby as soon as the reached the corner of the street. She found shelter in a door entrance of the same alley, where they tried to protect themselves from the falling stones which devastated the zone. Guza was unhurt, but her baby was hit by a stone in her head and died later at home. Guza describes in great sorrow what difficulty they had to endure in those days of war and misery. She states that unable to pay for her daughter's funeral, Josephine was buried with other people in a place not even known to her mother (Mizzi, 2002).
The twenty third day of July would proof to be an unforgettable date for three people in Zurrieq, when their lives were miraculously spared. Dun Guzepp Zammit Falzon and Salvu Farrugia managed to escape after being buried alive in the Main Crypt when the roof caved in (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989). Guzeppi Xuereb owes his life to a wooden bench. He escaped death when by chance the blast left him lying under the shelter of a candle wooden bench which suspended from a slap onto the dead body of the his pharmacist friend (Xuereb, 2010). This explosion also accounted for the destruction of the rooms lying directly on the sacristy. These rooms were home for many of the church's treasures, including some of the most precious riggings and feast decorations. In fact, in the big canvas (or tray) lay all the pontifical vestments used for the celebration of the feast of St Catherine. The explosion destroyed the ceiling and this tray fell on the debris (when the floor gave in) and broke apart (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989). Fortunately, this pontifical vestment remained intact except for the velvet which, after being exposed to burns, became very fragile and used to tore away even with the its own weight (Xuereb, 2010).
This explosion also collapsed the (gold) plated lopop of the canopy ,the big chandelier and the sopraporti which used to decorate the church's naves. These were masterpieces of Manuel Buhagiar. Some damage was also reported in the 'ventartali' ,in the big silver plated chandelier and in the old organ. Moreover, Anthony Mangion states that an antique painting of the Rosary collapsed, the then recent works of gold plating on the choir's dome were extensively damaged, and there were also some cracks on the main dome (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989).
Many villagers went to visit the place of the explosion as soon as they heard about the tragedy. Later that day, the archbishop Mauro Caruana also paid a visit. After assisting the casualties and securing the dead bodies of the victims in the priest's sacristy, they extracted all the pontifical equipment they could from the debris. Later all the other riggings were stored (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989)
War effected also the feast celebrations. The titular statue of St Catherine V.M. was placed in the sacristy, (facing the door leading to the organ) instead of its usual niche (Xuereb, 2010). Although still celebrated, the titular feast turned into a much smaller scale, under the form of a pilgrimage. It took place on its original date, the twenty fifth of November. Other feasts, including those of Our Lady of Mount Carmel also took place. All this was distinctively reported by the local newspaper Leħen is-sewwa (Leħen is-sewwa, 1942).
On the eight May of the year 1943 all the churches of Malta, including those of Zurrieq celebrated the allies' victory of Tunis and Bizerta with the long attended playing of their bells. As from the eleventh of January 1942, all churches were instructed not to play their bells after the 'all-clear' signal, as they were accustomed to do. They could only use them to announce major attacks (Sacco, 2002).
But from the twentieth May 1943, these religious buildings were allowed to use these bells at limited times-including at eight in the morning, at noon, and at a quarter past seven in the evening. These notes could not take longer than three minutes so that the villagers would not mistook them for some type of attack alert. These restrictions were completely abolished on the nintheenth August 1943 (Sacco, 2002).
When war was over, everything settled back to normality, and everyone began to live back his normal life .A monument was later erected on the side of the church in memory of those who lost their lives in this cruel war. Every villager who has at hearth his native village -Zurrieq, should remember these victims and all others who helped to preserve all the priceless religious treasures in these difficult times.
Il-festa tal-Madonna tal-Karmnu fiż-Żurrieq. (1942, Lulju 24) Leħen is-Sewwa, p. 2.
Informazzjoni minn Carmelo Xuereb.
Mangion, A., & Zerafa, K. (1989). Santa Katerina: il-festa u s-soċjetà mużikali tagħha fiż-Żurrieq. Valletta (Malta): Peresso Printing Press.
Mizzi, L. (2002). The people's war: Malta 1940-1943. Valletta (Malta): Progress Press Co. Ltd.
Sacco, R. (2002). Iż-Żurrieq kif għextu jien 1922-1945. Marsa (Malta): Union Print Co. Ltd.
Xuereb, C. (2007). The creation of a church museum at Żurrieq: a tourism potential for the south. Unpublished B.A. (Hons) Tourism Studies dissertation, Faculty of Economics, Management & Accountancy, University of Malta.
Vittmi tal-kefrija nazi waqt ħbit għal t'apposta fuq il-Knisja taż-Żurrieq. (1942, Lulju 28). Berqa, p. 2.