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A hidden gem – the Jesuit Church in Valletta

Owen Bonnici – (Minister for the National Heritage, the Arts, and the Local Government.)

Our capital city is adorned with fantastic patrimony and historical buildings. We are proud of the legacy that we have inherited from our fore-fathers and we are investing our energy and funds to keep restoring and valorising our tangible heritage while promoting the intangible aspect of our patrimony.

The Jesuits Church Foundation is celebrating its first anniversary from its foundation. It has been established by an agreement between the Government of Malta and the Archdiocese of Malta, as a social purpose foundation of a non-profit making nature to administer and conserve the Church of the Circumcision of Our Lord, in Merchants Street, Valletta, popularly known as “the Jesuits Church” as a historical and architectural monument, as well as a sacred place of worship, together with the adjoining the Oratories of the Onorati and Immaculate Conception.

I strongly believe in the potential that the Jesuit Church has and it can be easily considered to be one of the finest examples of our religious heritage in Valletta, second only to the majestic Co-Cathedral.

As a Government we have put our money where our mouth is. So far we have invested EUR 2.8 million in restoration works and we have unveiled another plan to invest a further EUR 1.7 million which will bring about a new lease of life in this extraordinary gem.

Some history

St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits society in 1534, had considered founding a college in Malta as early as 1553. This was delayed for several decades until Grandmaster Martin Garzes finally laid the first stone of the college on 4 September 1595 after the intervention of Pope Clement VIII. The college became known as Collegium Melitense. It was primarily ecclesiastic and not scientific to prepare candidates for the priesthood.

An explosion in 1634 caused severe damage to both church and college. The church was possibly re-built by the renowned Order’s resident military architect and engineer Francesco Buonamici from Lucca, making it the first work on the island of Malta to be designed by an architect of international repute.

The Collegium Melitense, belonging to the Sicilian Province of the Society of Jesus, became a Pontifical University and prospered for 170 years until its expulsion from Malta by Grandmaster Manuel Pinto da Fonseca in 1768. The Collegium and all Jesuit property were confiscated. A year later, Grandmaster Pinto sought recognition of the Collegium as a "Public University of General Studies" and a lower College [later Lyceum] from the Holy See. The building housed several entities over the years, most notably the University of Malta, until in 1968, it moved to its present site in purposely built premises at Tal-Qroqq, Msida.

The restoration works are underway. Jesuits church and the collegium are intended to restore the whole block which formed once one edifice.

Works started in 2015 with the restoration of the roof areas of the Jesuit church, the dome, the cupolas over the chapels and the belfry. Works then proceeded with restoring the facades of the church on Merchant Street, Archbishop Street and St Paul Street. A lightning protection system was also installed. These works cost a total of €700,000. Works continued with the repairs to the timber roof over the Oratory of the Onorati at the cost of another €400,000.

Contemporarily restoration and paving works were carried out on the courtyard of the collegium, now the Valletta Campus of the University of Malta, and the external facades on Merchant Street, St Christopher Street and St Paul Street. These works cost a total of €570,000.

Works are currently concentrated on the church’s interior, namely the sacristy and oratories. Dating back to the first half of the 17th century, the Oratory of the Immaculate Conception was built to provide a suitable space for prayer for a confraternity established sometime earlier by the Knights of Saint John. Although historical sources have as yet not uncovered its architect, the time of its construction has led some to attribute it to Francesco Buonamici (1596–1677).

Mid-2021 saw the start of works to replace the existing mechanical and electrical systems and to carry out restoration works on the interiors of the sacristy and the oratories of the Immaculate Conception and that of the Onorati.

Works on the sacristy and the Oratory of the Immaculate Conception are in an advanced stage today. The existing services in the sacristy were removed and replaced, and a fire detection system was introduced. New lighting of the sacristy has been installed. Studies on the existing walls and ceiling have identified the original colours, which have now been reproduced. Repairs to the masonry have been carried out and to the windows. Sanitary facilities in the sacristy have also been refurbished. A marble wash hand basin in the sacristy is being restored while the marble flooring of the sacristy was repaired and re-polished.

Works are also currently in hand on the services in the Oratory of the Immaculate Conception. Studies on the existing walls and ceiling have identified the original colour scheme, which is now being restored. Repairs to the balustrade over the oratory door have also been carried out to the windows. Once the works on the walls and ceiling are completed, the restoration of the altar can commence, and the marble floor can be repaired and repolished.

The contract value of these works is €1,000,000.

The Oratory of the Immaculate Conception is decorated by a cycle depicting the Life of the Virgin attributed to the mature Filippino Dingli (born in the 7th century and died in 1677) and Stefano Erardi (1630-1716), paintings which are also undergoing restoration. The restoration of the floral panels and the choir which embellishes the Oratory has also been completed. The Jesuits’ Church Foundation has commissioned these works on the paintings and panels.

Other complementary works, such as the restoration of the sacristy furniture, are being planned in the meantime and will commence shortly.

Such projects will demonstrate the Government's commitment to cultural heritage. Restoring historic buildings is essential for our children and those who visit us to enjoy our ancestors’ legacy so we can revitalise our historical heritage.

A person’s best friend

Together with my colleague Minister Clifton Grima, we presided over an agreement between Arts Council Malta and the National Book Council.

This co-operation agreement aims to strengthen the existing collaboration between these two entities for the promotion of several artistic and educational initiatives, particularly during the National Book Festival and the Book Festival on Campus.

These festivals will be of great importance and the perfect platform for authors and illustrators. Through this MOU we aim to create long-term support for local creative organisation, and provides a platform for the ever-growing community in Malta.

Through this support, we aim to nurture creative potential sustainably and professionally, invest in artistic excellence, and internationalise the local artistic community while providing more opportunities for people to engage in creativity.

Furthermore, the MoU will facilitate the integration of opportunities for the creative community working in and around the publishing industry, specifically illustrators and graphic designers.

This collaboration aims at improving and sustaining the publishing industry with specific regard to book illustrators and graphic designers to provide them with more opportunities for professional and creative development and more accessibility to books and publishing for varied audiences.

We will keep working hard.


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