Maltese devotion to ‘Saint of Miracles’ remains strong

Picture: 
Body: 

This year the Dominican community is commemorating the 600th anniversary of the death of St Vincent Ferrer, one of the greatest saints of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans). It is, therefore, appropriate to look at the history regarding the devotion to this saint in Malta.

The devotion to St Vincent Ferrer goes back to the years immediately following his canonisation in 1455, 30 years after his death. A tangible witness to this early devotion is a fresco portraying the saint in the medieval church of the Annunciation in Ħal Millieri, near Żurrieq.

Since this church was built in the mid-15th century, one can assume that the fresco may have been painted soon after the saint’s canonisation. Other frescoes in the same church portray other saints associated with the early years of the Catholic Church.

The devotion to St Vincent was strengthened with the arrival of the Dominican friars in Malta in 1513, having their first church in Rabat, above the shrine of Our Lady of the Grotto. In fact, in this church one finds a painted effigy of the saint and another painting in the church’s choir showing St Vincent resurrecting the dead. Due to the large number of miracles performed during his lifetime, St Vincent is one of the limited number of saints on whom was bestowed the title of thaumaturgist, a performer of miracles.

 

A painting of the saint by Giuseppe Calì at Sacro Cuor parish church, Sliema.A painting of the saint by Giuseppe Calì at Sacro Cuor parish church, Sliema.

 

When the Dominicans set foot in the newly built city of Valletta in 1569, it was more than obvious that the devotion to the Saint of Miracles was to be propagated here too. Soon after the completion of their first church in 1593, a chapel dedicated to St Vincent was built under the church choir. A year later, this chapel was embellished with an effigy of the saint.

An important event was the foundation of the Confraternity of St Vincent Ferrer on July 18, 1576, which was sanctioned by the Inquisitor, Mgr Pietro Sant’Urbano. On October 27, the confraternity was registered as the Archconfraternity of Oration and Death in Rome. This is recorded in the Bishop of Malta’s Curia, bearing the date May 7, 1580.

On April 15, 1577, the Dominican Order granted the confraternity permission to build its own oratory. It was built in Strada San Giorgio, now Republic Street. However, the confraternity soon became extinct and the oratory closed down.

Despite this, devotion to the saint remained strong. Some 200 years later, in 1744, a group of devotees presented a request to Bishop Paul Alpheran de Bussan to re-establish the confraternity. Soon after that, a procession in honour of the saint began to be held.

On February 4, 1842, another request was made to Bishop Francesco Saverio Caruana so that the confraternity laymen could wear a confraternity robe. The request was accepted, and the laymen were allowed to wear a white robe with a black mozzetta, a roped cord round their waists, and attached to the cord was a black-beaded rosary. A statue of St Vincent was brought over in 1790 to be carried in procession annually.

The devotion to St Vincent Ferrer soon became widespread, with paintings portraying the saint found in several churches all over Malta and Gozo. At the Basilica of Our Lady of Porto Salvo and St Dominic in Valletta one finds artistic representations of the saint, the most notable one being the altarpiece in one of the church’s chapels painted by Francesci in 1903, replacing an old one by Francesco Zahra still to be seen in the sacristy.

St Vincent is one of the limited number of saints on whom was bestowed the title of thaumaturgist, a performer of miracles

Another image of the saint forms part of Giuseppe Calì’s vault painting, while a fresco of the saint is found above one of the friars’ cells lining the priory’s corridor. Other paintings include one by Ġanni Vella at the Dominican church in Vittoriosa, an altarpiece by Calì in the left transept of the church of Our Lady of Pompeii in Marsaxlokk and another one, also by Calì, at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart parish church in Sliema. A small painting of the saint is found in the priory entrance hall of the Dominican parish church of Jesus of Nazareth in Sliema. This painting used to adorn one of the church’s altars.

 

A painting by Francesco Zahra showing St Vincent performing miracles in the vestry of St Dominic parish church, Valletta.A painting by Francesco Zahra showing St Vincent performing miracles in the vestry of St Dominic parish church, Valletta.

 

Other paintings of St Vincent are found in the parish churches of Gudja (above the altarpiece of Our Lady of the Rosary), St Andrew’s parish church, Luqa, in the sacristy of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Graces in Żabbar, the altarpiece of Our Lady of the Rosary at St Cajetan’s parish church and at Santunuzzu chapel, both in Ħamrun, the altarpiece of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at St Publius parish church, Floriana, and at St Paul’s Shipwreck parish church and St Lucy church in Valletta.

In Gozo, paintings of the saint are found at Our Lady of Pompeii shrine, run by the Dominican Sisters, and at Il-Ħaġar Museum, Victoria, where the altarpiece of St Cajetan previously at St George’s Basilica in Victoria also features St Vincent Ferrer.

The devotion to the ‘Saint of Miracles’ is not only confined to churches. Streets bearing the saint’s name can be found in Rabat (near the Dominican Priory), Sliema, Marsa and Ħamrun. Apart from that, seven niches with statues of the saint can be found in various places, including Rabat, on the corner between George Borg Olivier and Nicola Saura Streets, which is in dire need of restoration.

 

A niche depicting St Vincent in Marsa.A niche depicting St Vincent in Marsa.

 

Marsa has a niche in Fishermen’s Street with a tablet underneath recording indulgences granted by Bishop Pietro Pace in 1894. A niche with the statue of the saint, which seems to have been made by unskilled but devotional hands, is also found in St Angelo Street, Marsascala.

Marsaxlokk has a niche of the saint on the corner between the seafront and St Pius Street. This was set up by Fr Vincenzo La Corte, who had a summer residence nearby. In 1901, Bishop Pace granted indulgences to those who prayed in front of the niche. Another niche is found in Sammat Street, Paola, while a recently restored statue of St Vincent can be found in the corner between Msida Road and St Roque Street in Birkirkara.

A high relief medallion depicting St Vincent Ferrer on the façade of Villa Bonici is found in Sliema. It was commissioned by the Noble Testaferrata Bonici Axiaq family, who carried the title of Marquis of St Vincent.

 

 

Street statues of St Vincent are displayed during the feasts of St Dominic in Valletta and Vittoriosa and at Gudja’s main square during the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. The statue is the property of La Stella Band Club.

Prayers, chaplets and novenas to St Vincent Ferrer were considered important religious objects during special moments, including pregnancy and childbirth. The Confraternity of St Vincent Ferrer of Valletta also had relics of the saint, which could be taken home so that mothers in labour could have a safe delivery. Newborn babies or infants were presented to St Vincent Ferrer in front of his statue at St Dominic parish church as a sign of thanksgiving. This brief but touching ceremony was often performed following baptism in the same church.

 

 

St Vincent was not only invoked by women about to give birth, but also by parents whose children suffered from gastro-intestinal infections and typhoid fever, which were rampant at the time. A common act of devotion was having a sip of St Vincent Holy Water. This was often administered to children suffering from various contagious diseases. The water was periodically blessed by the Dominican Prior.

The most common act of thanksgiving by parents after a child recovered from a disease was dressing up their child in a tailor-made Dominican robe and taking them to church on Thursdays, being the day of devotion to the saint. This habit was a manifestation to the whole neighbourhood that the child had been cured through the saint’s intercession.

 

 

Devotion to St Vincent Ferrer is still very active today. Many parents still present their children to the saint and keep the saint’s holy water at hand to seek his intercession in times of need.

The feast of St Vincent Ferrer will be celebrated at St Dominic parish church, Valletta, between tomorrow and May 11.

 

 

https://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20190505/life-features/maltes...