Looking from the bastions of Valletta towards Floriana, one cannot help but notice the majestic Church of Saint Publius rising from the vast, paved expanse known as the Granaries, which is punctuated by large, flat, stone caps - each cap marking the top of a sub-terranean grain silo, excavated during the rule of the Knights of St. John under the grandmastership of Martino De Redin. The Church of Saint Publius was, in fact, one of the last churches to be built and completed in a Malta which was ruled by the Order, and its story kicks off in 1733 when Francesco Marandon, who was the engineer of the same Order, started designing the church. This was to be dedicated to Publius, the first bishop of Malta who had been converted to Christianty by Saint Paul himself and who had been proclaimed one of the island’s patron saints by Bishop Gargallo in 1610.
The first stone of the church was laid in the presence of Grandmaster de Vilhena in 1733, but lack of funds meant that work on the new church proceeded slowly, and the nave was only completed in 1792. It finally became the parish church of Floriana in 1844. Prior to that, Floriana was included with the parish of Saint Paul Shipwrecked in Valletta.
The original design was very different to the church which we see nowadays, and a look at a pre-1868 photo of the same building shows a church without the distinctive neo-classical portico which makes part of the main façade today, and also shows belfries which were much closer to each other than the present ones are - the present belfries being added in 1890, when two new aisles were completed. Pre-1968 photos of the church also show a small cemetery on the side of the church closer to the Mall. The cemetery was considered to be too close to the grain silos for comfort, being an obvious sanitary hazard, and therefore it was removed at some stage.
The statue of Saint Publius, which is carried in processions during the annual feast of the saint in Floriana, was sculptured by Vincenzo Dimech and dates back to 1811. In 2011 the two hundreth anniversary of the titular statue was celebrated.
The 28th April 1942 must be marked as the blackest day in the history of the parish church of Floriana. At this time World War II was raging and 8am on the morning of the 28th April found some forty enemy bombers on the sky-line, ready to attack Malta. Three of the bombers attacked the church of Saint Publius, where one bomb crashed through the dome straight onto the altar, where it penetrated the underlying crypt, demolishing the crypt as well as the dome. Thirteen people who were taking cover in the crypt were killed, and more were injured – some very seriously. Another bomb hit the facade of the church facing the granaries, falling between the two belfries and damaging the portico and its magnificent columns. Yet another bomb exploded inside the church, having penetrated the main nave, damaging the titular statue of Saint Publius.
The church was reconstructed in stages during the post-war period, with some of the work completed under the expert guidance of Gustavo Vincenti. Once completed, its embellishment - of course - followed. Of note is the beautiful ceiling over the main aisle which was decorated with scenes from Saint Publius’ life by Emvin Cremona in the ‘60s, and other paintings by Paul Camilleri Cauchi.
Author: Christine Tanti