The former Parish Church of St Chaterine, now known as St Gregory’s Church, has a very ancient origin. During the early 15th century (prior to 1436), on the same spot where today lies St Gregory’s Church, a small Chapel was built. This was dedicated to St Catherine and was the first Parish Church that the city of Żejtun ever had. It served as a Parish Church not only for Żejtun’s community but also for all the other villages close-by, in the east of Malta.
It was much smaller than the present Church and continued to serve as Żejtun’s Parish for several years. Typical of all the other Medieval Maltese chapels, it had a rectangular shape. It is thought that it was erected where today one finds the nave of St Gregory’s. This old, primitive Church was replaced by a larger one in 1492, also dedicated to St Catherine. Adjacent to it, was a small private Chapel owned by the Bonici Family. This was located in the same place where the present vestibule of St Gregory’s is found. (This private Chapel which was dedicated to St Mark and St Jacob, was demolished in 1837.)
The newly built Church of 1942, also had a rectangular shape but was much larger than the former one. Part of the its roof, was at one point in time, demolished and rebuilt in a Gothic style. Its windows were situated at a very high point from ground level due to fear of attacks from pirates which at the time were rather common.
The Church went through major important changes between the years 1593 and 1603, at a time when Malta began enjoying new prosperity under the Knights of the Order of St John. The Church was once again greatly enlarged and given the shape of the cross. The new designs for extending the Church were probably the work of the architect Vittorio Cassar (1550-1607), son of the well-known architect Girolamo Cassar. The new extensions of 1593-1603, included the construction of the two transepts. However, not everyone agrees that this Church had the strict form of the Latin cross, as it is not certain whether the sagristy of St Gregory’s was intentionally built to be the upper part of the Latin cross or whether it was meant to serve as a sagristy from the very beginning. Even so, it seems that with the addition of these transepts, this was the first Church in Malta to be given the form of the Latin Cross, after the Council of Trent.
The added transepts of 1593-1603 are an architectural gem in Gothic style. The transepts added to the east end of the nave are vaulted with a true Gothic quadripartite vault1, where the roofing slabs are well set into the groined ribs2. At the centre, where the ribs intersect, one can notice a small ceiling rose or sculpted motif: the one at the north transept is representing the Madonna of the Rosary, while that of the south transept is representing St Paul. In the former ceiling rose, is incised the date 1593, while on the latter, 1603. The altar at north transept is presently decicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel but was formerly dedicated to the Modonna of the Rosary. The south transept is dedicated to St Gregory. In fact the painting at its altar is illustrating Pope St Gregory the Great and is attributed to the Maltese artist Giulio Cassarino (1582-1637).
The Gothic vault, which can be appreciated at St Gregory’s, is hardly demonstrated in other churches in Malta and were the Knights of St. John who introduced it into our islands. (In spite of this, when the Knights set foot on Malta in 1530, the Gothic vault had already been superseded by Renaissance architecture in various parts of Europe.)
Another interesting architectural feature of St Gregory’s, is the dome. Initially, it seems that there was no intention to build a dome. In fact the desicion to construct one was at that time considered daring, as this was one of the earliest domes to be built in Malta. This early, primitive design consists of a low saucer dome on a sqaut drum. The low, robust solid drum is not high enough to encompass windows, however this had a lantern that was unfortunately destroyed in a storm in 1759 and never rebuilt.
The facade of the Church has also been greatly altered. This was probably done in the early 17th century, when a Renaissance doorway was added and a small bell tower was built. The facade of the Church has a certain elegance and grace which contrasts with the external rear part of the Church since the latter gives the impression of a fortress.
The statue just outside the Church is a represention of St Gregory the Great. It was designed by Vincenzo Hyzler (1813-1849) and was carved out of stone by the sculptor Salvatore Dimech (1805-1887). This statue, as well as the altarpiece at south transept, are linked to the annual procession which used to take place on the 12th of March: the feast of St Gregory.
St Gregory’s procession goes back centuries and all the Parishes of Malta used to join in this tradition. The real reason of how this procession originated, is still uncertain. Some think it all began after Malta was freed from the plague outbreak of 1519, others think it originated after Malta was liberated from the Turks when they attacked it in 1492. Others disagree on this and according to Mgr Mikiel Fsadni’s investigations, this procession took place for the first time on the feast of St Gregory in the year 1543 as a thanksgiving pilgrimage so as to spread peace amongst European Nations in times of instability. This procession used to commence from the Mdina Cathedral and proceed to St Gregory’s Church at Żejtun. Nowadays it begins from St Clement’s Chapel at Żejtun and ends with the celebration of the mass at St Gregory’s Church.
Author: Amy Sciberras - Paintings Conservator
1 The vault is divided into four sections by two diagonal ribs.
2 A rib under the curve of a groin, either to mask the groin or to support it.
Abela, J., 2006, Il-Parroċċa taż-Żejtun tul iż-Żminijiet, Malta: Klabb Kotba Maltin
Quentin, H., n.d., St Gregory at Żejtun, retreived 4 December 2012, from http://maltachurches.net/72-68-58-img.htm
Verbal communication by Paul Zammit – Sacristan of Żejtun’s Parish Church