The Parish Church of Żejtun dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria V.M. is considered as the masterpiece of architect Lorenzo Gafa (1630-1710) who besides this church also constructed plans for the building of the Cathedrals of Mdina and that of Gozo, of the church of Vittoriosa and of several other churches. The foundation stone of this church was laid by Bishop Cocco Palmieri on 25th November 1692. In 1707 the Blessed Sacrament was transported from the old church of St. Gregory to the new Parish Church. In 1720 it was blessed by Bishop Canavas and Bishop Alpheran de Busan solemnly consecrated it in 1744. In 1889 Pope Leo XIII elevated it in dignity with the parish priest being called archpriest as a sign of gratitude for the care given to cholera patients by the clergy of Żejtun. Throughout the years the church was decorated with several works of art. We find important dates in its calendar, namely the feast of St Catherine in June and November, Christmas and the Easter Celebrations especially Good Friday well known for its procession, customs and traditions.
We know that the Good Friday procession with its statues was already being held in 1742. Along the ages changes were made, in fact up to 1961 the set of statues consisted of eight statues but by the year 1965 the set had increased to twelve. Together with the village of Qormi it has the biggest set of Good Friday statues in Malta.
The statues are:
Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. This statue is thought to be the oldest in the Żejtun set, and probably existed before the year 1800. The figure of Jesus is attributed to the well known artist Carlo Darmanin and the Angel was carved in wood by Alexander Farrugia.(1781-1871). The angel holds the symbols of the Passion of Jesus, the chalice and the cross, the latter which is inlaid was made by Vince Abela. The platform of the statue was made by Mosѐ Dalmas.
The second statue portrays the Kiss of Judas. It is the work of Angelo Capoccia, made in Lecce, Italy in 1961 and is a copy of a famous marble sculpture at the Scala Santa, Rome. In 1961 both these statues were decorated with real olive trees and this is still being done every year.
The third statue the Scourging of Jesus at the Pillar was made by Alexander Farrugia of Żejtun and the platform was made by Spiro Ellul.
The fourth statue the Crowning of Jesus with Thorns, with a soldier and a tormentor looking on, was made by Gozitan Alfred Camilleri Cauchi in 1985. The platform consisting of inlaid work was made by Alfred Camilleri.
The fifth statue Pontius Pilate Presenting Jesus to the Jews is a copy of another statue found at the Scala Santa in Rome. It was made in 1962 and replaced the one made by Wistin Camilleri. The platform was made by Guiseppe Caruana in 1990.
Christ the Redeemer, a statue, showing Jesus carrying the heavy cross was made by Carlo Darmanin. The statue is renowned for its cross with the passion flower inlaid in mahogany and made by Mosѐ Dalmas. The platform was made by Dalmas as well.
The seventh statue is the most recent one made by Alfred Camilleri Cauchi in 2007 to replace another one made by Angelo Capoccia. It represents Simon of Cyrene Helping Jesus Carry the Cross.
The eight statue is that of The Veronica, the woman to whom Jesus, as a sign of gratitude, left a replica of his face on the kerchief with which she dried his face. The statue was made by Carlo Darmanin and the platform was made by Mosѐ Dalmas.
The Crucifixion consists of an artistic group, the body of the Crucified Jesus and the Cross are the work of an unknown artist, but the statues of the Virgin Mary, St John the Apostle and Mary Magdalene are the work of Giovanni Darmanin.
The Pietà representing the Virgin Mary holding her dead son on her lap accompanied by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus was made in Lecce by Antonio Capoccia in 1965.
The eleventh statue is the Lying in State. It consists of a well decorated bed holding the corpse of Jesus. The corpse was imported from Spain while the embroidery, on the red velvet decorating the bed, is the work of the nuns of Jesus of Nazareth Institute. The four angels at each corner of the bed and holding symbols of the Passion were made by Wistin Camilleri.
The last statue representing Our Lady of Sorrows was made at Lecce. St John the Apostle was the work of Alfred Camilleri Cauchi and added to the statue later on.
The statues are enriched with mahogany inlaid platforms which are decorated with silver sconces and other silver symbols. Throughout the years the procession was enhanced with artistically embroidered banners made by local craftsmen, bearing the Last Seven Utterances of Jesus on the cross, and the S.P.Q.R. (Senatus Populusque Romanus) flag indicating the Roman authorities’ responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus.
The Ark of the Covenant was added on to the procession in 2008.
The procession is held on Good Friday at about 5.00pm and takes about 5 hours to go round some of Żejtun’s meandering streets. About 600 people take part including Jewish and Roman soldiers, and Biblical personages associated with the Passion. The two local town bands accompany the procession as well. The procession is really impressive in fact it draws the admiration of both locals and tourists.
On Easter Sunday a procession is held with the statue of the Risen Christ made by Alfred Camilleri Cauchi.
Author: Paul Zammit
Translation by: Angela Spiteri
References: ‘The Parish of Żejtun through the Ages’ Rev Joe Abela