St. Catherine's Medieval Church - Secret Passage


St. Catherine's Medieval Church - Secret Passage

In March 1969, Mr. G.M. Debono (the Parish verger) was doing some cleaning and repair work to the church of St. Gregory of Żejtun. He was struck by the presence of a stone slab on the roof which was raised one inch or so above the surrounding level. He became suspicious and after some consultation with other persons he raised the slab to find a hole or trap-door leading into some passages.

Mr Debono descended into the hole and found that the passages contained five viewing holes, very skilfully sealed from the outside. He also discovered a heap of human bones. Further examination of the passages led to the discovery of an entrance through the stairs shaft.

Scratching and other marks on the walls lead to believe that some persons had entered the place in 1909. Two of these persons were eventually traced. When these persons where questioned they had a very vague idea of their grown-ups discovering the passages in the same way that they were re-discovered in 1969, but apparently this discovery was never made public. No reason could be given for keeping the secret, but since the victims of the 1810 plague were buried in a cemetery adjacent to the church, and no burial of plague victims could be disturbed before 100 years had passed, it is possible that older people who entered the passages in 1909 associated the bones with the plague and made a hasty exit from the place.

The discovery caused quite a sensation, and different people suggested various theories as to the origin of the findings. Old documents perused so far did not lead to any definite solution, and so one theory is as good as another. However any opinion expressed should be based on accepted principles, known facts and logic.

The dome was built, rebuilt or repaired in 1942; hence the transepts were already in existence on that date. The sitting of the passages and their viewing-holes are a clear indication that the corridors were intended for defence purposes, i.e. lookouts and intermediate signalling station. Any enemy landing on the East and South coasts could be easily seen from this high place and the warning passed to the fortified cities of Birgu and Mdina by means of bonfires on the roof of the church. The viewing holes pointed to the East in the direction of the fortified tower of St. Thomas in Wied Il-Ghajn and to the West in the direction of the fortified tower of St. Lucian in Marasaxlokk.

Some persons suggested that the bones could have been removed from the burials in the ground, inside or outside the church, carried up to the passages and deposited there. This suggestion is quite easily disposed since of, (i) one cannot understand why any person should go into the trouble of carrying the remains up a narrow staircase and through a narrow and difficult entrance (30" high by 20" wide) into the corridors, when it was so much easier to dig a trench in the cemetery grounds and (ii) medical opinion has it that the bones were never buried under the soil.

Since it is difficult to carry (and there is no logical reason for carrying) such a big quantity of bones up the aforementioned stairs, it would even be much more difficult to carry dead bodies for burial in the passages hence the conclusion must be that these men died either in the passages or somewhere very near (maybe on the roof of the church)…

Author: Joseph Abela

References: The old church of St.Gregory at Żejtun by Walter R.Zahra