The Parish Church
Written by Ruben Abela
St Catherine’s Parish Church is located in the centre of a large triangular urban space surrounded by three piazzas at each tip of this triangle. The piazzas are Misrah Girgor Bonici, which is considered as the main piazza of the town, Misrah ir-Repubblika, which is an extension to the parvis of the church and the adjacent Oratory, and Misrah Dicembru 13, which is a parking area at the back of the church. The church is located in a very prominent position at the area known as il-Gwiedi which is the plural of Gudja, meaning hill. In fact the site is precisely one of a series of hills found in this rather plain landscape of the south eastern part of our island. Viewed from Tal-Barrani, from Triq Bormla and from other distant views, the church seems to be overlooking the town and dominates its skyline.
Land Donation by Girgor Bonici
The land on which the church is built was donated by Girgor Bonici and Tumas Abela . Girgor Bonici came from a noble family and had a residence and various properties at Zejtun. At that time he was also the Hakem of Mdina and head of the Kunsill Popolari, the position was equivalent to almost as the Prime Minister’s role today. The choice of land on which the new parish church, which had to replace the old medieval church found almost half a mile distant from this site (today known as St. Gregory’s), was a centre of debate by the villagers at that time. Since the old parish church was located at a considerable distance away from the three hamlets forming Zejtun at that time, Hal-Bisqallin, Hal-Bisbut and Hal-Gwann, there was a sense of village rivalry on which area should the new church be built on. The villagers of Hal-Bisbut and Hal-Gwann wanted the church to be built closer to them, in fact Girgor Bonici was going to donate a piece of land in front of his palace Aedes Danielis, but since this site was quite far from Bisqallin, the site on which we find the church today was chosen as a better alternative at the middle between the two agglomerations.
All the church facades are almost totally exposed except for part of the North façade which has the Oratory and part of the pastoral centre annexed to it. The main façade of the church faces West. The side facades, facing South and North respectively are characterized by three arched wall screening the flying buttresses.
The church was designed by the Maltese renowned architect of the Baroque era, Lorenzo Gafa’ although it was completed decades after his death, and it is a known fact that the church as is today does not follow completely Gafa’s design. Gafa’ designed a number of other churches amongst others including the parish churches of Siggiewi and Qrendi, the Mdina Cathedral and the Citadel Cathedral in Gozo, however the Zejtun church is considered as his masterpiece. The master mason responsible for the construction of the church was Xandru Pulis who was born in Cospicua but after his marriage with Marietta Cachia from Zejtun, resided at Zejtun in Bisqallin.
The church plan is in the form of a Latin cross with side aisles. The main aisle is 46m long whilst at the transepts the church is 33m wide. The main aisle is 9m wide.
The three main orders of architecture are used on the main façade: the Doric order is used on the lower level; the Ionic order is used on the second level; whilst the Composite order is used on the bell towers. The façade is divided into seven bays thus giving the elegant Baroque movement through the effect of light and shade.
Laying the First Stone
The ceremony of the laying of first stone of this new church was held on the feast of St. Catherine, the 25th November of 1692 and lead by Bishop Davide Cocco Palmieri. The church took a long time to be completed. On the 14th August 1707 Bishop Cocco Palmieri solemnly translated the Blessed Sacrament from the old parish church to the new one, when only the nave had been erected. The 1709 visitation report described in detail the state of construction of the church as on the 24th June 1709. It was described that the nave had been completed but work on the transepts and the choir was still in the early stages.
By 1733, the crossing, chancel, choir, two transepts and the dome were completed. As the aisles were not yet built, the side altars were placed in the nave. The church had only one bell-tower, which stood on the side of the south transept. This indicated that at some time there has been a decision to leave the church a strictly cruciform building with bell towers on the transept arms as in the parish churches of Qrendi and Ghaxaq. In the wall thickness of the south transept one can still notice the circular walls which were intended to support the spiral stairs leading to the top of the bell-tower.
On 10th May 1744, Bishop Alpheran de Bussan solemnly consecrated the new parish church of St. Catherine, however work on it was, apparently not finally terminated before 1778 with the completion of the side aisles. After further investigation into the church structure a date engraved in stone has been discovered on the keystone of one of the north side flying buttresses, the date being 3rd May 1779. It is thought that this is the date when the last flying buttress on the side aisle was completed and thus marking the completion of the church construction.
In 1857 the frontispiece on the main façade was restored after suffering some damage when it was hit during a storm. This work was carried out by the Royal Engineers and a date recording this work was engraved on the back side of the frontispiece.
Soon after the nave and dome were built, it was reported that unless the aisles were constructed, there was the danger that the nave of the church would collapse. It seems that in 1791, Gafa’s dome already had some structural problems. The original dome built after Gafa’s design had no lantern. It seems that this structural problem dragged even up till the beginning of the 20th Century when a technical report was prepared by two architects, Annibale Lupi and Salvo Sacco, after being commissioned by the parish in 1907. It was recommended to rebuild the saucer dome with a higher profile and thus will be able to support a lantern. This new saucer dome and lantern were built on Gafa’s drum on the design of Mastro Giuseppe Zahra and built by Carmelo Vella, both from Zejtun. The same architects reported on the fact that the upper cornice around the back and part of the side facades was not completed and recommended its completion.
In the 1950s a backdoor was opened on the eastern façade of the church in order to create a new access through the sacristies. This was done by creating a passage through the wall thickness just behind the main altar painting in the choir. Complimenting this were other works such as the creation of new niches and a stairs leading to the stores which were created at an upper level within the sacristies. All these works were carried out within the thickness of the massive walls. In the late 1990s it was noticed that one of the main pilasters supporting the dome had a number of cracks, and after further monitoring it was concluded that this pilaster had structural problems resulting from the voids which were created within the wall thickness in the 1950s. As a precaution all the spaces which were created in the 1950s were filled in again and structural reinforcement introduced in order to strengthen the whole structure. The structure is still being monitored.
Other recent restoration works in the church structure include the dismantling and reconstruction of the lantern on the main dome and the dismantling and reconstruction of the bell tower finials. The first project was carried out in 1990 and the finials were restored in 1992.