This small Zejtun church was a lookout for pirates and still has a traditional festa

The feast of St Gregory has shaped Zejtun’s history and identity, as its mayor explains how the fear of marauding pirates scared off bishops from ever living in Zejtun

Franica Pulis
18 April 2017, 1:33pm
The former parish church known as St Gregory’s Church
The former parish church known as St Gregory’s Church
The feast of St Gregory, celebrated on the first Wednesday after Easter, might have lost its appeal to many but Zejtun’s mayor thinks it forms part of the identity of his locality and has shaped its history.

77-year-old Joe Attard, born and bred in Zejtun, explains his reasoning: “The Church of St Catherine, better known as the Church of St Gregory or the old parish church, has a particular significance. Its development is indicative of all development in Zejtun. The feast itself changed the name of the Church where it is celebrated.

“So while I recognise the spiritual aspect of the feast, I’m also concerned about the the social educational and cultural aspect of those days and how it affected our ancestors.”

Attard says the Church of St Gregory used to be surrounded by land owned by the Cathedral Chapter while people lived far from it , in the upper hamlet (Hal Bisbud) and the lower hamlet (Bisqallin). Today people from Zejtun still refer to them as “ir-rahal ta’ fuq u r-rahal t’isfel” (the upper and lower hamlets).

“The Church was built 100 metres away from the Roman Villa, which was built on the hill overlooking the ports of Marsaxlokk, St Thomas Bay and Marsascala. It was an excellent lookout port for any invaders. Everybody used to land there. Even Napoleon did so,” Attard says.

Back in the 1990s, the Beland band club would put up shows the day after Easter to celebrate the feast of St Gregory, using the Church as a backdrop
Back in the 1990s, the Beland band club would put up shows the day after Easter to celebrate the feast of St Gregory, using the Church as a backdrop
“The Mdina Cathedral and the University (a sort of governing system) had an interest in keeping watch. As soon as there was a sign of invasion or trouble they would be advised. The Cathedral Chapter gave full autonomy to all the parishes in Malta of their churches, including the financial aspect, except for the one of Zejtun.

And it remains so till today. The Church of St Gregory is still owned by the Cathedral Chapter and the cantor has been responsible for it since the first one was appointed in 1372. The Church used to own most of the hinterland up to Delimara and used to make money from its rent (qbiela).

The cantor’s role, apart from leading people in prayer and singing, was also in charge of the finances. In fact he used to check the collection of the land rent during the feast of St Gregory. “Our current parish church was built because the one of St Gregory’s wasn’t ours,” Attard says.

“The Zejtun people had to look after a church which did not belong to them, keep constant vigilance day and night, and immediately report any sign of invading corsairs to Mdina. And they had to attend for religious services at least a kilometre away from their hamlets.”

Attard said the people of Zejtun lived in a dire state because of where the locality is situated. The pirates attacked every year during the season of May till September. “Zejtun was so dangerous to live in that certain bishops refused to live there.”

In fact a coastguard (id-Dejma) had been established in Zejtun since at least 1419 according to Godfrey Wettinger’s book ‘The Militia List of 1419-20’.

For at least 300 years (from the total expulsion of the Arabs from Malta in 1220 till the arrival of the Knights in 1530), the inhabitants of Zejtun faced these hardships by themselves, which were partly rewarded with the attention and patronage the church and district received.

Click here for the full programme happening on 19 April for the feast of St Gregory