Archbishop: Balluta monastery car park ‘sacrilegious creation replacing God’s greatness’

Archbishop lambasts the proposed car park in a monastery garden as ‘a sacrilegious creation of men’ replacing ‘the greatness of God’

The permit was approved on the basis of a private agreement signed in 2011 by former Carmelite prior Anthony Cilia,
The permit was approved on the basis of a private agreement signed in 2011 by former Carmelite prior Anthony Cilia,

Archbishop Charles Scicluna has asked the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal to revoke a permit for an underground car park in the Balluta convent grounds, insisting that the permit should be nullified because it lacked the consent of the owners – the Carmelite priory.

The permit was approved on the basis of a private agreement signed in 2011 by former Carmelite prior Anthony Cilia, who is the brother of developer John Cilia.

Both the new prior and the archbishop contend that this agreement was in breach of the original donation of the land to the Carmelite Order, which precludes the transfer of land to third parties.

Apart from legal reasons, the appeal also refers to the inappropriateness of the development of a car park on the site of a convent built specifically to encourage “meditation”.

The archbishop, who appealed in his role as administrator of ecclesiastical entities, cited the original contract signed in 1890 through which the land was granted to the Carmelite Order on condition that it is not sold to third parties without the consent of the confraternity ‘Verenanda Solidalita della Beata Vergine Del Carmelo della Valletta’, which ultimately falls under his authority.

According to Scicluna, the condition was intended to ensure that the garden remains a “secluded place adapt to the monks’ contemplation”.

With the permit approved, the garden would be “denatured with noise, exhaust and other inconveniences” which disrupt the environment of a convent. He described the garden as a central part of the life of the monks inhabiting the surrounding monastery.

“The garden was intended as a representation of heaven and a space where monks can meditate and reflect on their spiritual state. The presence of trees and the garden itself represent the love and glory of God…”

Scicluna said this space “cannot be replaced by a paved area with some trees dispersed here and there”, adding that this represented a radical departure from the way the garden was originally intended.

“In this way the greatness of God as the creator is being replaced by the sacrilegious creation of men.”

In the appeal the archbishop also challenged the legal validity of a private contract signed by the former prior in 2011, in which the Carmelite priory described itself as the “owner” of the site, saying this was in breach of the 1890 contract, which specifies if ceded, the land would return to the confraternity, which falls under the Archdiocese.

The appeal also attacks the validity of the permit on planning grounds, including policies safeguarding gardens in Urban Conservation Areas, and legal obligations to protect the trees on site, which are more than 50 years old.

A separate appeal was presented by Carmelite Provincial Fr Joseph Saliba and convent prior Fr Charles Mallia, in which they insist that they had refused to grant any consent for the application to construct a car park. The Planning Authority has approved an underground car park in the Carmelite convent grounds at Balluta despite an unequivocal objection by the Carmelite Order, which owns the site.

How the permit was approved without owners’ consent

The outline permit was approved on the basis of the agreement signed by the Order’s former prior.

Planning Commission chairperson Elizabeth Ellul had asked the case officer to seek legal advice due to the objection presented by the site owners. The authority’s legal office replied that since the applicant had a lease agreement, which contemplated a car park, the applicant did not need “additional consent” from the owner.

Despite the legal reply, Ellul still voted against approval but was outvoted by two other board members – Anthony Borg and Claude Mallia.

The Carmelite Order is currently suing applicant Joe Cilia to rescind the lease agreement, which foresees commercial development on the convent grounds.

It presented a judicial protest asking the PA to stop processing the present application. But the PA insisted that it was legally obliged to process the application on the basis of the original lease agreement.

In March 2017, the PA turned down a controversial commercial development consisting of retail outlets and office development on a proposed first floor.

The proposal also foresaw an underground car park for 84 spaces on the same site. Subsequently, a new application was submitted by Cilia envisaging a three-level car park for 115 cars.

Plans presented with the application refer to the “relocation” of the existing statue of the Virgin Mary and 11 olive trees and two palm trees to the car park’s roof, which would be turned into a garden.

The 760sq.m site proposed for the car park lies in the back yard of the Carmelite convent, which is scheduled as a Grade 2 protected building and is in the immediate vicinity of the Carmelite parish church, scheduled as Grade 1.

The site also includes a large Norfolk pine tree, which is not listed amongst the relocated trees.

The Carmelite Order had entered into a 50-year lease agreement with Cilia in 2011 for the development of the gardens into a supermarket.

When the archbishop came to know of this contract, he immediately filed a court injunction to stop the development. The new Carmelite prior also objected to the development.

While recommending approval the case officer warns that if the declaration of ownership, as contained in the application form, is determined as incorrect by a court of law, the development permission may be rendered null and void.

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