The Sanctuary of Jesus of Nazareth
A Historical Account
by Fr Dominic V Scerri O.P.
Reproduced from the Dominican
One can trace back the
origins of the church of Jesus of Nazareth to the 2nd half of the
19th century, when three Valletta born brothers, who were priests,
spent their summer vacations at a summer residence on the Strand in
Sliema. Rev. Horatio, Rev. Andrew and Rev. Peter Paul Borg said mass
and received confessions in a ground floor room of the house, no. 14
in Marina Tigne Street; which room they had converted into a private
chapel. The three pious gentlemen noticing that the congregation was
ever increasing, not only wished to fulfil better their duties, but
also endeavoured to provide more space for the faithful. With the
intent to build another church in the neighbourhood, in St. Anne’s
square to be precise, they sought the required permission, from the
Military Engineer as the surroundings had been ‘Military Clearance
Area’; yet permission was refused.
The brothers were inherited by their niece Victoria Borg, born in
Valletta and living in Sliema. Victoria was married to the noble
Carlo Ermolao Zimmermann Barbaro of the Marquis of St. George, son
of Gustaf, born in Tarxien and living at Rabat. The noble couple,
aware of the sacred wish of the three priests, held unto the custom
of having Masses said in the same private chapel and even obtained
permission from Rome, for the faithful to fulfil their obligations
on Sundays and Holy days by having Masses celebrated on such festas.
The nobles also endeavoured to satisfy the other desire of the
brothers. They resolved to build a church1 demolishing
two houses on their own landed property.
The inscription on the foundation stone of the church reveals the
noble Carlo Ermolao Zimmermann Barbaro of the Marquis of St. George,
Cavalier of the Order of Jerusalem and his wife Victoria Borg,
founding a temple dedicated to Jesus of Nazareth2 at the
time and in memory of the 50th anniversary of the episcopate of Pope
Leo XIII3. The writing goes on to state that archbishop Peter Pace,
bishop of these islands, blessed and laid the foundation stone on
the 5th of April 1893 assisted by Canons John Buhagiar and Aloysius
Farrugia in the presence of the architect Frances Wettinger, the
stone mason Charles Dingli, the clerics, and the people. On the 20th
of April 1909, the noble Carlo Ermolao Zimmermann Barbaro donated
the church of Jesus of Nazareth, together with other immovable
property to the religious community of the Dominican Brothers.
Father Antoninus Gatt, as Provincial of the Maltese Dominicans, was
present on the formal agreement to receive the endowment while
binding himself, on behalf of his convent to fulfil the spiritual
and religious obligations, conditioned to the donation4.
The legal agreement, bears of events of deep and interesting
On the 27th December 1893, the Marquis Zimmermann and his wife the
noble Victoria, founded a church – with rights of a lay patronate –
dedicated to Jesus of Nazareth5. The founding of the
church was formally approved by decree of the 15th December 1899 of
Archbishop Peter Pace6. The Marquis and his wife bore all
costs of the works and built the church on their landed property in
Marina and Tigne Street (as the road was then known) in Sliema; they
furnished it with all necessary objects and had it open for use of
the faithful. The church cost £16,000, or 40,000 Francs7.
The noble couple reserved the right, jointly or separately after the
demise of either of them to give or offer the same church to some
religious order or congregation.
The church was consecrated on the 2nd of July 18958 and was
affiliated with the Lateran Basilica in Rome, the following year. A
formal certificate of the 5th of July 1896, decreed on the 17th
August of the same year, states this fact and adds that the
Sanctuary of Jesus of Nazareth thus enjoys the same spiritual
benefits and indulgences of the Roman Temple; that whoever visits
the church in Sliema, and receives the Sacrament of Confession, will
enjoy and benefit the same graces9.
A letter of the Cardinal Secretary of State of the Vatican also
declares the church a Sanctuary by the Pope. Moreover, another
certificate of the 12th December 1900 shows the church’s affiliation
to the Vatican Bassilica10.
The noble Victoria Borg annexed other property to the church by a
legal deed of 13th April 1902. This is listed as nos. 14,
15,16,17,18 in Marina Tigne Street, and nos. 1,2,3,4 in St. Padova
Street11. This decreed in case the church was passed on
to some congregation or other religious order. The clerics could use
the premises no. 14 in Marina Tigne for their personal use, as this
was the largest house. The rented income from the other property was
to serve as a means of living for the religious brethren, who were
to care for and administer the church.
Victoria Zimmermann Barbaro died on the 26th July 1904. The
spiritual legates, which she bequeathed, were legally recognized by
the deed of the 22nd September1905, drawn by Notary Francis Caruana
A few years later, the noble Carlo Ermolao Zimmermann Barbaro passed
on the church and its immovable property to the religious community
of the Dominican Fathers of the Maltese Province, who, on their
part, accepted the donation12; the legal contract was
drawn on the 20th of April 1908 and confirmed by the diocesan church
authorities on the 6th of October 1908. The same contract re-lists
the immovables attached to the church; all the spiritual burdens,
mass legates, and celebration of feasts to be held in the church are
• 2 masses to be said daily;
• Eleven anniversary sung masses
• A sung mass on the feast of St. Joseph;
• The celebration of the feast of the Consecration of the Church on
the 2nd July;
• The exposition of the Sacrament on the 20th September;
• Lenten sermons for both males and females;
• The celebration of the last three days of Holy Week;
• The seven Wednesday of the Audiences with the recitation of the
• Triduum and feast of Jesus of Nazareth13.
The legal deed also includes a sort of guarantee which Victoria Borg
had declared in her Will of the 7th March 1901. The noble lady had
asserted that in the event of insurmountable problems which hindered
the fulfilment of the spiritual burdens, the religious order would
be released of its obligations as listed in the will.
Together with the Contract of the 20th April 1909, one notes a
written agreement of the Dominican Provincial Father Antoninus Gatt,
who accepts all duties and obligations attached to the donations of
the church and at the same time, grants the sum of
Marquis Zimmermann Barbaro as a sign of gratitude14.
The church, its furnishings and the adjoining property were
estimated at £30,000. The legal
document of the endowment was drawn at number 10, Xahara House,
Saint Paul Street, Rabat. The two Rabat born witnesses, were Joseph
Caruana Mamo, a doctor of laws, son of the late Angelo, and Joseph
Attard, a valet, son of the late Alexander.
The quoted document reveals how the sanctuary and Basilica church of
Jesus of Nazareth was passed on to the Maltese Dominicans and thus
shows that our religious brethren could commence their mission and
service in Sliema in the Spring of 1909.
It did not take long for the fathers and for the faithful to realise
that the temple was too small to accommodate the considerable number
of people who flocked to our church, especially on Sundays, feast
days and special occasions. In a printed supplement of the ‘Ruzarju
Mqaddes’ (Holy Rosary) number 7 of 1909, we read that new roads were
laid in the neighbourhood of the church and that the area was built
and inhabited in no time. Anyone could note that the more the church
was frequented, the more it grew smaller and it was necessary to
enlarge it in a big way15.
It is worthwhile noting that Sliema grew larger in no small way, and
the buildings around the Strand, developed more rapidly than in
other areas. In the first 10 years of this century, the population
in Sliema increased by more than 2,600; by some 25% more than it was
in the 19th century.
Fr. Hyacinth Grech Ellul, the Vicar Superior of the Dominican
community, thought of easing the situation. He called for funds
intending to enlarge the existing church or simply building a larger
one. Fr. Hyacinth embarked on a door to door collection in Sliema;
his first round is recorded as that on Sunday 9th June 191216.
After a five year effort to fund raise, Fr. Hyacinth felt the stress
of responsibility too much of a burden to carry. Moreover, the
Sliema Dominican community was undecided whether to enlarge the
existing church or build a completely new and larger one. The Vicar
Superior left the final decision to the Provincial who convened his
Council on Thursday 23rd January 1913, at the Rabat Priory. Fr.
Grech Ellul put forward two building plans, one relating to the
enlargement of the church, the other showing a new temple and a
convent adjoining the church which the Marquis had erected.
Drawing showing how the
church was to be enlarged:
Area A: shows the
original church as built by the Marquis and his wife
Area B: is the extension
as planned by Benjamin Cordwell
Area C: is Mr D'Amato's
The Council had decided on the new church17. Fr. Grech
Ellul, then set up what he termed a “Committee of Directors” to care
for the building and fundraising activities. Besides Fr. Hyacinth,
its other members were Fr. Dominic Azzopardi O.P., Ignatius Abela,
Alfred Lupi, Edward L. Galea, Alfons M. Caruana, Carmel Agius,
Joseph Lupi, Carmel Azzopardi and John Cassar who gladly assumed the
mentioned responsibilities. On the 22nd August 1917 at 10:00 a.m.,
the committee met in Fr. Hyacinth’s private rom. The reverend
gentlemen declared that, for the past five years, he had toiled very
hard to raise funds for a new church. He added that with the help of
the Executive Council of Government and by means of monies
collected, he had acquired more than half the land needed for the
building of the church, and he had already succeeded to have this
area cleared of all rubble with the valuable and voluntary help of
the ‘Royal Engineers’. Yet, there was much more to be done and, as
the project demanded great sums of money, the work involved could
not be shouldered by one man. Fr. Grech Ellul expressed his
confidence and trust in the committee’s experienced members and
stated that he was sure of their support to carry out what he and
his religious brethren had long wished to achieve.
All present agreed that the officials on the committee were to be
Fr. Grech Ellul as president; Fr. Dominic Azzopardi, secretary;
Joseph Lupi, treasurer; John Cassar, assistant treasurer while
Alfons M. Caruana was to act as director of works.
It was also decided to thank the Colonel of the ‘Royal Engineers’
for the work done by his labourers and to request his help for
further cleaning the building site. At the committee meeting of the
6th September 1917, we notice the mention of architect Benjamin
Cordwell who offered his free professional advice for the building
of the new church and convent. Cordwell was invited to sit on the
committee as a co-opted member and his presence is recorded at the
sitting of the 30th September.
Six months later, on the 7th April 1918, Cordwell put forward an
architectural plan for the proposed church and convent to be
constructed, and this met with the approval of all concerned. The
Provincial Council, also confirmed the plan and this was
communicated to the community at the sitting of the 12th May.
In order to build up the necessary funds for the building of the
church, Father Hyacinth informed the committee, at the meeting of
the `5th August 1918 that the block of flats in St. Anthony Lane
bought in April of the preceding year, had been sold to Mr. Carm
Agius for £900; that part of the lodgings needed for the
construction of this church was obviously kept. The funds were
further accumulated by having fairs organized on a regular basis and
through specific appeals for donations. It is worthwhile to mention
Rossini’s opera ‘the barber of Seville’ held at the Royal Opera
House as a fund raising event.
Mgr Angelo Portelli O.P. blesses and lays the
stone of the new church on the 15th August
Although money collecting was a slow process, the committee was not
discouraged. At the sitting of the 20th July 1921, the members
decided that the foundation of the new church as to be laid on the
15th August of that year: the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady.
The Dominican Auxiliary Bishop Mgr Angelo Portelli was to officiate
at the ceremony; the two sponsors were to be the President of the
Courts Mr Justice M Refalo and Marquis Schicluna18. The
church was to be dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompei.
A letter of the 10th August 1922, return by Benjamin Cordwell to the
Chief Engineer of the ‘Malta Command’, shows that the work on the
new church was started on Monday 6th August of the same year19
as authorized by the building permit R.E. 1471/153G which Fr.
Hyacinth Grech possessed.
Unfortunately, the work on the building had to stopped due to the
large of expenses involved and a lack of funds. Yet, the Dominican
community, still pondered of having a larger church; they believed
that the Sanctuary which the Marquis had built was too small to see
the spiritual needs of all who frequented the place.
Although the idea of a larger temple was far from abandoned, it was
only on the 2nd May 1938 that the matter was again given attention.
The Dominican Provincial Fr. Cajetan Xerri sought permission from
the Diocesan Bishpop Dom Maurus Caruana O.S.B. to have the sanctuary
basilica of Jesus of Nazareth enlarged as shown on the architectural
plan he was enclosing with the request. Permission was granted on
the 30th July of that year.
Bro Valentin Grima O.P.
is seen together with the workmen cutting rocks for the enlargement
of the church in 1939
The Vicar Superior of that community, Fr. Peter Paul Bajada O.P.
appealed for funds after the commencement of rock cutting and the
building of some 10 feet of stone around the church20.
The building works based on the design of Cordwell were going on at
a remarkable rate when the Englishman was called by the ‘Military
Command’ on other Services projects and so could not go on with the
construction of the church. The Dominicans had to turn to architect
Mr. Louis Borg and to Mr. Joesph Damato to take care of the
enlargement of the church. Borg and Damato effected some changes to
the Cordwell plans in order to enlarge further the building. Mr.
Joseph Damato thought of having a higher roof for the church and a
cupola, not only to make the place look nicer, but also to allow in
more light; two corridors by the side of the church with doors
leading to the main road, were planned to provide the church with
three entrances. Mr. Demato’s redesigned plan was approved in
December 1938 and the works could thus be commenced.
It was not so easy to go on with the constructions and, at the same
time, think of the outcome of the grey clouds and dark shadows
gathering over Europe which could only mean war. In spite of ail,
the Dominican fathers did not lose heart, and endeavoured to amass
the ‘Church Building Fund’. They had long wished to see their dreams
of a larger church fulfilled. The Conventual Council decided that
the financial capital of £2,233 which had been saved for the
specific reason of the works needed, was to be withdrawn from the
banks and deposited in the Bank of Taglia Ferro to accrue a higher
interest. One must admit that both the moneys saved and the
financial collections were very encouraging and managed to get the
building works going at a faster pace. The Dominican Provincial Fr.
Louis Nolan, who showed a special care for the church, would not
suffer the works to come to an end as in the case of the originally
planned new church. He helped tremendously by agreeing to financial
loans from other Dominican convents, besides securing moneys from
As time passed and the war between the Allies and Germany spread
over the Continent, laws and norms to control building works were
passed and enacted. The first order of the ‘Building Control Board’
based on Regulation no. 50 of the Malta Defence Regulations,
specified that any process of building could be suspended or workmen
restricted as both building materials and labourers could be needed
by the civil of military authorities21. Yet, the
Dominican brethren were fortunate enough not to be effected by these
laws and, at the same time, managed to secure the necessary building
Although air attacks on Malta increased, and became tougher when, in
June 1940 Italy went to war with Axis construction works still
progressed. The cupola was not yet built and much of the sculpture
works were still to be effected when, on the 27th December 1941, Fr.
Provincial Louis Nolan O.P. blessed the enlarged church which then
began to be used by the faithful.
Part of the damage caused by the bombings
in 1942 - the
damaged side is where the statue of St Paul
On the 17th March 1942, the church was directly hit during an air
raid and parts of the ceiling, sections of the pillars and the main
altar were severely damaged. The statue of St. Paul, and the titular
picture of Jesus of Nazareth, the work of Attilio Palombi, were
completely destroyed. For some reason or other, the needed repairs
took some time to commence and it was only on the 5hth February 1945
that the works of reconstruction could be started with high hopes
that the War Damage Commission would reimburse all expenses involved22;
which hopes were actually fulfilled some years later.
In May 1942, when Fr. Dominic Borg O.P was nominated Vicar Superior
of the Sliema community, he readily undertook to see that church
refurbishments and other maintenance works be accomplished or
completed. There were the wooden choir stalls a job already
commenced by a certain John Mary Pirotta of Naxxar that was to be
finished. The destroyed titular picture of Jesus of Nazareth had not
yet been replaced. Fr. Dominic entrusted the painting to the artist
Guido Cali; this was completed in the first months of 1944 and was
placed in the central niche of the choir. Later on, Professor Oscar
Testa was asked to portray the effigy of Jesus of Nazareth as a copy
of the one at the Roman parish church of St. Mary in Montichelli.
Today this painting can be seen at the sanctuary in the chapel of
the Blessed Sacrament.
When sculptor Chevalier Vincent Apap was asked to work on the series
of figures depicting the patriarchs and prophets to be placed in the
niches around the church, that of Jesus of Nazareth was set in the
central recess of the choir replacing Cali’s painting; which can now
be found near the parish priest’s office at the entrance to the
Lack of funds, more seriously needed projects plus the urgent
necessity of building a new priory hindered the continuation of the
statues. It was some 40 years later that these were continued. The
set of six to be found in the choir niches were executed between
1980 and 1983; that of the Nazarene and 4 others also in the choir
were completed in the next three years. By 1988 Chevalier Apap
finished six other statues for both the side naves while another
four were worked out by 1993 together with those of Our Lady and of
St. Dominic which were placed in the centre of the naves. Our fore
brethrens dream of a chain of effigies as symbols of and with the
Nazarene as the central figure was finally realized.
Chevalier Apap also sculpted the statue of St. Paul to replace the
one destroyed during the war, and worked out two others of St.
Joseph and of St. John the Baptist to complete the series in the
The Sanctuary Basilica was further embellished by the main altar
designed to comply with the liturgical reform manufactured in 1968
by the Italian Ceccotti firm of Lucca, by the construction of the
dome which was completed in 1970 by Carmel Grech of Balzan and by
the building of the upper facade of the church in 1973.
During these last years, the sculpture works still missing on the
isle ceiling arches and their vertical walls were continued. We also
intend to go on with similar ornaments in the side naves and choir.
This work is being carried out by the Gozitan sculptor Emmanuel Cini
who had already done other artistic works in the older part of the
aisle. When these last embellishments are finally completed, we
would have accomplished what our older brethren had wished for but
were unfortunate not to have achieved.
It is worthwhile to conclude by stating that the population in
Sliema, including the neighbourhood around the church was ever on
the increase especially after the end of the Second World War. This
induced the Archbishop of Malta Sir Michael Gonzi to decree, on the
1st September 1973, that the parts of Sliema known as Tigne and
Qui-Si-Sana were to be knit together as a Parish on their own, and
entrusted to the care of our Dominican community with the Sanctuary
Basilica of Jesus of Nazareth as the Parish church.