St Augustinian Priory, Rabat, Malta

“A Very Different Way of Life”-The Augustinian Priory, Rabat

On Saturday 28th January, some 60 FAA members had the rare opportunity of spending a fascinating afternoon being taken around the interior of the beautiful Augustinian priory in Rabat and being introduced to the salient points of the Augustinian Order’s history and way of life, by Fr. Joseph and Prior Leslie, two of the resident friars.

It came as a surprise to many of us to learn that, although he is regarded as its spiritual father, the founder of the Order was not actually St. Augustine who died in the 4th century. In fact the Order was instituted much later, in 1244, when small groups of hermits scattered throughout Europe united to form larger communities based on the teachings of St. Augustine.

Although the date of the original Priory at Rabat is uncertain, it is known that by 1460 the Augustinians were already installed there. There are those who hold that the first Priory was built in 1383 and was sited halfway between Mdina and the present site at the top of Saqqajja Hill.
This first building was destroyed in 1551, when Dragut, the famed Muslim corsair and scourge of the Mediterranean, landed an army in Marsamxett Harbour.

The Knights of St. John who had arrived in Malta in 1530 had not yet had time to build any defences and sought refuge in St. Angelo. The Maltese in Mdina realised that a Priory a hundred metres or so beyond the walls would serve as an excellent platform from which to attack the bastions, so they sallied out and destroyed the Priory. Everything pertaining to the church and the sacristy (including objects made of gold and silver), as well as the priory (friars’ clothes, library, cloak room and archive) were lost. As Fr. Josef dryly commented, despite the threat of excommunication, none of what was taken has ever been recovered.

After requesting Grand Master Claude de La Sengle to give them a place where they could continue living their life as a community, even for a limited time, the Augustinian friars obtained the use of Santo Spirito Hospital (today the National Archives) in Rabat. In 1555, they managed to obtain from Bishop Domenico Cubelles the chapel dedicated to St. Mark the Evangelist at the top of Saqqajja Hill. This chapel is exactly in the same spot where we today find the side chapel dedicated to the Holy Spirit in St. Mark’s Church. Obtaining the necessary permits was not too difficult as the Order of St. John followed the Augustinian rule. Besides, an Italian Augustinian, who later became the Prior General of the Order, Spirito Pelo Angosciola O.S.A., was a well-known preacher to the Knights. In fact, he was asked by La Valette to deliver the address at the laying of the first stone of the City of Valletta on the 28th March 1566.

The construction of the new church started on 13th August 1556, to the design of the Maltese architect Ġlormu Cassar and the foundation stone of the church was laid in the same year. The construction of the church was completed in 1588. A very interesting fact is that this church is architecturally a miniature model of St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Cassar had obviously experimented successfully with a structure that he was later on to translate to the Knight’s Church in Valletta.

Around two hundred years later however, it was felt that most of priory had to be rebuilt again due to the damage the long years had caused to the fabric. For this reason, in a Chapter which took place on 15th March 1739, all the friars agreed to build a new priory – the third one on Saqqajja Hill. After many consultations, Andrea Belli’s design was recommended partly because he was the foremost Baroque architect of his day (he was also the architect of the Auberge de Castille, Valletta, and the Mdina Cathedral Museum and in fact the priory’s grand ‘scala regia’ or double staircase is reminiscent of these buildings) and partly because of the way he managed to incorporate the previous building.

The arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte in Malta was bad news for the Augustinians. On a visit to Mdina, Napoleon’s carriage lost a wheel and the great general took the opportunity to visit the Augustinian priory. The terrified prior gave him all the information he sought about the property of the Order with the result that the French, as was their custom, carried away all the treasures of the priory and melted down what they could in order to provide payment for the troops.

In the priory’s chapter of 1st May 1854, it was proposed to renovate the choir. As our Augustinian guides pointed out, the friars often used to practically starve themselves in order to release funds to pay for the work. This work, together with that of the lectern, was left in the hands of Ġużeppi Galea of Rabat. The design was drawn up by artist Giovanni Galdes and approved by architect Galizia. It consisted in the removal of one of the two titular paintings – that of St. Augustine by Mattia Preti, which was later hung in the sacristy. The original titular painting of St. Mark the Evangelist by Girolamo Muziano, was left where it was but had to be hung at a higher level to allow space for a marble statue of St. Augustine, the work of Pawlu Triscornia, underneath it. Thus was the difficulty of an Augustinian Order running a church dedicated to St. Mark resolved. The High Altar of the church was consecrated by Bishop Gaetanu Pace Forno OSA on 9th October 1896.

The last war too left its mark on the Priory. On the feast day of the Sacred Heart, on 12th June 1942, a tragedy took place. In a 9.45pm air raid, a powerful bomb struck and demolished the house opposite the large window of the refectory, in Main Street. The stones of the stricken house and shrapnel from the bomb peppered one side of the refectory, which was badly damaged as was the level above it, where the students resided. Fortunately, the friars had finished eating a quarter of an hour earlier than usual and thus had had enough time to go down to the shelters. However, on that day, one of the students, who was too ill to leave his cell, died tragically.

A couple of paintings in the sacristy of the great of the Augustinian Order provided some interesting information. Bishop Pace Forno, mentioned above, was a thorn in the side of the British authorities in Malta to the extent that the mere mention of his name usually drew the remark of “Forni si, Pace no”.

Another well known Augustinian was Paul Micallef (1859-1865) who became Prior General of the Order of St. Augustine and later Bishop of Pisa.

The Augustinian Order is at present celebrating the elevation of theologian Mgr. Prospero Grech to the rank of Cardinal, only the second Maltese to obtain that high status.

FAA’s members and guests were also shown the extensive library, housing some 30,000 volumes. A love or art and beauty is also intrinsic to the Augustinian tradition and it is nowhere more evident that in the magnificent paintings that adorn the Rabat priory, including one of the oldest paintings known on the island. This painting of Sicilian origin was originally thought to be the central panel part of a tryptich dating back to medieval times. However the discovery of a fourth panel established the fact that the painting must have been one of a set of five. This sumptuous painting has suffered damage over the centuries and the friars are now trying to have it restored.

Of the different types of religious life, the Augustinian Order is described as mendicant, indicating the friars espoused poverty as a rule of life. They own nothing, and neither can they inherit anything from their families. Their day-to-day life is based on three ‘pillars’: the Chapel – prayer, the Library – study, and the Refectory – community life. The latter meant that, with a clear conscience (!) we could all participate in the delicious tea which awaited us at the end of the visit, prepared and served by FAA’s dedicated team of ‘in-house caterers’.