Maltese Franciscans in the Holy Land


A brief History of the Commissariat of the Holy Land in Malta

The Maltese islands are geographically close to Sicily (80 kilometres), and are placed at a strategic point in the centre of the Mediterranean. For hundreds of years they have played the role of a crossroad of civilisations. The Franciscan Friars Minor in Malta depended upon the Sicilian mother province, and offered their services to the cause of the re-acquisition of the Holy Land much before the arrival of the Knights of Saint John and during their 268 years of crusader domination (1530-1798).

During the 15th century Malta was a fief under the Aragonese, and poverty reigned supreme on these barren islands, prey to Barbary corsairs from North Africa. In 1429 the Maltese had to buy back their homeland by paying 300 florins to Don Gonsalvo Monroi. Pope Eugene IV, in Dudum universalis (13th January 1445) and Cum per alias (1st February 1445), chose two Franciscans, fra Serafino da Sicilia, Vicar of the Custos of the Holy Land, and fra Lorenzo da Palermo, Provincial Vicar of Sicily, to preach and collect funds for the Holy Land, and entrusted them with opening new Observant Franciscan friaries in Sicily, Lipari and Malta.

The first Maltese friars to join the Order used to be drawn to the Franciscan life by the Holy Land missionaries who came to Malta, or perhaps came from among those Maltese families temporarily residing in Sicily. One of them was called fra Marjanu Hakim, who lived in Messina. In 1482 Pope Sixtus IV, with the Bulla Pia Fidelium (6th November) gave the Maltese Franciscans permission to found a friary in Malta. This plan only materialised on 27th January 1494, when Pope Alexander VI confirmed the foundation with the Bulla Apostolicae Servitutis. On 6th April 1492 Giacomo Hakim, one of the giurati of the Università of Mdina, the local government of Malta, bequeathed in his testament a plot of land in favour of fra Marjanu Hakim, his relative, who resided in the friary of «Santa Maria di Gesù» in Messina, in order to found a friary in Malta, sub vocabulo di Sancta Maria de Jesu di la observancia («under the title of the Saint Mary of Jesus of the Observance»).

The first Franciscan friaries in Malta, particularly that of Rabat, the suburb of Mdina, were dedicated to the title «Santa Maria di Gesù», in line with the other friaries of the Franciscan Observant reform in Sicily, initiated by Blessed Matteo Giumarra di Agrigento (c.1376-1450), a disciple of Saint Bernardine of Siena. In 1575, Grand Master Pietro del Monte gave a plot of land to the Observant Friars Minor in the new city of Valletta, in order to build another church and friary, also dedicated to the title «Santa Maria di Gesù». The locals twisted the name into «Ta’ Giezu», and both the Rabat and the Valletta friaries are known by this name to this very day.

On 28th October 1640, the Franciscan Minister General fra Benigno da Genova ordered all Provinces of the Order to found their own Commissariats of the Holy Land, with the aim of collecting funds and helping the most important mission of the Franciscan Order. The Commissariats founded in maritime centres in Italy and its surrounding islands were hospices, welcoming those missionaries who stopped to sojourn in them on their way to the Holy Land. These hospices were present in the Commissariats of Venice, Genova, Livorno, Cagliari, Naples, Palermo, and Malta.

The Maltese Commissariat proved to be very important, given that Malta was strategically a Christian stronghold and a safe first landing place, and was governed by the Military Order of Saint John, at a time when the Knights dominated the central Mediterranean by their fleet, waging war against Muslim power and cargo. In Malta our missionaries used to stay until a French or Venetian galley was about to leave for Saida (Sidon) or Candia (Crete), from where they would reach their destination in the Holy Land. Malta, with its safe harbours, was for a long time the arrival and departure point for most of the missionaries to the Levant.

The Commissariat housed in the hospice adjacent to the friary of Santa Maria di Gesù in Valletta, already existed in 1636, that is, four years prior to the provisions laid down by Benigno da Genova. This Commissariat is still functioning in the same historic building, in which the Maltese Commissary resides.

The Congregation of Propaganda Fide, founded in 1662, interested itself in the Holy Land mission. It gave particular attention to the Maltese Commissariat, and ordered the Inquisitor resident in Malta to defend with all his means the interests of the Franciscans in the Holy Land. Unfortunately the ruthless attacks by Maltese corsairs, under the auspices of the Knights of Saint John, who used to attack Turkish vessels in the Mediterranean, spelt trouble for the poor Franciscan missionaries in the Holy Land. A Maltese vessel once attacked a Turkish ship off the coast of Jaffa, and even fired upon this port on the coast of Palestine, with the result that the Turkish authorities in Jerusalem imprisoned all the friars and ordered the Knights to pay a hefty ransom, or else they would have killed all of them.

The Commissariat in Malta was the third most important centre, after the Commissariats of Venice and Palermo. Maltese Franciscans became outstanding in their service to the eastern missions. A school of Arabic language was also functioning in Malta before the establishment of two Roman missionary colleges. In 1637 fra Arcangelo Zammit was chosen as Procurator of the Catholic mission in Ethiopia. From Malta the Franciscan missionaries departed to the Holy Land, but also to the North African coast, in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. The archives of the Commissariat contain the names of many missionaries who stopped here on their way to or from the Holy Land, and were duly registered on the Mass books and accounts of the same Commissariat. In 1721 the Commissariat premises were enlarged, in order to accommodate an ever-growing number of missionaries who stopped in Malta on their journeys.

The Commissary in Malta would organise the annual collection for the Holy Land in all parishes of the islands of Malta and Gozo. The same General Council of the Order of Saint John established that “varie provizioni si danno pure dall’infermeria a’ poveri mendicanti e missionarii che vanno in Gerusalemme, et a’ pellegrini” (“various provisions of alms are to be offered by the [Holy] Infirmary to the poor mendicants and missionaries who go to Jerusalem, as well as to pilgrims”).

When the French took over Malta in 1798, the soldiers entered the premises of the Commissariat, but only found 350 scudi. The Commissary was away on that day, 2nd September 1799, since he had gone for the annual collection in the parish of Mosta. The Maltese imprisoned the French garrison within the Valletta ramparts, and the Commissary could not return, and had to wait in the Rabat friary until 1800 to go back to his quarters, when the French capitulated to British.

Other outstanding figures of Maltese Franciscans who offered their services to the Holy Land Custody include humble lay brothers, who defended the Status Quo of the Holy Places, as did fra Cels Micallef, who was injured by the Greek Orthodox monks in the Holy Sepulchre. Fra Nikola Borg was an architect and builder, who worked in the construction of the church of Saint Saviour in Jerusalem. Maltese Franciscans were superiors in important sanctuaries in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem, as well as in Aleppo, in Syria. Two Maltese Franciscans became Custodes of the Holy Land, Apostolic Prefects of Cyprus and Egypt, and Apostolic Commissaries to the East, namely fra Salv [Salvatore] Anton Vassallo (1817-1820), and fra Frangisku Saverju Bugeja (1835-1838). In the educational field fra Ludovico Muscat was a scholar of Arabic in Spain and Palermo, and became the second rector of the College of Arabic studies at the friary of San Pietro in Montorio, in Rome. Some of his manuscripts are found in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. Fra Frangisk Flieles [Pullicino] was the founder and first lecturer at the college of Arabic language founded in Malta in 1632. Other lecturers of Arabic in the Holy Land include fra Dumink Pace, fra Sidor Cesare Rapa, and fra Gann Pawl Deguara.

To this very day the Maltese Franciscans are offering service and their expert collaboration in the Holy Land Custody.