St Peter’s Monastery occupies a vast chunk of the entrance to Mdina, rising up two tall floors, spanning its two main streets, with countless rooms, once accommodating 60 nuns, long corridors and a garden in its heart. 

But all this is now home to one single sister – the last surviving Benedictine in Mdina.

Mother Abbess Sr Maria Adeodata dei Marchesi Testaferrata De Noto, 72, is holding the fort and is concerned about its future and that of the order.

With no new vocations and an empty, prestigious, prime property, she has to “trust in God”.

The last Benedictine nun in Mdina is 'holding the fort'.

The premises being empty, Sr Maria Adeodata is convinced it would “attract anyone in this money-driven world” and that they are “dying to get their hands on it”. 

Boutique hotel springs to mind, but Malta’s oldest female monastery, dating back five centuries, belongs to the Benedictines, she states firmly. 

It was bought with the dowries of the nuns – mostly noble – way back, and belongs to them, she insists, adding all is documented in contracts in the archives. 

“Today, I carry the weight of an 800-year legacy of the nuns who came before me, and it is my duty to make sure it passes into the right hands to be safeguarded and not lost…

“They are trying to make my life hard so that I surrender,” the Mother Abbess of the Benedictine cloister believes, unveiling an underlying animosity towards the curia and its ways and maintaining it is reciprocal. 

A single nun lives in the huge monastery in Mdina. Photo: Karl Andrew MicallefA single nun lives in the huge monastery in Mdina. Photo: Karl Andrew Micallef

“But I am not going to give in… I will continue to struggle until the last minute and then we will see…” 

Sr Maria Adeodata still has “the authority” and will decide herself whom to pass the property on to – and it will be the Benedictines, whose curia is in Rome. 

“I am going to make sure that before I pass away, I settle this business… I am going to fight to the last minute and will not surrender. If I need to, I will go to Rome."

However, her fears may not be warranted, with the Archbishop’s Curia acknowledging that it did not own the monastery and “certainly not aware of any plans to ‘take’ the property and sell it for commercial purposes”. 

The refectory at the St Peter's Monastery in MdinaThe refectory at the St Peter's Monastery in Mdina

Under provisions currently in place, “the monastery will revert to the Holy See if it ceases to function or is suppressed by the Vatican”, it said when asked.

Sr Maria Adeodata jokes: “I am sure God is not going to let me down. I was faithful to him all the way! Otherwise, we will have words,” reminding that her surname is Testaferrata (hard head). 

Sr Maria Adeodata has contacted her counterpart in Umbria, who may be sending some of her young vocations from the Philippines so she can continue her mission.

That is the monastery’s only lifeline so far.

The Mother Abbess in the crypt where all the other Benedictine nuns have been buried and where she prays to them every day.The Mother Abbess in the crypt where all the other Benedictine nuns have been buried and where she prays to them every day.

“My biggest worry is the vocations,” the Mother Abbess says. “If it was the property, I would have remained with my parents because I was like a queen at home.”

Since she entered as a postulant in her early 30s, no one has joined. The problem is everywhere – “even the churches are empty” – but she cannot put her finger on the reason why.

Ending the ‘cruelty’

When Sr Maria Adeodata was elected Abbess aged 38 and only 11 months after her solemn profession, she played an instrumental role in abolishing “harsh” rules that made life hard for the cloistered nuns. 

Back then, there were 18 of them, mostly 30 years her senior. But there could have been another six young sisters had their lives not been made impossible due to the harsh rules.

“They suffered a lot. They could not visit a dying mother or attend her funeral. 

“I could not stand that, I am sorry! It was cruelty! Nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors. Underneath, we are still humans,” Sr Maria Adeodata said. 

A photo of Mother Abbess Sr Maria Adeodata (left) taking her solemn profession and the Blessed Maria Adeodata Pisani, who is her ancestor.A photo of Mother Abbess Sr Maria Adeodata (left) taking her solemn profession and the Blessed Maria Adeodata Pisani, who is her ancestor.

As the youngest nun, she had different ideas and had to swim against the current. 

Sr Maria Adeodata used to attend conferences for the abbesses every year in Rome, opening her mind to how things should be done to facilitate life for the “poor” nuns.

When she entered, her father, whom she was very close to, refused to visit her for six months. He did not want to see his daughter “in prison”, she said, pointing to the grilles in the parlour and describing how they were impossible to see through.

But from 1998, when she took the reins, she gave the nuns more freedom and more contact with their families.

The grilles in the parlourThe grilles in the parlour

“What is the use of staying behind the grille? We first widened it, and when I was elected abbess, I invited the families of the sisters to come inside so they could touch, kiss and hug.”

This was in line with what was happening elsewhere, she said, admitting she never understood the strictness. 

In love with solitude

Six months ago, the last nun in her community passed away, aged 99. It had been just the two of them for the past two years and she was like a mother to Sr Maria Adeodata.

“I understood that this would happen. I tried to prepare for it, but I never managed,” she says.

While she misses her community of sisters terribly, the Madre does not feel lonely in the extensive premises.

“I am in love with solitude. God is enough,” she says.

The Mother Abbess in the room at the top of St Peter's Monastery, where the Blessed Adeodata Pisani used to meditate when she was a Benedictine nun in the 1800s.The Mother Abbess in the room at the top of St Peter's Monastery, where the Blessed Adeodata Pisani used to meditate when she was a Benedictine nun in the 1800s.

However, it is with a heavy heart that she enters the choir – one of the many prayer spaces in the monastery – pointing out where each sister used to sit.

“My heart breaks when I enter – we used to pray here seven times a day.”

The Mother Abbess finds peace in the crypt, where all the Benedictine nuns have been buried since the 1700s.

Each of their names is written in a book she flips through as she explains how she visits every day and speaks to her community.

“I loved them like my children even though they were older than me.”

Inaccessible coffers

Now, as she struggles alone without a community to back her, the Mother Abbess takes care of the monastery’s upkeep, together with three daily helpers. Despite its vastness, it is in an impeccable state of cleanliness.

Sr Maria Adeodata rolls up her sleeves too, but she is frustrated that requests for a handyman to take care of the extensive property have been repeatedly turned down and she does not have access to the coffers of the Benedictine nuns.

Their “investments” – land and properties – were passed on to the Curia in the upheaval of the 1980s to be administered by it, she said.

“We are dependent on them for money,” she continued, adding that she gets a monthly allowance, but has no control over their funds.

Only last Sunday, part of the ceiling in the garden collapsed and she claims to be living in danger.

The Curia did not respond directly to claims that a handyman for the monastery has been refused.

It confirmed, however, that since the administration of ecclesiastical entities, including four monasteries, was centralised in 1980 by a decree of archbishop Joseph Mercieca, the funds of St Peter’s Monastery have been administered by the Archbishop’s Curia, which provided a monthly subvention of €4,000 for recurrent expenditure in addition to covering salaries and one-off expenses. 

The monastery currently employs a carer and a supervisor on a full-time basis, while a volunteer assists with clerical duties, it clarified.

Regular financial reports and statements are sent by the Curia to the monastery, and all expenses are authorised in writing by the Mother Abbess, it explained.

The monastery also has investments in the Church property bond fund, where interest received is utilised for recurrent expenditure. However, in recent years, the monastery has registered a deficit, the Curia pointed out.

On a mission

Every wall and piece of furniture in the cloister is lined with framed photos of Sr Maria Adeodata and her family.

In her past, she was a secretary to three directors, and worked in accounts. But the seed of vocation is born with us, she says. 

“I attended vocational groups when I finished my O levels; then I had to live a bit of my life before joining.” 

No matter which direction she turned to, however, this was the way.

Today, the Mother Abbess still finds her way in the massive building between St Paul and Villegaignon Streets, followed by her faithful dogs Jonas and Ashton.

From prayer, recreation and meeting rooms to conference halls, chapels, a private library, vast refectory and kitchen, she can only say there are “plenty” of rooms when asked for the number.

“To live in a cloister, they needed space,” she adds.

The nuns’ recreation area is now empty and the television always off; and the newly redecorated sleeping quarters may be empty too, but they are not wasted, she insists. 

“We keep hoping.”

Meanwhile, retreats are being accepted – the monastery has 15 separate rooms, cut off for males – so there will be prayers within its walls.

“When I entered, I did not know I would end up like this. I just joined a community to pray. 

“Maybe my mission was to take care of the older nuns, and now, maybe, I have another, which I still cannot see. He knows what is best.”

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