One of the two researchers who stumbled upon the earliest Maltese poem, Fr Mikiel Fsadni, passed away yesterday morning aged 97 – the oldest ever Dominican priest in Malta.

Fr Fsadni, a historian from Vittoriosa, received a boost to his reputation when he discovered – together with Prof. Godfrey Wettinger – Peter Caxaro’s medieval poem il-Kantilena in 1966.

The two men found the 1480s poem by chance at the Notarial Archives in Valletta.

He was meticulous about detail. You could regulate your watch by him

Fr Fsadni had turned 97 just four days ago. Dominican Provincial Paul Gatt, who first met him 30 years ago, said Fr Fsadni had a sharp mind and a phenomenal memory.

“Fr Fsadni was meticulous about detail. He was programmed... you could regulate your watch by him,” he said, adding that until a few years ago he used to go out three times a week all the way to Birżebuġa or Marsaxlokk and always be back at the priory in Rabat in time for lunch.

“And although not a professional photo­grapher, Fr Fsadni would not be happy with a photo that was less than perfect.”

Fr Gatt’s words were echoed by historian Joan Abela, who called him “a meticulous person who did not just write, but write with passion”.

Dr Abela last saw Fr Fsadni a year ago when he gave her his personal copies of his publications, saying he needed to pass them on due to his age.

She recalled asking for a photo with him, which he refused unless her husband was included.

“He was a scrupulous man, and I feel lucky I was one of the few women he kept in touch with.”

His carefulness around women also played a part in the story of the discovery of the Kantilena.

In Esperjenzi ta’ Kittieb, Fr Fsadni recounts how he did not feel comfortable going to the Notarial Archives on Straight Street on his own and wanted someone to accompany him so that he would not draw suspicious glances.

Having met Prof. Wettinger at the National Library, working on a doctorate about slaves, Fr Fsadni informed him that he had found a register mentioning slaves at the archives.

The Kantilena was found while Fr Fsadni was carrying research about Dominican friars in Malta and Prof. Wettinger was carrying out research on slavery at the Notarial archives.

They spent two years deciphering the poem and drawing up the biographies of Peter and Brandano Caxaro, the author and the copyist.

Yesterday Prof. Wettinger said the two were bound by a promise as to how they came across the poem.

He too mentioned Fr Fsadni’s sense of propriety but also remembers him as a friendly person.

“When I last spoke to him over the phone a month ago, his mind was still sharp and better than mine,” Prof. Wettinger, who is now “83 years and four months old”, recalled.

Fr Fsadni was educated at the Dockyard School and joined the Dominican Order in 1933. He studied philosophy and theology at St Thomas Aquinas College in Rabat and was ordained priest in 1939, at the beginning of World War II.

He was also known for his monographs on the history of the Order of Preachers in Malta, the documentary The Girna – the Maltese Corbelled Stone Hut (1992) and L-Għanja ta’ Pietru Caxaru – poeżija bil-Malti Medjevali (1983).

His funeral is being held tomorrow at 9am at the Church of Our Lady of the Grotto in Rabat, of whom he was a great devotee.

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