Each year, on the first Wednesday after Easter, a votive traditional procession culminates at the old church of St Gregory in Żejtun. Many people attend this celebration but probably few know about the origin of this custom and even less are aware of the enigma that lies within the church’s secret passages, writes Fiona Vella

During a pastoral visit to Żejtun in 1575, Mgr Pietro Dusina was intrigued by their annual custom and asked the elderly inhabitants about its origins.

... a plea to God to bring peace among European nations, in a period of great turmoil and peril

No one was sure of its inception and people came up with various theories. But they all agreed on one thing: the procession was a sort of thanksgiving to God.

Some believed a promise was made when the village was saved from harm during a violent storm, while others claimed it was when a storm wrecked a large Turkish fleet which was about to attack the area.

The truth was discovered accidentally in recent years when Dominican friar Fr Mikiel Fsadni was doing some research in the Curia archives.

He found out that in 1543 Bishop Cubelles had set up this pilgrimage as a plea to God in order to bring peace among the European nations, in a period of great turmoil and peril.

The parish of St Gregory in Żejtun was chosen as it was the furthest parish church from Mdina.

Originally, the pilgrimage had great significance and thousands of people participated, including all the clergy and the confraternities of the various villages.

Interestingly, this pilgrimage was even included in the wedding rites, as the bridegroom had to promise his bride to take her to this feast.

The pilgrims started their long walk at dawn from the Mdina cathedral and passed through various villages and towns until they arrived at the parish of St Gregory in Żejtun.

The pilgrimage was a magnificent spectacle of colours as the clergy and confraternities of each village or town were distinctly dressed and all of them carried flags.

Prosperous families built their houses along the route of the pilgrimage. Some examples of these are well-known premises in Żejtun: Casa Perellos built by Grand Master Ramon Perellos and Juventutis Domus, which was the property of Bishop Ferdinando Mattei.

In 1969 a huge sensation was created around the church of St Gregory when a number of human bones and three secret passages were uncovered by some workmen.

Curiously, among the locals there had always been rumours that within the walls of this old church were some secret passages. But over the years several attempts to prove this had always proved futile.

After more than 42 years of silence, Grezzju Vella, who was only 16 at the time, narrated the horrible day of this gruesome discovery.

He had been doing some work near the dome of the church, believed to be one of the earliest domes in Malta, together with his uncle, Carmelo Spiteri, and a fellow worker, Ċikku Zammit.

At one point he got fed up and unwittingly began to scrape at a narrow crack between two stone slabs.

When the crack widened, he threw a stone inside, expecting to hear it go down into the church, but instead it fell nearby and he realised that there was something underneath the roof.

Mr Vella called the others and soon they were joined by Fr Palmier, who was responsible for the church, and by ĠanMarì Debono, who was the sacristan.

On the removal of a large stone, a dark void was revealed and since only Mr Vella could pass through the hole in the roof, he was tied to a rope and given a box of matches so that he could inspect the site.

Eventually the boy came upon a number of human skeletons and got a terrible fright which left him deeply traumatised.

In fact Mr Vella never returned to this church again, notwithstanding that he lives only a few kilometres away.

It was only last year that he bravely ventured into the passages and nervously took a look at the human bones, now stacked at the far corner of the third corridor.

No one knows who these bones belonged to and how they ended up in these secret passages. Again, speculation is rife.

Some suggest that they were the unfortunate victims of the frightening Turkish attack which took place in 1614, while others suggest the place might have been used as an ossuary.

Between 1978 and 1980 some studies on the bones indicated that the skeletons had probably been exhumed and moved there from a cemetery. Moreover, it was found that these people had seemingly died within a short time of one another.

Unfortunately today the procession of St Gregory has lost much of its appeal.

In fact, the route has been shortened considerably as it starts from the small chapel of St Clement which is situated in the limits of Żejtun and ends only a short distance away at St Gregory’s church.

According to Żejtun historian Canon Joe Abela, this tradition is yielding to the changes of time, turning from a covenant of faith into a mere celebration for the first swim in the cool waters of Marsaxlokk.

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