September is a significant month for the Maltese islands. It is also particularly meaningful to the city of Senglea. It is the month in which major historical events are commemorated: the end of the Great Siege (September 8, 1565); the uprising against the French (September 2, 1798) and their eventual withdrawal from the island (September 5, 1800); and the surrender of Fascist Italy (September 8, 1943).
September 8, 1565, the memorable day, 450 years ago, that marked the end of the Great Siege, was the day liturgically dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. The people of Senglea, though weighed down by the ordeal they had endured, felt that they should erect a church in honour of the Virgin’s birth, serving also as a memorial of that great victory over the Ottoman Empire.
Their wish was fulfilled with the completion of the church, probably designed by architect Vittorio Cassar, in 1580. Immediately, Senglea was established as an independent parish, separating itself from that of Vittoriosa, with Don Antonio de Nicolaci as its first parish priest.
The statue of Our Lady of Victories, venerated at this sanctuary basilica, is indeed unique, being built on a dainty, almost miniature scale, its colourful origin going back to 1618.
In fact, the statue is surrounded by the charm of tradition, reverence and genuine love of people who lived close to the sea. The events connected with the treasured statue were narrated and passed down from one generation to another, and all show that it was made neither for Senglea nor for any other church.
According to a reliable tradition, recorded in ancient manuscripts in the archives of the parish, this statue of Our Lady was found floating together with other wreckage from a galleon. The vessel had been shattered at the height of a storm and shipwrecked on one of the Dalmatian islands, which today form part of Croatia.
The captain of an Austrian galley, on reaching the vicinity of those islands, caught sight of the statue floating among the wreckage of the galleon. He fished it out of the sea and, since it was a religious image, resolved to donate it to a church on the first Christian land he reached.
According to the said manuscript,“quest’ immagine probabilmente era fatta in qualche quadro di puppa”. This means that the statue was, in all probability, made to adorn the rear part of a Christian galleon. After its recovery from the sea, it was donated to the Senglea parish church by the captain of the galley, following a request of two of his passengers, both from Senglea – “a certain Lanzon, who was the grandfather of Joseph Lanzon, known as Ta’ Palmett, and the other was the father of Demetrius Tumbo”.
At that time, the Senglea parish lacked both a statue and a painting of the Virgin Mary. Parish priest Don Cosimo Talavera, with ecstatic joy, received the statue on behalf of the inhabitants of the city.
The statue was found floating together with other wreckage from a galleon shipwrecked on one of the Dalmatian islands
Very soon, the statue became a cherished priceless heritage of the Senglea parish. This motivated Talavera to find an appropriate place where it could be placed. On the right side of the main altar, he built a new altar which became known as the altar of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
On this altar, he placed the statue of Our Lady, a statue before which people prayed and, while raising their thoughts towards Mary, they caught sight of the merciful Mother of God, always willing to grant persistent help. The statue, widely known as il-Bambina owing to its small size, has been venerated with immense devotion ever since.
On various occasions, the statue was the centre of attraction for special religious gatherings as well as parochial and national pilgrimages. Two events registered in the parish archives serve to illustrate the high esteem and profound veneration with which the statue was held.
The first occurred in 1718, when the statue was carried in a penitential pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Our Lady known as Tal-Ħlas in Qormi. This was done following a decree issued by Bishop of Malta Jacopo Canaves after a long period of disastrous drought. In his decree, the bishop instructed all the confraternities of Malta to hold a general votive procession on April 10. While the pilgrimage was on its way back to Senglea, it began to drizzle, and then started raining heavily.
The second instance happened almost a century later, in 1813. At that time Malta was enduring a very difficult time as a deadly plague was raking the island and hundreds of people were dying. The Senglea chapter solemnly vowed that if the town was spared from this affliction, it would perpetually hold three votive processions, one of which was that with the statue of the Bambina, to be held annually on September 8. Through divine protection and with Our Lady’s intercession, Senglea was spared, and the pledge has been observed ever since.
This statue represents the titular dedication of the parish. So every year on September 8, it is solemnly carried around the main streets of Senglea. This liturgical procession is held as the peak of a novena leading to solemn celebrations on the eve and the feast day itself of her blessed nativity.
1921 saw the culmination of the widespread veneration towards this statue. On account of the deep devotion with which the Bambina was venerated throughout the island, the chapter, clergy and people of Senglea, led by archpriest Giuseppe Adami, asked Pope Benedict XV to grant them the privilege to solemnly crown the statue.
The rescript for this crowning was issued by the Holy See on May 1, 1920. Preparations for the unique celebration were immediately taken in hand. The firm Testa was commissioned to select the diamonds and gemstones, the firm Muscat was charged with melting the gold objects presented by the people of Senglea for the occasion, and Feraud Pace was entrusted with chiselling the crown.
The much anticipated day was September 4, 1921. In the evening, Archbishop of Malta Dom Mauro Caruana, assisted by Bishop Angelo Portelli, his auxiliary, and Bishop of Gozo Giovanni Maria Camilleri, solemnly placed the gold crown, studded with precious stones, on the head of this cherished, miraculous effigy.
Great devotion and fervent prayers were addressed, through this statue, to Our Lady, Queen of Peace, during the dreadful years of World War II. After the heavy bombardments of January 16, 1941, during which the basilica was severely damaged, it became imperative to remove what could be salvaged of the valuables of the collegiate church. First of all, Canon Emmanuele Brincat, the archpriest who never left Senglea throughout the war, sought a place of refuge for the Bambina. In fact, the statue was loaded on a truck, provided by the Royal Malta Artillery, and taken to the Birkirkara collegiate.
Through divine protection and with Our Lady’s intercession, Senglea was spared, and the pledge has been observed ever since
September 8 had always been an eventful and joyful day. It was a day of thanksgiving as it reminded each generation of all their ancestors’ victories. However, this particular day in 1943, was to mark another event: the end of a long affliction, with Italy’s unconditional surrender to the Allies. Since air attacks had become rare, the statue of Our Lady was brought back to its home town. It was during the procession with the Bambina, through the streets of war-torn Senglea, that archpriest Brincat received the much awaited message that Malta was now safe and free – one more instance of Our Lady’s assistance and protection.
In 1946, due to post-war conditions, with the basilica practically demolished, the 25th anniversary of the solemn crowning of the Bambina could not be properly celebrated. But in 1971, the Sengleans wanted to make up for that shortfall. Thanks to the enthusiasm of Canon Giovanni Sladden, the archpriest who loved Senglea and gave his life to it, fitting celebrations were held with the solemnity they deserved. Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, Archbishop of Bologna, presided over the festivities and, on September 4, 1971, accompanied by Sladden, he placed a gold rose at the foot of the statue of Our Lady which was manufactured by the firm John Muscat Dublesin, following a design of Envin Cremona.
The 75th anniversary of the coronation was commemorated in 1996. The parish was now under the spiritual leadership of Canon Vincenzo Cachia, another zealous archpriest. That year, celebrations seemed to know no end. The peak was reached on the evening of September 4, when Archbishop Giuseppe Mercieca led a solemn High Mass at the Senglea Marina.
That evening, the congregation assisted to the blessing of the statue of Our Lady, now covered with plates of gold and silver. It was a marvellous artefact made a martello by silversmith Giovanni Bartolo. Words cannot describe the devotion and emotion that permeated Senglea. Everyone felt the bond that Senglea has with its Bambina.
This beautiful statue is the only one of Our Lady in Malta to be solemnly crowned by a special decree issued by the Holy See. Its facial expression simply goes through the hearts of those who beseech her intercession. Many graces and miracles have been wrought through devotion towards Maria Bambina. This explains why hundreds of people gather outside the basilica on the evening of September 8 to pray and look on joyfully as the statue joins the procession.
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