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THE CHURCH OF ST ANTHONY THE ABBOT IN XAGHRA

This is one of the oldest churches in Gozo, reported to have been in existence in 1400. According to old documents it was built by the Gozitan family of Camire and Hinzi. This is confirmed by the report of Mgr Dusina (1575). In 1601 the chapel was rebuilt with a cemetery or “zuntier” in front of it.

The chapel served as the first Parish Church on 28 April 1688 when Xaghra, together with three other new parishes were created by Bishop Davide Cocco Palmieri. The Blessed Sacrament was installed in it for the first time on 5 June 1688. The first Parish Priest was Dun Bernard Formosa and the church served as parish church until 1692.

The plague of 1814, which carried off 104 victims, was fiercest in the area around the chapel. The first victims to be buried inside were Angelo Galea, his daughter Rosaria and the sexton Casimiro Rapa. It happened that after the plague in Malta was over, Angelo brought a contaminated faldetta belonging to a victim of the epidemic over to Gozo and gave it to his daughter. Visitors to the chapel can see an iron rod, in front of the altar under the floor, which sealed their graves inside the church. When the plague was over, certain articles which were in the church, including the old altar painting were burnt to disinfect the place. Damask covering the walls was taken down to Ramla Bay and steeped in sea water for forty days after which it was useless. The present painting, depicting Saint Anthony with the population of Xaghra under tents during the plague, was painted by Dun Salv Bondi in 1816.

The church was hit during the Second World War and accordingly it was condemned by Bishop Mgr Michael Gonzi. His successor, Mgr Giuseppe Pace, who was known for his devotion towards St Anthony the Abbot took steps to have the Church repaired. For this task he nominated Dun Giuseppe Farrugia from Xaghra and who lived in St Anthony Square. In September 1947, the Church was once again consecrated. It was later enlarged and a “zuntier” built in front. It was blessed anew by Bishop Pace on 13 November 1955. A rather small statue of St Anthony by the renowned Gozitan artist Wistin Camilleri was made to be replaced on 17 January 1988 by a life size one made by his son Michael Camilleri Cauchi. On 28 April of the same year the Church was once more consecrated by Bishop Mgr Nicholas J Cauchi following further alterations.

The liturgical feast of the Saint falls on the 17 January, the feast being celebrated on the third Sunday in January. In 1947 the ceremony of the blessing of animals, St Anthony the Abbot being protector of livestock, was introduced. St Anton Square, 50 metres away from the chapel will be decorated and a stand set up for the ceremony in the afternoon.

On Saturday night, eve of the feast, the statue is carried in simple procession to the Xaghra Basilica where it stays overnight. On Sunday, at 9.00 in the morning, the Archpriest, Mgr Eucharist Sultana concelebrates Mass in the Chapel. At 3.30 p.m., H.L. the Bishop leads a Concelebrated High Mass in the Basilica and blesses hundreds of rusks and small paper bags of oats with a holy picture of the Saint affixed. After Mass, the statue is taken in procession to St Anthony Square. The Clergy and the Victory Band take part. Leading the procession will be children of all ages holding their pets accompanied by their parents and adults with animals.

Once arrived in the Square, the ceremony, presided by the Bishop, of the blessing of animals starts. A short speech is made exhorting one and all to treat animals with kindness. Then people and animals are blessed and those with pets and animals file past the Bishop who gives each a blessed rusk and bag of oats. Normally between 700 and 800 file past. The defile starts with big animals like horses, donkeys, and dogs, followed by sheep, lambs, piglets, cats, rabbits, poultry, pigeons, birds and the smallest pets like turtles, name them and they will be there. This is a very attractive ceremony with owners of animals and pets vying with each other who presents the cleanest animal or pet, all of them carrying coloured ribbons and decorated cages. All through the ceremony, the Victory Band plays lively band marches. People from all Gozo flock to Xaghra to take part or watch even though traditionally the evening would be one of the coldest of the season.

When the file past ends, the procession resumes its way to the Chapel where Eucharistic Benediction is imparted bringing the festivities to an end.

The present Rector, Canon John Sultana leaves no stone unturned for the success of the feast. He recently started inviting the Confraternity of St Anthony the Abbot from Rabat, Malta who come in full force giving the event a national aspect.
(acknowledgement – A Maltese Mosaic by Kilin)