Maria de Domenicis, The Visitation (1680c), Wied Qirda Church, Żebbuġ

Photo: John Frendo


St Bonaventure, Head of the Franciscan Order, introduced this feast among his whole religious family in 1263. In April 1389, Pope Urban VI planned to give considerable importance to this feast, assigning to it a vigil and a whole octave. Moreover the same indulgences granted to the feast of Corpus Christi were to be enjoyed by the feast of the Visitation. But he died before promulgating the necessary Apostolic Letters in this regard. His successor Pope Boniface IX confirmed almost whatever his predecessor had planned. The Council of Basle, in 1441, inserted this feast in the universal church calendar. Ten years afterwards, during the Council of Florence, some Orientals agreed to propagate this feast within their ecclesiastical regions.

Although the celebration of a whole octave, meant to give particular prominence to this feast, it seems that it fell in disuse even in the Western church itself. Pope Pius V did not include it in his reform of the Roman Breviary, though the feast continued to retain a double rite rank. [1]

In Malta, this feast was given particular attention. On the 29th June 1525, the Cathedral Chapter, together with the Jurats of the Maltese Commune, decided to solemnise this feast since it enjoyed the same indulgencies ascribed to the feast of Corpus .Christi. [2] The Bishop's 'Curia, oil that same day, authorised the implementation of this decision. [3] Through this enactment, Malta availed itself of the concession already granted by papal authority decades before. This feast in Malta was indeed popular enough before the end of the 16th century. All the eighteen churches dedicated to this episode of Our Lady's life, existing in the island, had already been built by that time. Moreover the greater part of Visitation altars, that have been traced, belong to same period. [4] This feast moreover was normally included in all pious bequests providing for the celebration of Marian feasts. However, endowments of Visitation churches and altars normally presented one particular characteristic, namely the insistence on having mass and second vespers sung throughout the whole octave. [5] It is all two obvious that the importance of this octave did not dwindle in Malta as it had done in the West before Pope Pius V days.

In certain instances this feast was referred to with a special name, namely the Blessed Virgin of the Porto Salvo or Safe Harbour. There are at least three instances in Malta where this title had been adopted. Two are closely linked with churches of considerable prominence within the main harbour area. A third one stood farther inland on the road from Mdina to Valletta. [6] The first two were built during the last decades of the 16th century.

[p.69] This title, apart from bringing to the limelight the safe arrival of John the Baptist and Mary's humane assistance in this episode of Elisabeth's life, had a deep attraction to seafaring people. It seems that they linked their own safety with the protection which the Blessed Virgin would shower on those who seek her intervention, This scorns to be all too obvious at Senglea. The church of Porto !Salvo, which stands in the farthest end of the Isola facing the sea and the harbour's entrance, both during its building, as well as afterwards, fount. great assistance from those who earned their livelihood through the incessant perils of nautical life. [7] This church, in fact, acquired a right to share in the profits of certain vessels, known as the Latini. In 1686, the Prefect of these vessels confirmed this right which yielded an annual revenue of about two hundred and fifty scudi. [8]. Moreover, on its feast day, a regatta was held in the harbour, Twelve trophies made of silk of different colours were distributed among the winners. This popular custom came to an end a few years before 1759. [9] Incidentally, this is the only instance, detected so far in the records of the Pastoral Visits, referring to such an annual event.

The Porto Salvo church at Valletta. acquired greater importance since it was one of the two parishes established in the city. The Porto Salvo title was introduced in Malta for the first time with the building of this Dominican church. Crew members of the Order of St John's galleys contributed also financial assistance in its building. [10]

Another Porto Salvo church in present day Hamrun, commonly known as Tan-Nuzzu, stood on one of the principal roads leading from Mdina to the main harbour. [11] This church could have had some connections with other sea-faring people. One has to bear in mind that there were many Maltese employed both on the Order's fleet as well as on private vessels.

One particular Visitation church which attracted some attention was built at Wied Qirda, Żebbug. Apart from being the subject of a renowned sonnet written by Malta's national poet, Mgr Carmelo Psaila, [12] various records of 17th century Pastoral Visits testify the great veneration enjoyed then by this church. [13] A prominent member of the Order of St John who is also acknowledged as the Father of Maltese History, Commandery Fra Gio. Francesco Abela, Vice Chancellor of the said Order, had a special devotion to this Marian shrine, which he frequently visited. [14]

Analysing the data provided by the records of Pastoral Visits, it is sufficiently evident that a relatively good number of Visitation churches and altars continued to function till the end of the 18th century, namely seven [p.70] churches out of a total number of seventeen [15] and at least six altars out of fifteen. [16] Taking into account that almost all these churches and altars had been originally built or founded before the end of the 16th century, [17] the percentage of those that survived is indeed not at all negligible.




Vis. 1

Tan-Nuzzu This church was originally built by the Vice Chancellor of the Order of St John Commandery Fra Eugenio Ramirez Maldonato. [1] On the 31st August 1645, the blessing of a Visitation church rebuilt and endowed by Pancrazio Briffa took place. The said Pancrazio recorded these endowments in the acts of Notary Michele Ralli on the 18th August of that same year. [2] This church was no longer mentioned during the Pastoral Visits after 1662. [3] Its title Tan-Nuzzu could be a corruption of its founder's name. A new church was built by Margerita, wife of Cleric Antonio Agius and blessed by Bishop Alpheran in 1750. [4] The said lady founded therein an Ecclesiastical living entitled ''BVM del Porto Salvo" recorded in the acts of Notary Francesco Alfano on the 4th February 1745. [5]


Vis. 2

The Imbroll family built this church before 1575. Near it there was another one dedicated to St Anthony. [6] During the Pastoral Visit of 1644-46 it was still functioning. [7] Later however it was demolished as its site was needed for the building of the new parish church. [8]


Vis. 3

This church in Via Lunga could have been in existence long before 1575. [9] In 1598, its wooden altar piece, representing Our Lady flanked by St Elisabeth and St Joseph, was considered already very old. [10] Francesca, widow of Angelo Inguanez founded here an ecclesiastical living recorded in the acts of Notary Simon Galea on the 5th October 1602. The name of this benefice is Ta' Harich or Ta' Reda. [11]


Vis. 4

Dusina records that in 1575 there was a trigolithic church, held in high veneration, on the road from Mosta to Mellieha. [12] Gio. Francesco Abela identified this church [p.71] with Ta' l-Isperanza [13] which was rebuilt about 1760. [14]

Vis. 5

Tad-Dhib A church originally dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady, [15] after the plague of 1592-93 was rebuilt by Damiano Bonnichi and rededicated to the Visitation [16] he also provided an endowment recorded in the acts of Notary Gio. Paolo Fenech on the 7th May 1644. [17]


Vis. 6

In 1575 there was a Visitation church abutting on another one dedicated to the Assumption. As it was in a very deplorable state, Mgr Dusina ordered its closing to public worship. [18] But in 1600 it was still functioning. [19]


Vis. 7

In the neighbourhoods of Wied id-Dis, there was a Visitation church already recorded in 1598. Nearby stood a garden belonging to Fr Giuliano Borg, parish priest of Naxxar. He himself provided a bequest for this church. [20] This church was rebuilt some time before 1662 and rededicated to St Catherine, known as Tax-Xwieki But its altar piece represented also the Visitation and its feast continued to be celebrated here. [21]

Vis. 8

In 1608 another Visitation church was recorded. Its location was somewhere between Għallis and Magħtab. [22]


Vis. 9

This church stood within the estates of Dr Antonio Cassar UJD, [23] and was built by Pietro Paolo Bonello. [24] In 1656, it was closed to public worship, and Bishop Buenos in 1667 decreed its demolishing. [25]


Vis. 10

This church was founded by Fr Vincenzo Caruana parish priest of Senglea helped by his parishioners. Its first rector was Fr Leonardo Felici, who, on the 12th December 1596, was duly authorised to say mass here on Sundays and feast days. [26] On the 28th March 1662, Bishop Balaguer, at the request of Senglea's clergy, erected here the Congregation of the Oratory of St Philip Neri which was left in charge of this church. The parish priest of Senglea however retained certain rights over this church. [27]


Vis. 11

Ħax-Xluq Fr Leonardo Caruana in his last will left a bequest to have a Visitation church built here. His brother Zaccharia began to build it but wanted to have it transferred to Siġġiewi's parish church. Mgr Dusina in 1575 acceded to his request. [28] The church at Ħax-Xluq however continued to function and was dedicated to the Assumption. [29]

Vis. 12

In 1575, there was a Visitation chapel on the left hand side of Siġiewi's

Unknown late 16th Century artist, Our Lady of Porto Salvo, original titular piece of Porto Salvo Church, Valletta,
to-day placed in the sacristy of Stella Maris Parish Church, Sliema

[p.73] old parish church within its cemetery. [30] In 1585 orders were given to have it demolished. Its masonry was to be reused for the repairs of the parish church. [31]


Vis. 13

When the Dominican Fathers moved to Valletta they dedicated their church to Our Lady of Porto Salvo. Although the building of this church was still in progress in 1575, they had already started administering the sacraments as they had been given a parish status in virtue of Apostolic Letters obtained in 1571. [32] Their parish church was ready by 1585 when the boundaries of the two parishes then existing at Valletta were definitively established by Mgr Libertano, Inquisitor and Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese. [33] This church was rebuilt between 1802 and 1815. [34]


Vis. 14

Wied Qirda In 1575 Nicholas Vassallo, who owned the garden within which this church was built, was duty bound to look after its needs. [35] In 1594 it was described as "Donna to Gued Chirde". [36] The conventual chaplain Fra Gio. Fee Abela, had particular devotion towards this church. In 1621, it was stated that he used to visit it very frequently and provided for its maintenance. [37] Sometime before 1634 a new altar piece was made. [38] Cleric Bartolomeo Magro rebuilt this church in 1675. [39] As stated elsewhere this church has attracted considerable veneration.

Vis. 15

Ta' Cassis Nardu Fr Leonardo Bonavia, the founder of this church, built it before 1575. [40] Al-though Bishop Fra Tomaso Gargallo sanctioned its canonical profantaion in 1588, [41] it was still open to public worship till 1658. During that year however it was definitively closed. [42] In 1736, another church dedicated to Our Lady of Light was built on the site previously occupied by this church. [43]


Vis. 16

This church, which abutted on St Saviour's church, was already functioning in 1575. [44] Aloysius Cassar, left a bequest to this church as detailed in the records of Notary Giorgio Buttigieg on the 14th September 1542. [45] In 1588, it formed part of St Saviour's church itself as a side altar [46] which in 1659 was demolished and transferred to the church of the Assumption. [47] On the 12th July 1700, Bishop Cocco Palmieri decreed the incorporation of this altar to Żejtun's new parish church. [48]


Vis. 17

Ħal Millieri This old chapel in 1575 stood on the left hand side of [p.74] the Annunciation church of this hamlet. [49] The Zammit family used to look after its needs. [50] Its wooden altar piece represented Our Lady together with St Joseph and St Joachim. [51] In 1666 orders were given to replace its altar by a new one. [52] But the following year it was closed to public worship. [53]



Vis. I

An altar at the old Annunciation church was endowed by Brandano and Pietro Borg in the records of Notary Giuliano Muscat on the 22nd August 1543. [54] Later it was transferred to the new parish church. [55] Fr Mark Bellia gave it further endowments detailed in the records of Notary Benedtto Vassallo on the 16th November 1704. [56] The confraternity of the Rosary was in charge of this altars. [57]


Vis. II

This altar at Ta' Loreto church was founded before 1600 [58] and continued to function throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. [59]

Vis. III

Gio. M. Ellul during the Pastoral Visit of 1636 provided a bequest for the celebration of this feast at the parish church, which continued thenceforth to be held each year. [60]


Vis. IV

In 1673 this feast was celebrated at St Paul's the Hermit church at Wied il-Għasel. It had been transferred from, a church which originally stood at Ħal Dimech. [61]


Vis. V

An altar at Mqabba's parish church erected before 1636, [62] it may have substituted a Visitation church which existed in this village till 1600. [63] Till the end of the 18th century this altar was still functioning. [64]


Vis. VI

This feast continued to be celebrated at St Catherine's church at ix-Xwieqi, previously dedicated to the Visitation. [65] Fr Julian Borg bequeathed a donation for this purpose recorded in the acts of Notary Simon Galea on the 1st July 1610. [66]

[p.75] QORMI

Vis. VII

This altar in the parish church was mentioned only in the records of the 1588 Pastoral Visit. [67]



Speranza Faison, in a bequest recorded by Notary M. Antonio Ciappara on the 7th October 1606, provided for the celebration of this feast later held at Saura Hospital. [68]


Vis. IX

Sometime before 1602, Giacomo Antonio Battaglino founded this al-tar in the parish church, [69] which however was not included among the altars of the new parish church after 1636.


Vis. X

After 1755, the Sodality of the Holy Name of Jesus began to celebrate this feast at the parish church. [70]


Vis. XI

There was a Visitation altar in the old parish church mentioned till 1600. [71]


Vis. XII

In 1575, Julian Bonello used to have amass celebrated on an altar dedicated to the Visitation at the Damascena church. [72] Later the parish priest of Borgo used to celebrate this feast. [73] This altar was demolished after 1631. [74]


Sometime before 1575, the Abel family founded this altar at the parish Church. [75] After the plague of 1592-93, Bishop Gargallo authorised its rededication to St Roque and founded thereon a confraternity in his honour. [76]


Vis. XIV

In 1575 Giacomo Mifsud celebrated this feast on its altar at the old parish church. [77] This altar was demolished after 1618. [78]

Vis. XV

There was also a similar altar in 1575 at St Leonard's church in Bubaqra [79] which continued to function till 1598. [80]


The information presented covers the subject till the end of the 18th century.
Every number, shown next to a locality, indicates the presence of a church, an altar or a feast in that area.
These numbers are references to more details given in the respective section of the text.
ARABIC NUMBERS, e.g. 5, indicate churches that retained their titular and remained open to worship till the end of the 18th century.
UNDERLINED NUMBERS, indicate items that had ceased to be in liturgical use, or that had changed their titular.

[1] Emilio Campana, Maria nel Culto Cattolico I, 278-288; J.M. Fenesse, "Les événements de Ain-Karin: La visitation et la naissance de Jean Baptiste" in Bible et Terre Sainte, 61 (1694). 20-21; F.G. Holweck, Fasti Mariani, 127-129; A.I. Schuster, Liber Sacramentorum VII, 323-326.

[2] ACM, Ms. 3, 28r; AIM, Capitolo. p. 5.

[3] ACM, Ms. 2, p. 181.

[4] Visitation altars founded after 1600: Confer Nos Vis. III, IV, VIII, X.

[5] To quote some instances already documented in 1575, confer: AAM, VA1575C. 85r-v, 100v-101r, 103v‑104r and 119v.

[6] Confer Nos Vis. 1, 10, 13.

[7] Before 1602, Patron Vincenzo Rispolo and Patron Leonardo Greg bound themselves to give an annual revenue of twenty five scudi to this church. This deed was registered in the records of Notary Gio. Luca Gauci (AAM, VP 1588-1602, 401v-402v). Senglea's fishermen, on the 24th January 1599, were authorised to have an altar dedicated to St Andrew, their patron saint, in this church (Ibid., 403v-404r).

[8] AAM, VP 1685-87B, 113v.

[9] AAM, VP 1758-60 77, 97v-98r.

[10] Confer No Vis. 13.

[11] Confer No Vis. 1.

[12] "Wied Qirda" in Dun Karm, Antologija, Malta 1946, 9.

[13] Confer No Vis. 14 as well as AAM, VP 1618, 202r: "nimis devota quae detinetur in maxima veneratione a Populo Melitensi"; VP 1678-80, 132r; VP 1758-60 II, 580r-v; VP 1781, 340r-341r.

[14] AAM, VP 1634, 91r-v; VP 1635-37B, 204v-205r.

[15] Confer Nos Vis. 1, 3-5, 11, 14, 15.

[16] Confer Nos Vis. I, II , III, V, VI, VIII, X.

[17] [footnote missing in the text]

[1] A. Ferres, op. cit., 334-335.

[2] AAM, VP 1653-54, 189v; VP 1656-59, 52r.

[3] AAM, VP 1662-63, 292r.

[4] AAM, VP 1758-60 I, 21r-v.

[5] AAM, Benefizi, Vol. 1749-51, No 9.

[6] AAM, VA 1575C, 85r-v; VP 1579-1608, 244r.

[7] AAM, VP 1644-46, 61v.

[8] Dun Giusepp Micallef, Ħal Luqa, Niesha u Grajjietha, 82.

[9] AAM, VP 1575 (Royas), 33r.

[10] AAM, VP 1588-1602, 92r.

[11] AAM, Benefizi, Vol. 1641-44, No 11.

[12] AAM, VA 1575C, 162v.

[13] Gio. F.co Abela, op. cit., 373.

[14] Confer "Our Lady of Hope" in Section II, Notes 71 and 72.

[15] Confer No As. 37.

[16] AAM, VP 1579-1608, 356v.

[17] AAM, VP 1771-74/77, 155r-v.

[18] AAM, VP 1575C, 89r.

[19] AAM. VP 1588-1602, 325r.

[20] Ibid., 267v; VP 1579-1608, 362v.

[21] AAM, VP 1662-63, 99v.

[22] AAM, VP 1579-1608, 361v.

[23] AAM, VP 1615-16, 115r-v.

[24] Idem; VP 1635-37B, 45r.

[25] AAM, VP 1667-68, 33r.

[26] AAM, VP 1588-1602, 401v-403v; 1579-1608, 476v-477r.

[27] AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 97r-98r.

[28] AAM, VA 1575C, 62r.

[29] Confer No As. 71.

[30] AAM, VA 1575C, 54r.

[31] AAM, VP 1579-1608, 30v.

[32] AAM,VA 1575C, 134r-136v.

[33] AAM, VP 1579-1608, 45r-v.

[34] A. Ferres, op. cit., 173.

[35] AAM, VA 1575C, 156v.

[36] AAM, VP 1579-1608, 174r.

[37] AAM, VP 1621-31, 101y-102r.

[38] AAM, VP 1634, 91r-v.

[39] AAM, VP 1678-80, 132r. A. Ferres, op.  cit., 425.

[40] AAM, VA 1575C, 68v.

[41] AAM, VP 1588-1602, 30r-v.

[42] AAM, VP 1656-59, 139r.

[43] AAM, VP 1736-40, pp. 434-35. Confer No L 2.

[44] AAM, VA 1575C, 76r-v.

[45] AAM, VP 1692-98, 184r.

[46] AAM, VP 1588-1602, 53v-60v.

[47] AAM, VP 1656-59, 204r.

[48] AAM, VP 1746-51, 525r-v.

[49] AAM, VA 1575C, 100v-101r.

[50] AAM, VP 1615-16, 175v; VP 1634, 75v.

[51] AAM, VP 1635-37B, 150v.

[52] AAM, VP 1665-66, 211r.

[53] AAM, VP 1754-60 II, 398r-399v. Ant. Luttrell, Ħal Millieri: A Maltese Casale, Its Churches and Paintings, 121-123 and passim.

[54] AAM, VP 1644-46, 209r-v.

[55] AAM, VP 1671-74, 359r.

[56] AAM, VP 1708-10, 266r.

[57] AAM, VP 1737-40, p. 336. Dun Ġwann Dimech, "Il-Knisja Parrokkjali (30) Id-Duluri" in Ħal Balzan, 42 (1978), 4.

[58] AAM, VP 1588-1602, 319v.

[59] AAM, VP 1618, 113r; VP 1722-23. 540v; VP 1758-60 II, 431v; VP 1781, 542v.

[60] AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 431r; VP 1781, 544r.

[61] AAM, VP 1671-74, 273r. Confer No Vis. 4.

[62] AAM, VP 1635-37B, 117r.

[63] Confer No Vis. 6.

[64] AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 353r; VP 1781, 629v-630r.

[65] Confer No Vis. 7.

[66] AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 237v.

[67] AAM, VP 1588-1602, 41v-42v.

[68] AAM, VP 1771-74/77, 33v; VP 1781, 15v.

[69] AAM, VP 1588-1602, 398r.

[70] AAM, Suppliche 6 (1741-61 I), 83r‑ v.

[71] AAM, VA 1575C, 95r; VP 1588-1602, 299v.

[72] AAM, VA 1575C, 129v.

[73] AAM, VP 1615-16, 299r; VP 1618, 62v.

[74] AAM, VP 1621-31, 494r.

[75] AAM, VA 1575C, 126r.

[76] AAM, VP 1588-1602, 378v-379r.

[77] AAM, VA 1575C, 96v; VP 1579-1608, 26r.

[78] AAM, VP 1618, 85v.

[79] AAM, VA 1575C, 103v-104r.

[80] AAM, VP 1588-1602, 182v.