Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.
Source: Melita Historica. [Malta Historical Society]. 7(1977)2(202-204)
M. FSADNI, Id-Dumnikani Maltin Fi Żmien il-Gwerra 1939-1945, Progress Press 1977. Pp. 261; illus.
Fr, Mikiel Fsadni O.P. needs no introduction. He is one of the very few local scholars whose writings have made a really worthwhile contribution to Maltese studies. This book, the fourth in a series of important monographs on the history of the Dominican Order in Malta, is an interesting and often absorbing account of the activities of Dominican friars during the second World War. It is therefore different from his other publications which were chiefly concerned with late medieval and early modern history. It is also, on account of its subject matter, necessarily less academic and therefore more easily accessible to the general reader; and, because it is based principally on unwritten reminiscences, it dispenses with footnotes which feature so prominently in Fsadni's other books. This does not however detract from its value for it throws an important [p.203] light on the socio-religious aspects of the war years. To compensate for the absence of footnotes there is a detailed list of people interviewed and of manuscripts and other archive-material and books consulted; and the analytical index at the end facilitates its use by students and research workers.
Thanks primarily to Charles Boffa's book The Second Great Siege, Malta 1940-43 (Malta, 1970) and the subsequent foundation of the hard working War Museum Association, the last decade has witnessed a remarkable revival of interest in the war and several books with a war-theme have been published or are in course of publication. The one under review is definitely one of the best. As Fr. Fsadni concedes in the introduction, the full story of the war in Malta has yet to be told. He has however contributed substantially towards this end by collecting experiences which would otherwise have been lost. There is much to recommend this approach. The war is still vividly remembered by thousands of people a great number of whom have interesting stories to tell and stimulating experiences to communicate. The work of recording them must start without delay or it may soon be too late. Already some of the people interviewed by Fr. Fsadni, such as Professor Seraphim Zarb, have passed away.
The book opens with a description of the Maltese Dominican Province in the immediate pre-war period. The community consisting of ninety-five members including friars, lay brothers, students and simple novices, had three convents at Rabat, Valletta and Birgu, and a house at Sliema which was becoming increasingly important. Blissfully unaware of the dark clouds ahead, even though there were persistent rumours of an impending war, the Sliema Dominicans embarked in 1939 on an ambitious and costly building programme involving the modification and extensive enlargement of the beautiful church of Christ the Nazarene that had been entrusted to their care in 1909. The war did not deter them and in spite of the frequent air raids, rising costs, and increasing scarcity of necessary materials, they tenaciously carried on with the work bringing it to almost near completion in 1941 during one of the worse periods of the blitz. The church was subsequently hit several times and considerably damaged; it was the new technique of 'ferroconcrete' used successfully by Mr. Guze Damato that probably saved the church from utter destruction. This fate befell the architecturally much more important church of the Virgin Annunciate at Birgu. On the eve of the outbreak of hostilities with Italy in June 1940 the Dominicans there were proudly preparing for the unveiling of Giovanni Battista Conti's dome paintings which were to crown the decoration of the church. Their sense of satisfaction was, however, short lived. The heavy blitz of 19th July turned the church and adjoining monastic building with its fine cloister into a heap of ruins. The attractive [p.204] bell tower escaped but was subsequently pulled down when the present church was built after the end of the war. Fr. Fsadni claims that it was structurally unsound and that its demolition was only undertaken on expert advice. It is indeed a pity it could not be saved. One of the book's most important chapters describes the artistic treasures lost at Birgu and other Dominican churches. The plates which illustrate it probably constitute the only surviving photographic record of these works of art.
The Dominicans experienced, on account of the situation of three of their houses in Malta's worst bombed areas the full brunt of the war. At Valletta where the crypt of their church sometimes served as an air-raid shelter for almost about a thousand people, they ministered to the needs of those who for various reasons could not join the exodus out of the city, some of whom led a nightmarish existence in the old railway tunnel and other rock-cut galleries such as il-Mina s-Sewda and the Yellow Garage. At Birgu during the first days of aerial bombardment people sought refuge in the Dominican cloister but they luckily soon found more secure shelters in the ditch round the fortifications where the friars together with the only two other priests Dun Pawl Galea and Dun Anton Caruana gave them all the assistance they could until their convent was razed to the ground in January 1941. They then opened a temporary house at Fleurs de Lys where they continued their pastoral work in an almost military zone. The Sliema Dominicans did not abandon their flock and when on 26th December 1942 their house was completely destroyed they lived in a public shelter for several months until they could rent an alternative accommodation. At Rabat which became an important refugee centre, the Dominicans opened two wings of their large cloister which were divided into cubicles to give shelter to those who could not find other accommodation.
The Dominican Fathers continued meanwhile as far as possible to lead their cloistral life and attend to their choir and other duties. At the helm of the Order was the remarkable Irishman Fr. Nolan. An ascetic and a strict disciplinarian he was also a gifted leader who was instrumental in keeping the morale high during the long ordeal. He was above all an indefatigable worker who inspired his brother Dominicans to rise to the occasion. Some of them worked hard in District Committees and the A.R.P. while others gave brilliant service as military chaplains. Their vividly narrated experiences help capture the war atmosphere as few other books have succeeded in doing.
One hopes that Fr. Fsadni's work will provoke members of other religious orders to publish accounts of their war activities. This together with the collection of other experiences will help build for posterity a comprehensive picture of this momentous event in Maltese History.