Malta has 359 churches between the islands of Malta and Gozo. That’s almost one for every day of the year! While we were in Malta, we saw quite a variety of churches, from major cathedrals to minor parish churches. All were beautiful and full a splendor unlike many you find in the United States. Seeing how important religion is to this country, and the sheer number of churches we saw, I needed a post to highlight this important aspect of Malta’s culture.
If there is only one church you see on this island, make it St. John’s Co-Catherdal in Valletta. Originally, this cathedral was only for use by the Knights of St. John. Over the years, the Grand Masters of the Order used the cathedral to to show off their wealth and power. Each Grand Master added to the church such that it is covered, floor to ceiling with art and decoration. The walls have gold inlay. The ceilings have painted masterpieces. Even the floor is covered in marble inlay. Your eyes simply don’t know where to look.
A smaller parish church off the main thoroughfare in Valletta, this was the church were the common people came to worship. Smaller in size and scale, but still more bejeweled and decorated than anyplace I visited in my home country.
This is THE church to visit in Gozo. Considered just a basilica it is still the largest and most revered church in Gozo. Our guide let us know that most people who come to Gozo for the day make their way up to the church dedicated to the Virgin Mary to pray for loved ones before going on with their day. With mosaic stations of the cross outside, intricate glass windows inside and decoration all around, it was a beautiful play to sit and pray, and reflect.
Before visiting the Citadel, we peaked in quickly at St. George’s Basilica. Unlike the other churches we visited, it was a bit dark, but that could have been because of the rain outside. However, it was not less grand and you could see many parishioners praying in the quiet, among the ornate decorations
Mdina was once the capital of Malta, and so it does have a co-cathedral along with the cathedral used by the Knights of St. John. We didn’t go inside, but got to see the impressive façade outside before going behind the church to the city walls to see the view.
This was one of the coolest churches we saw with the most miraculous story. It is a round church, such that there appears to be no corners and is covered in a large round dome. In 1942, during the bombing of Malta, one of the German bombs fells on the church. It fell through the dome and into the middle of the congregation of 300+ parishioners awaiting evening mass. Miraculously, the bomb didn’t go off AND didn’t hit anyone. No one was hurt. As our tour guide was telling us the story, and older parishioner was sitting near by praying. He says “Yes…I remember that day..it was terrible”. By luck or divine intervention, we were standing next to a parishioner who not only grew in in the town, but was a parishioner of the church when he was a child. He remembered the bomb and the bombing during World War II. He was happy to share stories and thank us for coming to visit his small town. We were thankful to him for his bravery and willingness to share his story with us. It’s not often these days you have witnesses to events of World War II sitting next to you while visiting a site. I prayed for a while in this church, thanking God for this experience.
No matter where you go in Malta, no matter what town you visit, there is a beautiful, spiritual place for you to go pray. I am Catholic (though a lapsed one) but even my friends of all religions found a power in these buildings. Sometimes all you need is quiet and beauty to reflect on how wonderful life can truly be. I was thankful for the chance to visit the beautiful island, something most Americans don’t do, to have this time to be with my best friend and free of my responsibilities as a mother and wife, and to reflect and take care of myself (even if it was just for a week). I prayed at each and every church we visited and thanked a higher order for the blessings I’ve received in life. Even if you are not religious, you can appreciate the beauty, rich history, and the key role that religion has played in this small but devout island.