A True Labour of Love… … the restoration of the Santa Cecilia Chapel

Walking into the newly-renovated Santa Cecilia Chapel, situated midway between Mgarr and the Citadel (close to the Gozo Helipad), I am struck by how beautiful it is… I can’t help thinking that a lot of love and dedication must have been put into this project in order to garner these stunning results.
And if the enthusiasm of one of the project leaders, Giovann Zammit, is anything to go by, then there was a bucketful of passion infused into the project as well. As he talks me through the various stages of the renovation, his face practically glows with pride and satisfaction.

And there is a lot to be proud of. After all, the Santa Cecilia Chapel is the only chapel on the island of Gozo that dates back to medieval times. It is dedicated to the patroness of music, whose feast is celebrated on 22 November.

The name of the locality occurs in notarial documents as early as 1424 and a variant of the same name, Santa Cecilie del Mugiarro, is found in 1569. However, the exact date of the construction of the church, which lies in the shadow of the Santa Cecilia Tower, cannot be determined.

This small church is the best surviving example of the many unaisled chapels that once dotted the Gozitan countryside. Like other late medieval chapels, its shape is a plain cube, except for the slight pitch of its roof. It measures seven by seven metres – nearly a perfect square. It is divided into four bays by three slightly pointed arches rising from wall piers, which carry the shallow pitched stone roof.

In 1613, the tower was built and it afforded a degree of protection to the locality’s farming community. However the socio-economic conditions and ecclesiastical policy of the period signalled the beginning of the end of this chapel, despite the repeated attempts of the local population to preserve its status as their local place of worship. In fact, the building was closed for worship in 1630 and again in 1634, which is an indication of local resistance to the desecration of the church.

In 1635, the devotee Pasquale Muscat was recorded to have given the sum of six tari per year for the maintenance of the church, but this payment seems to have ended with his death, which is registered to have occurred before the final desecration in 1644.
A few years later, Xewkija became the first rural parish of Gozo and the building of the parish church of St John the Baptist meant that the centre of religious activity was established east of the locality. The abandoned church became the ancillary building to the tower and it is possible that, at some point, it was used to house a mull-driven mill.

The tower and the church were scheduled as Grade One monuments back in 1996; however the church remained abandoned and deteriorated due to the elements, as well as vandalism. In 2007, the chapel was partially damaged in a fire and, in 2008, the west wall collapsed. By the time that the chapel was entrusted to NGO Wirt Ghawdex for restoration later that year, the chapel had become an unstable structure, due to these factors, as well as to the collapse of several roof slabs.

However now, thanks to sponsorship by the Baron Group of Companies – Gozo, the assistance of the Ministry for Gozo, additional funding through Eco-Gozo projects and the fund-raising efforts of the Rotary Club Gozo, this small church has been fully restored and it, together with a little annexe found on the side, will now be a venue for cultural activities such as lectures, exhibitions and concerts. In fact it is the perfect venue for such events, as the thick walls mean that there is no danger of being disturbed by the sound of traffic outside.

Gozitan-born Mr Zammit has a background in finance, which was invaluable in making sure that the budget was adhered to. He lived in Canada for 25 years and, when he returned to Gozo, decided to become involved in the heritage of his homeland. He is currently the executive secretary of Wirt Ghawdex.

Mr Zammit explains that a lot of work was done to turn the chapel from an unsteady structure into the gorgeous little building that it is today – forinstance, the support arches on the west wall were repaired, the window was restored and the floor was re-built (leaving glass inserts which enable visitors to the chapel to see the original floor underneath). New energy-saving lights were also installed, as were CCTV cameras and a great big solid wooden front door with strong ‘traditional’ locks, in a bid to eliminate vandalism.

Mr Zammit says that he cannot speak highly enough of all the workers and volunteers who contributed to the restoration of the chapel, some of whom even sacrificed their weekends to work on it and to meet the project deadline. He adds that the teamwork and sense of community displayed by everyone who was involved in this project was an absolute joy to behold.

To visit the Santa Cecilia Chapel, you may contact Wirt Ghawdex on info@wirtghawdex.org.

Additional information for this article was provided by David Mallia who wrote book on the chapel which was launched during its official opening of the chapel in March.

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