A concise history of the Sliema parish church which bears the name of “Our Lady of the Sacred Heart of Jesus”
It was in the year 1872 when Rev. Fr. Paul Vella from Valletta founded a small committee to try and formulate a scheme to build a church in Sliema. It took him five years of constant work so that this idea came to fruition. It was on 03rd June 1877 when the foundation stone of the church was laid and dedicated to “Our Lady of the Sacred Heart of Jesus”. The said church is a monument to Pope Pius IX (since then he was beatified) who, on that same date celebrated his 50th years of being consecrated Bishop and approved such a devotion to the Holy Mary. It took four years to build the church under the supervision of architect Giovanni Domenico Debono. The church was blessed on 26th June 1881 by Archbishop Carmelo Xikluna. In the evening of the same day, the new statue of Our Lady which was done by the workmanship of Glormu Darmanin who specializes in this particular art was brought to the church. Five months later, Rev. Fr. Paul, on behalf of Rev. Fr. Tonin Cesal OFM and with the permission of the. Archbishop gave the go ahead for the Franciscan Friars to run this particular church. Since the year 1882 titular festivities were held both in church and along the streets however up till then, the statue of Our Lady was never taken out during these celebrations. In 1910, during the annual feast, a group of young men took the statue out of the church whilst a spontaneous and pacific demonstration was held. The following year on the 02nd July 1911, the first procession was held after the necessary permits were approved. In 1909 a committee was specifically formed and worked hard to attain the rights for the church to be recognized as a parish. The committee asked for the help of the Apostolic Visitor Mons. Pietro La-Fontaine. Another plea was made directly to St. Pope Pius X. On 29th September 1918 it was announced that the said church was officially regarded as a parish as declared by Archbishop Dom. Mauro Caruana O.S.B.
The rate of population in the parish was growing so fast, that the church suddenly became small in comparison to accommodate the increase in parishioners. In this respect, therefore, there was a great need of structural works to be made. The church had been built on a Roman style with rounded columns and a flat roof. However, in 1930 the whole roof had to be changed and in this respect, pillars were erected against the columns to give more support to the roofing. Later, it was decided to build a cupola after which the frontage of the church was demolished and a new and larger facade was built to give bigger space in the said church. All the said work was finalized in November 1936. In 1939 the church organ was brought over from Italy which stands just above the main front door of the church. However, the organ needs a major overhaul to bring it back to its original status.
In 1940 the Second World War broke up. During this period, the church suffered a lot of serious damages. The church damages were countless. It was on 04th August 1941 when the sacristy was hit directly by a bomb. In the sacristy there were both church and street decorations stored, including the ones that embellished our streets during the festive season. On 01st April 1942 damages galore included: (a) the left hand side of the small chapel; (b) another two small chapels, one of which was dedicated to the Madonna of Pompeii and the other to St. Lawrence. Thank God there were only small damages to the statue of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On that same day, a major part of the convent was destroyed and Rev. Fr. Diegu Gales OFM was found dead under the debris. Three other persons lost their lives in the church. In 1944 work commenced on the restructuring of the convent and church. Instead of the original sacristy, two large cupolas were built. During the time that the rebuilding and restructuring was being carried out, all the gold ornaments and jewelry that the statue of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart donned were stolen whilst three of the Madonna’s fingers were damaged. The robbery had taken place during the night of the 09th February 1949. By June 1950 the new building of the church was ready. On 30th November 1950 the church was consecrated by Archbishop Mons. Michael Gonzi.
In the year 1954 the work to lay the marble flooring of all the church was started and later they also resumed the work where painting was still needed, including the gilding of the ceiling where required. In 1960 work was started for a new dais for the statue of our Madonna. The work was entrusted to Joseph Galea on the design of the well known Carmelo Tonna of Rabat. All the bronze work was made in the foundry and executed by Abela of Hamrun. This piece of artwork took four years to complete. In 1962 sewing of the damask for the whole church commenced. All this work was finalized in time for the titular feast in 1969. In September 1969 the Gozitan artist Paul Camilleri Cauchi was given the task of painting the cupola. In the cupola eight Franciscan saints were painted and in the lunette four Fransican teologians who had taught doctrine or obtained privileges from the Blessed Virgin Mary. The ceiling of the aisle and the large cupolas depicted seven joyful events of Our Lady. Four angels bearing symbols in their hands adorned each of these main paintings. Above each window a Biblical figure is portrayed. Next to the windows one can see Franciscan saints of the Second Order or of the Franciscan Secular Order. The priceless painting of Giuseppe Cali in 1892 of Our Lady depicting her triumph over original sin embellishes the apse just above the main altar (tal-kor). In the apse of the cupola of St. Joseph, Our Lady was portrayed as the Mother of the Church. In the other apse of the other cupola of St. Lawrence, the Madonna is depicted as the Queen of Creation. Right above the organ, one can see Jesus performing his first miracle at His mother’s request during the wedding feast at Cana. All the paintings were completed by 1978.
After the titular feast in 1970, it was decided that a new niche for the statue of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart of Jesus be built; the purpose of this being that the dais can be appreciated all throughout the year. This was ready the following year in time for the titular feast. It had been built in what was before the chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary. In January 1978 the old and priceless pulpit was removed from its original place to give more space for the main altar. This was placed in the Chapel dedicated to St. Baskal Baylon. After the feast in 1999, the statue of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was taken to be re-gilded again. The pedestal was also gilded. All this work was ready prior to the feast in the year 2000.
After the Vatican Council II, and the new liturgical reform, it was necessary that the main altar had to be in the shape of a table. In this respect, the main altar was removed and re-built under the painting of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on 13 December 1971 and all the seating behind the main altar were removed and put in the sacristy. A new table model was designed by the renowned painter Paul Camileri Cauchi and later mounted as the main altar of the said church on 07th May 1974 and later consecrated on the 17th June 1974 by Archbishop Mons. Michael Gonzi. In the year 2000 the presbytery was enlarged up to the first front columns which are exactly under the church dome. Two marble step platforms were erected on which the main altar was set. A new marble ambo was made by the well known sculpture Ronnie Pisani, who actually is one of our parishioners.
For the last few years, a lot of restoration works have been executed in the church, some of which are: the dome, the church frontage, the bell towers, membrane all over the top of the said church as a protection from rain water. A new electric system was installed. Other restoration work in particular the church high columns especially the ones behind the main altar which had structural damage and painting was a must. One must not forget the new system for lights and last but not least a modern “sound system” was installed.
HISTORICAL FACTS AND DATES
03rd June 1877
Blessing and laying of the foundation stone as a monument to Pope Pius IX.
05th April 1881
The Confraternity of “Our Lady of the Sacred Heart of Jesus” was canonically founded.
26th June 1881
The blessing and opening of the Church followed by the arrival of the statue of the Madonna under the title of “Our Lady of the Sacred Heart of Jesus”.
13th November 1881
The Franciscan Minor Order took over from Rev. Fr. Paul Vella the running of the Church.
17th August 1902
The Third Franciscan Order welcomed its first members.
19th June 1910
The statue of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was taken out of the Church by a spontaneous demonstration.
02nd July 1911
The first procession with the statue of our Madonna was held after the necessary permits were approved by the Ecclesiastical Authorities.
29th September 1918
The Church was now officially declared as a Parish by Archbishop Dom. Mauro Caruana O.S.B.
24th April 1919
The Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist was canonically approved.
01st April 1924
The necessary permits were obtained for a larger façade of the Church.
30th June 1935
The Parish Church was consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
01st April 1942
During World War II parts of the Church, sacristy and convent had been destroyed.
Restoration and re-building of the damaged parts of the buildings.
09th February 1949
The statue of the Madonna “Our Lady of the Sacred Heart of Jesus” was profaned when the golden jewelry that donned the statue were stolen whilst three of the Madonna’s fingers were broken.
30th November 1950
Both the Church and the main altar were consecrated by Archbishop Mons. Michael Gonzi.
17th June 1974
The new altar in the shape of a table was consecrated by Archbishop Mons. Michael Gonzi.
03rd July 1977
Celebrations marking the first century of the laying of the foundation stone of the Church and the beginning of the devotion towards the Madonna, “Our Lady of the Sacred Heart of Jesus”.
05th July 1981
Celebrations commemorating the first century of three historical events during the year 1881.
01st July 1986
For the first time, an oratorio called “Our Lady of the Sacred Heart”, which had been written by Rev. Fr. Marjanu Vella OFM and with the music composed by Mro. Joseph Vella, was sung as a memorial festivity marking the 75th anniversary since the first titular procession took place with the statue of the said Madonna.
21st June 2006
The oratorio “Our Lady of the Sacred Heart” was held for the second time under the baton of Mro. Joseph Vella in commemoration of the 125 years of the three historical events in 1881.