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Dingli and its Parish
Dingli and its Parish
   
Dingli & its Parish
Parish Priests
   

This information is taken and translated from the 1st chapter in the book “Ħad-Dingli 300 Sena Parroċċa “ (Ħad-Dingli : 300 Years Parish) by Rev Alexander Bonnici OFM Conv., published by the Dingli Parish Council in 1979.

The first references

The Parish of the Village of Dingli traces its humble origins to the village of Ħal Tartarni, which today does not exist. Early documents held in the church’s archives of Valletta and of the Cathedral in Mdina, refer to the year 1575, when Mgr. Pietro Dusina, appointed by the Holy See, embarked on his the Apostolic Visit to Malta. After having visited Mdina and Rabat, Mgr Dusina started his tour of the country churches in the environs, including that of Ħal Tartarni some 2 miles away from the capital of Mdina. The church of Ħal Tartarni, dedicated to St Bartholomew, was in a very sorry state with not even a priest to administer the sacraments. The 20 families reported to be living at Hal Tartarni at the time, were already looking towards the new developing community of Dingli some 1 mile and a half distant, even attending for church services there rather than restoring their own church.
 
Mgr. Pietro DusinaIn Dusina’s report of 1575 Dingli is referred to as a parish, although it is not accorded the importance of being so. We read that some 20 families lived there, however the church serviced the needs of some 400 people who attended both from Dingli, Ħal Tartarni and other small hamlets of the area. Dusina however puts the church’s status as being subject to that of the Parish of St Paul of Rabat. He states that the church was dedicated to the Assumption in Heaven of Our Lady, but was very poor with an annual income of only 6 tari; smaller churches and chapels at the time even had a much more attractive sum to help maintain them.

Notwitstanding these conditions, the church of Dingli is reported to have had in its possession a chalice and all liturgical vestments required for the celebration of Holy Mass. Every Sunday a priest used to visit the village to say mass, which leads us to believe that in 1575 there was no resident parish priest and no resident priest in Dingli.

It is recorded that a man by the name of Zakkarija Surgi was brought in front of Mgr Dusina. Surgi states that he owned agricultural land in the area known as Ta’ Angelp. He had bought the land from a certain Frangisku Xeberras, with the duty of paying an annual 5 grani to the church of the Assumption. It results that he was not paying this tribute, because he promises Dusina to start paying forthwith.

In later documents from the 16th and 17th centuries, we find the new village’s name written down as D’Ingli or De Ingli.

The Year 1615

The next reference comes after forty years and it is clear that the situation had indeed deteriorated. In 1615 Malta had a new Bishop appointed, Mgr Baldassare Cagliares. Great festivities were held as Cagliares was maltese-born. In the first year of his bishopric, Cagliares embarked on an apostolic visit to all the parishes and churches on the island, including Dingli which is referred to as Villa d’Ingli. The population of the village was still small and the church is not referred to as parish. It was not possible for it to retain the parish status as there was still no resident priest in the village and visits by a priest from Rabat had become even scarcer. In fact we read that the villagers used to attend the Parish of St Paul in Rabat for the administration of the Holy Sacraments. It is therefore clear from this writing that in 1615 Dingli was under the effective authority of St Paul’s Church and not of the Mdina Cathedral which at the time formed one Parish between them. St Paul’s, referred to as St Paul’s outside the walls like the basilica of Rome, already had a certain degree of independence and had under its authority both Ħal Tartarni and Villa d’Ingli, as well as other hamlets of the area. However, to add to the confusion of the time, we read in the Cagliares report that the pastoral responsibility of the people of Dingli was the duty of the Archpriest of the Mdina cathedral, clarifying that St Paul’s Parish was indeed one with the Cathedral.

Bishop Baldassare CagliaresCagliares visited Dingli on 1st October 1615 and on that day the people complained that they did not have a rector and parish priest to see to their spiritual needs. After consultations with the Parish Priest of Rabat, Cagliares came to the conclusion that the people’s plea was justified and Dun Xmuni Fenec was chosen as Rector of the Church of the Assumption. He was given the authority to administer the sacraments, however under the jurisdiction of St Paul’s. It was the Bishop’s wish to restore the parish of Dingli, but not before having due consultations with both the parish priest of St Paul’s and the Rector Dun Xmuni.

Another apostlic visit was made to Rabat and Mdina in 1618. This time round, it was not the Bishop on tour, as he was sick, but the Vicar General of the Diocese Dun Klement Fabrizio. The Apostolic Visitor did not proceed to Dingli but only reached Rabat and Mdina. However from this visit we learn that the Rector of Dingli, Dun Xmuni Fenec, was at the time also Rector of the Church of the Visitation in Mdina.

The Parish

From the visit by Bishop Cagliares, it was clear that it was his intention to raise Dingli to Parish status and later during his administration he did indeed raise Dingli as a separate parish. We learn about this from documents related to a visit by his successor Bishop Glormu Molina. However, Dingli was still a small community and according to statistical data gathered by the civil authorities in 1632, Dingli is not referred to as a separate village. This comes as no surprise, as even the town of Rabat is included under Citta’ Notabile, referring to Mdina, which gathered under its name all towns and villages in the area. Dingli is reported to have a population of 2612.

The Parish of Dingli is mentioned under three different bishoprics, namely that of Baldassare Cagliares (1615-1633), Mikiel Balaguer (1635-1663) and Luqa Buenos (1663-1668), however we do not know how much importance as parish was accorded to Dingli by these bishops. It seems that they were not convinced that Dingli could sustain itself without Rabat. In fact, in a statistical report of the diocese sent to Rome by Bishop Balaguer in 1645,  Rabat and Mdina are listed separately, but there is no mention of Dingli. Referring to Rabat as having 1389 inhabitants, he may have included here the population of Dingli which had most probably decreased at that time.

Following the death of Bishop Buenos and at a time when the seat of bishop was left vacant, the Vicar General Dun Gann Anton Cauchi removed Dingli from being a parish. The new Bishop, Lawrenz D’Astiria (1670-1677), at least by remaining silent on the matter, approved this measure. This decision seems to have been taken very badly, and in 1678 on the appointment of the new bishop Mikiel Glormu Molina (1678-1682) hope for the parish's restoration gained ground.

31st December 1678 : the Golden Date

The marriage of Mary & Joseph - painting hanging above the Parish Church's choir stalls.The full seven years of the bishopric of D’Astiria had to pass before the decision taken by Cauchi for the suspension of the Parish was declared as an abuse of authority. The Vicar General, especially at a time when the seat of bishop was vacant, had no right to suppress the status of Parish. As Cagliares had seen to Dingli in his first year of appointment, so did Bishop Molina in his first visit to Dingli.

The date of the 31st December 1678 is one which should never be forgotten, for it was on this day that Dingli was restored again as parish, to remain until this day. Molina appointed Dun Rajmond Mifsud as the first parish priest, rewarding him for having suffered the unjust removal by Cauchi.

The new parish, as always dedicated to the Assumption, was given all privileges due to a Parish and assigned all related pastoral duties. Bishop Molina also attached an annual payment to be made to the church to make good for the funds needed to purchase the sacred oil to be burnt in front of the Holy Sacrament on the high altar.

Dun Rajmond Mifsud did not remain long in his appointment. In 1679 the Bishop chose Dun Indri Spiteri as the second parish priest of Dingli. Dun Indri, who hailed from Cospicua, was well known to the faithful of Dingli, having fulfilled very well the role of deputy parish priest.

The Parish Church of the Assumption

The new parish church at that time was a beautiful one, adorned with all the needs for the proper administration of the holy sacraments. The titular painting showed the assumption into heaven of Our Lady. At the bottom was included the image of Baron Alessandro Cagliares, who had paid for the painting. But that painting was soon removed, to the preference of a new one made by students of the famous Mattia Preti. This was during the reign of Grandmaster Raphael Cottoner (1663-1680). Of course, the dominating figure in this painting was that of Our Lady being taken up to heaven, but also included St John the Baptist, St Paul the Apostle, St Sebastian and St Roque.

The church had two altars. The one on the left was dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary. About the one on the right, we have nothing written in the reports of the Apostolic visits. The church also had two statues carved from wood. One depicted St James the apostle and the other St John the Baptist. These two statues, probably brought to Malta by the Knights of St John in 1530, had before been venerated at St Paul’s Grotto in Rabat, until they were donated to the parish of Dingli by the church’s Prior Viani. The statue of St John the Baptist can still be seen today in the sacristy.

It is recorded that before this church there was another one. The one mentioned in 1678 was built in 1605.

Paintings which formed part of the old titular painting.

Other churches in Dingli

Dingli, albeit a small village, had a number of filial churches and chapels, each one with its own story to tell.

One was called “ta’ San Ġakbu fuq Wied ir-Rum” (of St James at Rum Valley). It had been closed for worship in 1615, but was later restored, having even mass said there once weekly.

Another one was at the area known as “Tal-Qattar”. It seems that it had no dedication to a saint as there is no mention about this. The church was owned by the Grandmaster and the bishops often did not include it in their tour of apostolic visits.

The Church of St Nicholas was also the property of the Grandmaster. It was built on the cliffs at “tal-Qattara”.

Another church, still standing dominantly, was that of St Mary Magdalene, known as “ta’ rdum” (at the cliffs) due to its location. This church, overlooking the sea, was rebuilt in the 17th century. It was considered as a beautiful church at its time, well maintained by its procurator. The feast of St Mary Magdalene used to be celebrated with the singing of the first and second vespers. It was also a tradition for the people to visit this church during the Holy Week. Being 4 miles away from Mdina and 1 mile away from the Parish of Dingli, it had the devotion whereby every Saturday and on the eve of each major feast, the oil lamp hung inside the church was lit. Mass was only said however on the feast day of the church.

Another church, which was more known, was that of St Domenica. This however was quite a newcomer on the scene, considering that it was built by Baron Mark Anton Inguanez on his lands and gardens at Dejr il-Bniet. This church also had a financial benefit attached to it. The Rector, who at that time was Dun Pietro Pace, had the obligation to say mass there every Sunday and on the feast days of St Domenica, St Monica and St Anthony the Abbot. There was also the obbligation for the lighting of the oil lamp every Saturday which was financed through the income from a piece of land at Ħaġriet il-Fies.

There was also another church at “tal-Qattara” , dedicated to St Margherita. This church is mentioned in an apostolic visit of 1635. It was in a very bad state and little heed was taken of Bishop Gargallo who had wished to have this church restored. In 1656 the church was closed and profaned and by 1680 hardly its ruins could be noticed.

The Parish Church

The people of Dingli, as in all other towns and villages on the island during the 15th and 16th centuries, built a church, on the highest spot of their village, to serve their spiritual needs. This church was a humble one, without any rich adornments, but which served fully its function.

When in 1678 the church was again restored as Parish, the first parish priest Dun Rajmond Mifsud expressed his wish to have the church enlarged to meet the growing needs of the population.

Soon a new church was being built, being 25 feet wide and some 50 feet deep, having five altars, a small sacristy and one belfry. This new church was finished about 1680.

The Parish Church at the beginning of the 20th century

This church served its role very well, but towards the end of the 19th century the need for more space was being urgently felt. It was around the year 1900 that the parish priest of the time, Dun Franġisk Muscat, proposed a new church in the form of a Latin Cross. The architect appointed for this job was Franġisku Zammit.

The works continued under parish priest Dun Vinċenz Curmi and his assistant Dun Pawl Azzopardi who hailed from Dingli. The works were done by the men of Dingli, usually on Sundays and voluntarily without payment to show their devotion and respect. The stone blocks used for the building of the church walls were cut from a quarry in the limits of Dingli, known as Ta’ Wirxina. Stone to be used for sculptural motifs was brought from Mqabba and other villages. It was also during this time that Dun Vinċenz Curmi ordered the new titular painting of the Assumption for the High Altar.

The armorial arms of Chevalier BugejaDivine providence introduced a wealthy gentleman on the scene, who financed almost all the works. This was the Karmenu Bugeja, knight of the Order of St Gregory, whose memory is displayed for posterity on an engraved marble slab placed near the church’s main door. Parish priest Curmi and the people of Dingli also placed in prominence the arms of the surname Bugeja above the organ balcony, in recognition to the knight’s generosity. The new church was re-dedicated in 1908. Only the main door of the church remained from the parish of Dun Rajmond Mifsud. This was removed and placed as the main door of the old building known as the Domus.

However only the works on the inside of the church were completed. Much more was still to be done on the outside. Dun Pawl Azzopardi, who in 1913 was appointed parish priest, pushed the ambitious project forward, completing all the required works just before his death on 23 August 1932. He was buried in the new parish which he had loved so much.

The new church had the form of a cross, as thought out by Dun Franġisk Muscat years before. It is 37 yards and 111 feet long from the main door to the altar in the choir stalls. The horizontal part from the altar of the Rosary to the one of the Holy Crucifix is 75 feet wide. The main apse is some 25 feet wide.

On the left hand side where one today sees the newly built arches, the project had also provided for the excavation of an underground water cistern. Apart from its use for drinking during the building of the church, the cistern later also served the village at a time when running water was not available. A hand pump just outside the church used to service the whole village for its water needs.

The people of Dingli were now very happy with their new church, but were already thinking about new improvements that could be made. At that time, the lighting inside the church was provided by lighting kerosene lamps as at home, whilst on major feasts, the main altar was adorned with acetylene lighting. It was the parish priest Dun Gużepp Lanzon, who hailed from Vittoriosa, who introduced electricity in the church, a major improvement at the time which was joyously acclaimed.

The list of needs was still far from fulfilled. The flooring of the church was still with stone slabs. Despite the purchase of 150 chairs during parish priest Azzopardi’s time, there was a lack of seating facilities and women used to take a chair from home to attend long services. The church parvis was not yet completed, whilst there was still the second belfry to be built from scratch and the completion of the exisiting belfry. These jobs were done in due time through the generous contributions of the people of Dingli. Dun Karm Frendo, the parish priest between 1974 and 1978, introduced the wood benches.

Some 50 years had passed from the re-dedication of the church, when structural damages were noticed to be developing. Parish Priest Dun Carmelo Azzopardi approved the setting up of a special commission which was to take this matter in hand. Spearheading this project was Dingli-born priest Dun Ġwann Abela. Architect Joseph D’Amato was appointed to investigate the matter and to propose corrective action. New plans were drawn and submitted for approval to the Archbishop Mgr Mikiel Gonzi in June 1957 and after long discussions, the project was approved.

This included the building of six new arches, three on each side of the church, which would support the whole structure and especially the church’s ceiling. Each arch opens to a side chapel some 11 feet wide with a small dome on each. An additional passage some 3 and a half feet wide links the chapels at the back. Each chapel has a niche with a statue in place of the usual painting above the altar. Two chapels have a confessionary.

The facade of the church was widened, introducing a beautiful portico supported by four massive columns. New belfries was also built, each crowned with a small dome to match the other six domes of the side chapels. The church parvis was also redesigned and enlarged. These works were carried under two parish priests, Dun Karm Azzopardi and later Canon Antonio Muscat.

As soon as Dun Pawl Caruana, from Naxxar, was appointed parish priest of Dingli, he expressed his wish of seeing the parish church of the Assumption crowned with a majestic dome. Working close with the commission headed by Dun Ġwann Abela, Dun Pawl appointed architect Italo Raniolo to examine the church’s ceiling and walls, and to propose a plan for the building of the dome. To further strengthen the structure, Raniolo built a concrete quadrant, resting on the four main pilasters surrounding the high altar, on which the dome was to be raised.

The first stone for the new dome was laid on 14th November 1969, and on 15th July 1973 the last stone, namely the cross, was put in place at the top. Again most works were made voluntarily by the men of Dingli, under the guidance of master mason Gerard Spiteri and his son John. Ġużeppi Gatt did the outside sculpture decoration, whilst the inside was made by Professor Alfred Camilleri Cauchi. The dome was inaugurated and blessed by Archbishop Mikiel Gonzi on 9th August 1975.

The parish church has some important and unique features. On the left hand side, one finds a sun dial. The belfry also carries a mechanized clock which shows the time and rings bells on the hour. This clock is precious for two reasons; it is an antique piece of machinery and it is completely hand-made, including the inside mechanism. It is some 200 years old and works with 3 weights: one to mark the time, one for the hour and the third one for the quarter hour. The belfry also houses three bells, the smallest of which was cast in 1680 and has been in use since the early years of the parish. The second bell, cast in 1762, was placed in place together with the clock and is the one the clock uses to chime the time. The big bell was cast in Għajn Dwieli, limits of Cospicua, in 1880 by bell maker Giuliano Cauchi. This bell was repaired at the H.M. Dockyard in 1948 after cracks had been observed. The organ balcony was inaugurated on 13 July 1912 on the occasion of the feast of St Aloysius.

The church was consecrated by H.E. the Bishop of Gozo (who was later appointed Archbishop of Malta) Mgr Mikiel Gonzi on 26th March 1939, at the time of Parish Priest Dun Gużepp Lanzon. An engraved marble slab in Latin is placed near the main door to commemorate this day, loosely translated as follows:

“On 26th March 1939, Mikiel Gonzi, Bishop of Gozo, assisted by Carmelo Bonnici and Antonio Vella, Canons of the Cathedral of Malta and in the presence of the people of Dingli who were joyously celebrating this day,
and of many priests; religious and secular, consecrate and dedicate this holy and ancient temple to God and His Mother the Virgin Mary taken into Heaven,
during the celebration of Holy Mass.
During the saying of prayers and to add to the solemnity of this celebration for the spiritual gain of the people,
the relics of the martyr saints
Calcedonius Prudentius and Benedictae
were shown to the people as an example to the faithful of this village.”

The Cemetary Mater Dolorosa

Following the death of parish priest Dun Pawl Azzopardi and the transfer of Dun Gużepp Lanzon to the parish of Żabbar, the new parish priest Dun Karm Azzopardi, a former Benedictine monk, laid the new paving of the parish church thus effectively stopping burials in the church and opened the new cemetery dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, Mater Dolorosa. Dun Karm himself is laid to rest in the main chapel of this cemetery.

The cemetery, built on land formely held by the Dominican friars of Rabat, received its first burial on 19th November 1952.

As the population of Dingli increased, an urgent need arose to enlarge the cemetery. The new extension, which effectively doubled the area, was inaugurated by parish priest Dun Trevor Fairclough in 2002.

Click Here for the Roll of Parish Priests of Ħad-Dingli