The Story of the beginnings and foundation of St Margaret’s Monastery in Cospicua, Malta (1)
It was a fine Saturday afternoon, the 9th of November 1726 and a simple but very memorable ceremony was about to take place in Cospicua, which significance was yet to be captured and valued by the parish of this beautiful and historic city in the harbour area of the Maltese Islands. It was the vigil of Our Lady Mother of Jesus, and a new Conservatory of Jesus and Mary was to be inaugurated inside a rented house, adjacent to the bastions of the majestic Cottonera Lines. For this occasion crowds of curious villagers from all walks of life, gathered to watch the founding fathers, Padre Antonio di Gesu’ e Maria, Barbara, and a priest by the name of Don Pietro Saliba officiate over the official entrance into the Conservatory, of a group of young ladies led by a middle aged lady, all hailing from Cospicua. The latter had been chosen by Don Antonio Barbara as the first superior in order to start the formation of the young ladies as postulants of a religious cloistered community based on the Rule of Teresa of Avila at the new Conservatory. The simple ceremony took place just after lunch, and at the end of it the founding fathers together with the new community sang the Te Deum and the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Bishop of Malta, Mons. Gaspare Gori Mancini, had been invited for the occasion, but due to the unexpected funeral of a Grand Knight of the Order of St John, was unable to attend. As dusk descended upon the approaching evening, and the crowd dispersed, little was it yet fathomed that the seed had just been sown for what was to become a flourishing Teresian Carmelite Monastery of the Second Order. (2)
The story of St Margaret’s Monastery at Cospicua began in 1725, at the time when the Knights of St John ruled over the Maltese Islands. The Grand Master, also referred to as the Prince of Malta, was Antonio Manoel de Vilhena (1722-1736), much loved by the Maltese for his goodness and generosity, even towards the poorer classes of the population. Apart from erecting Fort Manoel, the Manoel Theatre, and a new palace for the use of the community at Mdina (today the Museum of Natural History), Grand Master de Vilhena ensured that during his reign no new taxes were introduced for the Maltese, and that there was employment for all. On building the suburb of Floriana, he included a Casetta for the poor, the old and those struck by incurable diseases, as he had already done in Gozo. Also during his reign, the bastions of Senglea and Vittoriosa were restored and reinforced, while at the Order’s shipbuilding yard in Cospicua, a new ship was built for the Order’s Navy, the first to bear the first name of the Grand Master: hence the San Antonio. (3)
The account of what started to unfold at Cospicua in 1725, was written by the founding father himself Padre Antonio di Gesu’ e Maria, Barbara, before he died somewhere around 1731. (4) This valuable manuscript which now rests in the archives of St Margaret’s Monastery, contains the details of the beginnings of the Teresian Carmelite community at St Margaret’s Monastery. The founding father, known to have died in the odour of sanctity, was said to have been inspired by God to found a community of cloistered nuns in Cospicua, under the Rule of St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582). And so it happened that in 1725 Padre Antonio, together with his humble companion, a diocesan priest by the name of Don Pietro Saliba, started to ask around in Cospicua in order to find a place which they were prepared to rent in order to fulfil their holy dream.
As usually happens to holy persons who are purely led by the light of the Holy Spirit, in trying to fulfil their vision, these two fathers met with obstacles and even undeserved insults. Thankfully, this opposition only fortified their holy intentions. Taking into their humble stride what they construed as the opposition of the local parish priest at the time,(5) as well as that of his successor who happened to be his nephew,(6) they persevered in looking for a house that would serve the purpose of fulfilling God’s will. Their efforts were rewarded when a certain Antonio Scicluna offered to lease them a house that abetted the Chapel of St Margaret, which had as recently as 1720 been rebuilt in order to make space for the Cottonera bastions. The annual rent for the house amounted to 20 scudi, and so the two humble fathers went around as many villages soliciting alms that would sustain their holy venture. They begged around in Cospicua itself, in Vittoriosa and Senglea, in Valletta, and in a number of villages going as far out as the city of Mdina. By the grace of God, they met with persons who were very forthcoming, thanks to whom they could meet the rental expenses, as well as buy such necessities as board beds, straw mattresses and a few pieces of loose furniture. At the same time, word spread around in Cospicua that Padre Antonio and Don Pietro were looking for young ladies who were prepared to commit to a cloistered religious life. Quite a number of maidens from poor families (7) turned up with the hope of being chosen for the purpose, but for reasons of practical and economic constraints it was decided that for the time being six would be a good number to start off with. Padre Antonio who knew of the virtues and holy intentions of a certain Maria Maddalena Purselli, the middle aged daughter of Andrea and Vittoricha from Cospicua, chose her to be the first mother superior of this community. Together with her, he then chose the first six prospective members of what was to be the first community at the Conservatory. These were Maria Galerdi, Teresa Martin, Anna Psaila, Rosa Firrani, and Maria Buttigieg all from Cospicua, and Aloisia Diperla from Vittoriosa.
The two founding fathers had addressed a Memorial to the Bishop for permission to found a Conservatory of cloistered religious nuns, a grace which they obtained on 19th October 1726, on condition that the new community was to strictly follow the Rule to which they were about to commit. With the help of a certain diocesan priest by the name of Don Francesco, they drew up these Rules based on those of St Teresa of Avila. The two fathers agreed that the new conservatory was to be called the Conservatorio di Gesu’ e Maria.
And so it came about that the founding ceremony was performed on 9th November 1726 as above described, when these six young ladies were officially accepted to start their religious formation under the gentle hand of the first Mother Superior Maria Maddalena Purselli. As the Bishop had not been able to attend for the ceremony on 9th November, the following week he visited the Conservatory in the company of his Vicar, a good number of priests, as well as lay persons “of a certain importance”. The Bishop was “very consoled” by what he saw in the members of the new religious community, and edified by “their modesty,” and so were his companions. Following on this episcopal visit, more young ladies from poor families came forward to join the now growing religious community. By the end of 1726 the community had become 15 in number. The majority hailed from Cospicua, 3 from Vittoriosa, and one from Siggiewi.
The young community, committed to a life of prayer and penance were soon to experience the first heartaches of a life lived for love and sacrifice for others through incessant intercession before God. On 21st July 1728, Sister Maddalena died around 4.30 am at the tender age of 17 years after an illness that had lasted 14 days. Her secular name being Paulicha, daughter of Stefano and Malgarita Parnis from Cospicua, she had joined the community aged 15 on 7 December 1726. On the morning after her death, she was professed causa mortis by the Teresian Carmelite Friars and on the same day was buried in the Parish Church of Cospicua. A second death occurred on 13th August of the same year: that of Fortunata Rizzo di Gerada from Cospicua who had suffered a fever that lasted one month. She too was professed causa mortis by the Teresian Friars of Cospicua. She had joined the community on 21st November 1726. Both these two religious were buried in the Parish Church of Cospicua. When, a few years later the construction of the new Monastery was completed, the remains of these first two religious to die at the Conservatorio were transited to the cemetery of the Monastery. The third religious to die at the Conservatorio was Rosa Maria Rapinet of Vittoriosa, on 23 January 1731. She was the first religious to be buried in the Carniera of the Monastery. By 1734, 5 religious had died at the Conservatorio, all of them being professed causa mortis by the Teresian Friars of Cospicua.(8) And somewhere around the year 1731 the founding father himself Don Antonio di Gesu e Maria, Barbara died, the exact date of his death being still unknown.(9)
But amidst these circumstances of human pain and grief, a very special event occurred that immediately changed the fortune of the fledgling religious community at the Conservatorio in Cospicua. In 1727, when it became clear to the founding fathers that the community was growing and required more space to receive the new postulants, they approached the same owner of the house which they had transformed into the Conservatorio, asking him for the rent of the adjacent house and a garden. After some negotiations Signor Antonio Scicluna agreed to the request, raising the annual rent for the sisters from 20 scudi to 34 scudi. Scicluna also gave his permission for the necessary alterations to be made for the two houses to be joined. But the turnaround of the fortune of the Conservatorio truly came about in April 1730, when Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena himself visited the Conservatorio together with his retinue of officials.
This Prince of the Islands, known for his “munificent generosity” was very touched by what he saw during his momentous visit, particularly by the “cleanliness and neatness” of what was yet the Conservatorio di Gesu’ e Maria. He immediately gave orders for the necessary preparation to be made for the construction of a new Monastery, with enough cells and chambers to accommodate the increasing numbers of religious. The building was to be spacious, and comfortable enough to cater for the cloistered residence of the religious community that was living under the Rules of St Teresa of Avila. The expenses were to be covered from his own personal coffers – “a sue spese.”(10) The new Monastery was completed in a few years, certainly by the mid 1730’s. The generosity of this Portugese Grand Master of Spanish descent, has never been forgotten by the Teresian Carmelite Community at St Margaret’s Monastery, where his portrait hangs in the library next to those of the founding fathers and first Mother Superior.
Around 1729 when the community numbered 15, Madre Maria Maddalena addressed a written petition to the Holy See for her community to be given the Holy Seal as a Teresian Carmelite community of the Third Order. The Bishop of the Islands Mons. Paolo Alpheran de Bussan, who was subsequently asked by the Vatican for his opinion, endorsed this petition in a communication to the Vatican. In this important communication he mentions the virtues of the Mother Superior and refers to the holy death of Don Antonio Barbara which had “just taken place”. There is also a reference to the providential material assistance being regularly passed on to the community by the locals, chief among whom was the Grand Master himself. In 1729, 12 members of the community including their Mother Superior took the Teresian Carmelite Habit and officially started their Novitiate. The much awaited Brief from the Holy See giving the Seal for the new community to be established as a cloistered Teresian Carmelite community of the Third Order arrived in October 1731. This precipitated the profession of these 12 religious nuns under their new title on 28 October 1731 in the presence of the local Bishop Mons. Paolo Alferano. In view of the seriousness with which the community was being formed, further necessary ecclesiastical permissions followed. In February 1733 the local Bishop gave official permission for the nuns to have the Holy Sacrament in their midst, and to ring the bell to summon the nuns for their Divine Office. On 24 December1733 the local Bishop communicated his permission for the community’s Confessor to be able to administer the last rites to dying nuns. It is to be assumed that at a particular date during the next five years, the construction of the new St Margaret’s Monastery was completed, and the nuns moved into it, as on 26 September 1737 the Parish Priest of Cospicua, Don Giovanni Battista Chrispo, under the guidance of the local Bishop, conceded to the nuns the ownership of St Margaret’s Chapel, now adjoining the newly built Monastery.
But the most significant event for St Margaret’s Monastery happened on 12 September 1739 when the nuns were officially accepted as and hence became a regular Teresian Carmelite community of the Second Order. This historic Brief arrived on a Saturday and Vigil of the feast of the Name of Mary. It followed that on 13 October 1739, in the presence of the local Bishop Mons. Paolo Alferano the Profession of 17 cloistered nuns took place, now as regular Teresian Carmelite Nuns, including that of the Mother Prioress Maria Maddalena of Jesus and Mary. The names of this first community of Teresian Carmelite cloistered nuns of the Second Order were the following: Sr Anna of St Joseph, Sr Catarina of the Rosary, Sr Maria of the Guardian Angel, Sr Teresa of Carmel, Sr Beatrice of the Saviour (all from Cospicua), Sr Maria Antonia of the Purification, Sr Giuseppa of St Mary, Sr Paola of the Crucifix (all from Vittoriosa), Sr Evangelista of St Paul, Sr Eufrosina of the Victory (both from illegible home villages), Sr Battista of the Apostle St Paul (from Zabbar), and Sr Antonia of the Exaltation of the Cross, and Sr Maria Teresa of the Ascension of Jesus, (both from Valletta). These fourteen nuns were all professed as Choristers. The profession also took place of the following three Lay nuns: Sr Fortunata of the Patronage of St Joseph (from Cospicua), Sr Rosa Maria of the Incarnation (from Qormi) and Sr Rosalia of the Victory (from Valletta). Sr Anna of St John of the Cross remained as professed nun of the Third Order.(11)
Between 1726 and 1737, no less than 37 young ladies (a few not so young), had joined the growing community of religious at the Monastery of St Margaret’s. Mostly hailed from Cospicua, but others arrived from the surrounding villages, with one of them coming out from as far as Gharb in Gozo, had joined the community at St Margaret’s Monastery. The chronicles of the Monastery thereafter are rife with the regular recording of new entries of young ladies into the Monastery, ceremonies of their taking of the Habit, subsequent Profession at the end of a year’s Novitiate, and the eventual death of these professed nuns. The Teresian Rules allow for a Teresian community to comprise not more than 21 nuns. For this reason, when the new Monastery was built, care was taken for exactly 21 cells (or private rooms) to be constructed on the first floor of the building. Records indicate that these 21 cells must have certainly served to good use during these early years of the community of St Margaret’s. Indeed, records indicate that the number of entries was so regular, that there must have been a waiting list of prospective new entrants, who would have been allowed to join whenever the community experienced the unfortunate loss to death of one of the professed sisters. In this life of ups and downs, the event of the sad loss of a nun was regularly followed by that of the joyful entry of a new postulant.
As happens in any religious community, when a nun dies at St Margaret’s Monastery, the sense of grief over the loss of the nun is painfully experienced within the human heart of each of the nuns, its depth commensurate to the love and friendship with which the departed was held by each. And in the early stages of the foundation of the community at St Margaret’s Monastery, there certainly was one particular death which must have caused the pain and tears of the entire community, and its benefactors. On 1 April 1749, after a life of prayer and hard work as the first Prioress of the community at St Margaret’s Monastery in Cospicua, Madre Maria Maddalena of Jesus and Mary died at the age of around 66 years. She had lived inside the cloister for 24 years, ten years of which as a professed Teresian Carmelite Nun of the Second Order. She was the tenth nun to die since the beginnings of the foundation of new community.(12) According to the Gregorian Calendar of the year 1749, the 1st of April fell on a Saturday, a day very dearly held and celebrated by Teresian Carmelite communities around the world and throughout the times, in honour of the Blessed Virgin. The depth of the gratitude of the nuns of St Margaret’s at Cospicua towards their first Prioress still oozes from her beautiful portrait, undertaken post mortem, which still graces the library of the Monastery. Sr Maria Maddalena of Jesus and Mary had died to this world, but the memory of her intrepid dedication, hard work and life of sacrifice and prayer will forever be cherished and never be forgotten by those for whose vision this lady from Cospicua had with such love dedicated her life.
Rita C. Grima M.A. (Melit.), B.A. (Hons.)
2nd September 2016
- This short history is based on an original manuscript entitled Fondazione e Libro Primo delle Novizie Professe, Vive e Morte del Monastero di Sta Margherita, sotto titolo di Gesu’ e Maria, 1726-1884 (Courtesy of Mother Prioress O.C.D., St Margaret’s Monastery). This bound manuscript is made up of 235 hand-written pages, at times in a rather illegible contemporary caligraphy, written in Italian or Latin, throughout the years. The first 49 pages of this manuscript is written by the hand of the founding father himself, Padre Antonio di Gesu’ e Maria, after which this laborious work was taken up by succeeding confessors of the religious community.
- The female branch of a religious Order is called the Second Order, the First being the male branch of the same Order. The First Order of Teresian Carmelites in Cospicua was already present for the previous 100 years.
- See Andrew P.Vella, Storja ta’ Malta II, Valletta 1979, pp 145-147.
- See Notamenti Storici, a hand-written study of what happened during the beginnings of the community of St Margaret’s Monastery, made by P. Gwann tas-Salib O.C.D, undated, p 5. (Courtesy of Mother Prioress O.C.D., St Margaret’s Monastery).
- Don Giovanni Crisostomo Chrispo.
- Don Giovanni Battista Chrispo
- The Manuscript refers to them as Zitelle.
- The sixth religious died in 1740, the seventh in 1742, the eighth and ninth died in 1743, followed by a respite of six years.
- See note 6, above. This notable priest is buried at St Margaret’s Chapel.
- See Storia breve sull’origine del Monastero di Santa Margherita della citta’ Cospicua, Malta, Padre Raffaele OCD, 1932. This is a hand written account written on an exercise book. (courtesy of Mother Prioress O.C.D., St Margaret’s Monastery).
- For records of these names and dates see Fondazione e Libro Primo etc, pp 121-122. See also Taghrif migbur mill-Provincjal O.C.D. Rev. P. Gabriel Grech, a typed account, bound for reasons of preservation. (courtesy of Mother Prioress O.C.D., St Margaret’s Monastery)
- See Fondazione e Libro Primo etc, p 115.