On 12 April 1914, which was Easter Sunday, the Maltese Franciscan Custody of Saint John the Baptist became the Maltese Franciscan Province of Saint Paul the Apostle.

Foundation Day of the Province

The origins of Franciscan life in Malta

The history of the origins of Franciscan presence in Malta has witnessed a radically new approach during the 1990s, with the discovery of new documents in the Vatican Archives. Ġorġ Aquilina and Professor Stanley Fiorini were instrumental in this new way of looking not only
at the beginning of Franciscan presence on the Maltese islands, but indeed at the origin of religious Orders in Malta during the late Middle Ages. The initial reactions to their discoveries varied from enthusiastic acceptance to outright rejection on the part of those who continued to hold on to traditional, but poorly documented, positions.

According to these two historians, the entry of religious Orders in Malta coincided with the enthusiastic reform of the Church advocated by the Council of Constance (1414), after the Western Schism (1378-1417). Thus we assist at the earliest documentation of the presence of Augustinians in Malta in 1413, although their effective arrival can also be traced as far back as 1370. The Benedictine presence is linked with the Hospital of San Pietro in Mdina, founded in 1418, which was changed into a Benedictine nunnery in 1455, although another monastery, the nunnery of St. Scholastica was already in existence in 1443. The Dominicans were present in Rabat at priory of Our Lady of the Grotto during the jubilee year 1450. The Carmelites traditionally trace their origins to 1418, and their presence at Il-Lunzjata outside Rabat is documented in 1441.

In the case of the Franciscans, it seems that the earliest documents refer to the construction of a friary dedicated to Santa Maria de Jhesu in Gozo, in 1489, through the initiative of Fra Matteo de Episcopo, of the Observant Franciscans. The same friar seems to have changed obedience since he became guardian of the Conventual friary of Saint Francis in Rabat, and in 1492 the friary in Gozo is referred to as being a Conventual establishment dedicated to St. Francis. The case of the Hospital of Santo Spirito, which was already in existence in 1372, is also linked with a Franciscan presence in a church and friary in Rabat, although historical research has proved that this was not a presence of the First Order, but of the Third Order Regular, which was taking care of the same institution known as Hospitalis Sancti Francisci in 1459. The last Regular Tertiary left in 1494 and the church and friary passed over to the First Franciscan Order, in this case to the Conventual family.

The 15th century witnessed the progress of the reformed Observant family in the Franciscan Order. Heir of the more orthodox elements of the Fraticelli, formally condemned by Pope John XXII in 1317, but still in existence in Sicily and Calabria where their most famous promoter, Angelo Clareno died in 1337, the Observant family was born in Umbria in two moments, namely in 1334 through the initiative of Fra Gentile da Spoleto, and after a short period of suppression, again in 1368 with the efforts of Fra Paoluccio dei Trinci da Foligno. With the entry in the Franciscan Order of great saints, such as Bernardine of Siena, John of Capestrano, James of the March, and with the support of Pope Eugene IV, the Observant family grew to become the dominant Franciscan family during the 15th century. At the same time, however, the Order was still being governed by the unreformed Conventual ministers, whereas the Observants were allowed to have their own Vicars. This state of affairs remained substantially unaltered until 1517 when Pope Leo X formally split the Order of Friars Minor into the two families of the Conventuals and Observants. Thus the period we are dealing with marks a watershed in the history of the Order, but at the same time it was a moment when distinction between the two families was not so clear as it would be from the 16th century onwards, since the Order was substantially one undivided family.

The Observant Franciscans came to Malta from Sicily, where they had various churches and friaries, all dedicated to Santa Maria di Giesu, the result of the reform of Blessed Matteo of Agrigento, a disciple of St. Bernardine of Siena. The first attempt to found a friary of Observant Franciscans in Malta was done on 7 November 1482, according to the Bulla Pia Fidelium. It was not implemented, but on 6 April 1492 Giacomo Ħakim, a Giurato of Mdina, left in his testament a legacy in favour of his brother, the Observant Franciscan Fra Mariano Ħakim, who was living in the friary of Santa Maria di Gesù in Messina, to found an Observant friary and church with same title in Malta. The request was renewed two years later, and on 29 January 1494 the Bulla Apostolicae Servitutis was published giving permission to Fra Mariano to build the church and friary. Since he died things remained at a stalemate until 1497, when the Mdina Giurati requested the nomination of a Procurator, so that they themselves would see to the building of the said church and friary and hand them over to the Observant Franciscans. Thus, at the beginning of the 16th century there were two Franciscan churches and friaries in Rabat, one belonging to the Conventual Franciscans and the other to the Observant Franciscans.

As the centuries passed the Observant Franciscans in Malta formed part of the Province of Val di Noto e Malta, one of the three Observant Sicilian Provinces (the other two were Val di Mazzara and Val di Demone). The Observants in Malta in the meantime had two friaries, both dedicated to Santa Maria di Gesù, one in Rabat, and the other one in Valletta, founded in 1571, during the reign of Grand Master Pietro del Monte.

The foundation of the Custody of Saint John the Baptist (1838)

The reign of Grand Master Manoel Pinto de Fonseca (1741-1773) and of the other subsequent Grand Masters up till the ousting of the Order of St. John from Malta by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798, marked a moment of social and political change, in which the spirit of Enlightenment and Nationalism began to pervade the Maltese society. Religious orders were also influenced by this quest for a greater autonomy, and they wanted to be freed from Sicilian hegemony and depend directly from their superiors in Rome. The Observant Franciscans in Malta had two friaries, which were among the most important in the Province of Val di Noto e Malta. There was no way that the Sicilian Provincials would accept any division from the mother province. In 1740 the Capuchins succeeded in becoming an autonomous Custodia of the Sicilian Province. This fact led to new hopes among other religious orders, among which the Franciscan Observants.

Other attempts at the autonomy of religious provinces from the Sicilian mother provinces had proved to be a failure. A case in point was the attempt done by the Carmelites who succeeded in acquiring a papal Bulla giving them independence from the Sicilian province in 1752. Unfortunately their autonomy was short-lived, since they were forced back into obedience to their Sicilian superiors in 1755.

The reign of Grand Master Pinto was marked by intrigues between the Order and the Kingdom of Naples. Pinto considered himself a prince in his own right on the islands, which were a fiefdom of the Kingdom in the hands of the Order. He sought ways to bring about greater self-determination by literally using the religious Orders’ quest for autonomy. At the same time, he outwardly wanted to appear respectful to the King and his anti-clerical ministers. In 1768 he agreed to the suppression of the Jesuit College in Valletta. In the meantime the quality of religious life in Malta had gone from bad to worse. Apostolic and General Visitations were carried out by Inquisitors and Visitators, which give us a clue as to the deplorable state of religious discipline. The Observant Franciscans, through their local superiors, were trying to do their best to break loose from the control of the Tribunal of the Regia Monarchia, and were looking at the possibility to make direct recourse to Rome and gain autonomy.

In order to succeed in their plans, the Franciscans needed to acquire a third friary according to the Order’s legislation. Since they only possessed the friaries of Rabat and Valletta, in 1764 they opted to acquire the hermitage of Santa Venera from the collegial chapter of Birkirkara. The Sicilian Provincial, Vincenzo Maria da Avola, protested in front of the Tribunal of the Regia Monarchia and accused the Maltese friars of being dangerous innovators. The friars were sure that they would be helped by the Grand Master and Bishop Bartolomeo Rull, and presented their formal request for the establishment of a Maltese Franciscan Custodia to the General Commissary Pasquale Frosconi da Varese.

Since things seemed to become complicated, two Maltese friars agreed to go personally to Rome to speak with the Minister General about the matter. They were Accursio Stuppia and Giovanni Nicola Falzon. On 28 October 1764 they left the island, seemingly with Pinto’s consent. What the friars did not know was that Pinto kept constant correspondence with the Order’s ambassador in Rome, De Breteuil. He immediately made it clear that he did not want to offend the King of Naples. The two friars got the shock of their lives when they arrived at the general curia of the Franciscan Order at Aracoeli in Rome, and were declared fugitives and excommunicated! De Breteuil interceded for them initially and they were welcomed in a friary in Rome. Thus the two friars presented their Memoriale to the Pope, but to no effect, since the Order’s ambassador was keen on not creating tension between Pinto and the King of Naples.

Back in Malta things were getting very tense between the Maltese friars and their Sicilian confreres present on the island. On his part Grand Master Pinto tried to remain aloof from the whole issue in order not to irritate the Neapolitan royal court. His hypocritical attitude towards the Maltese Franciscans reached a climax on 8 June 1765 Photo on the Foundation Day of the Province when a decree was published in Naples declaring the two Maltese Franciscans who presented themselves in Rome to be perpetually exiled from the domains of the Kingdom of Naples, and hence also from the Maltese islands. Pinto was aware of this decree and did nothing to protect the two friars who had originally thought that the Grand Master would uphold the legitimate desire for autonomy on the part of the Maltese Franciscans. The Grand Master even kept correspondence with royal minister Tanucci and with ambassador De Breteuil, congratulating them for the decision of the Tribunale della Regia Monarchia.

When the two Franciscans concluded their mission in Rome on 20 January 1767 they thought that they could return to Malta. They were not even aware that their fate had been sealed one and a half years before and that they were exiled from their homeland. We do not know what later happened to the two friars, except that Accursio Stuppia died in exile on 9 September 1776 in the friary of San Francesco in Camerino in the Marches, and that Giovanni Nicola Falzon died in Valletta on 24 April 1781, after the minister general Pasquale da Varese interceded on his behalf.

This sad turn of events had its negative effects in Malta. Apathy reigned supreme in the two Franciscan friaries. The King of Naples prohibited the entry of Maltese novices in the Franciscan Order. In a few years the number of vocations dwindled. Grand Master De Rohan even contemplated joining the friary of Santa Maria di Gesù in Rabat to the College of the Conventual Chaplains of St. Paul’s Grotto, and there were also attempts to give the friary to the Capuchins in order to avoid its suppression.

It was in this critical time that the minister general of the Order finally decided to intervene in favour of the Maltese friars. Pasquale di Varese published a decree on 5 January 1790 in which he established the two friaries in Malta as a Custodia, and nominated aetano [Mallia] di Malta as the general delegate to convoke a chapter to elect the Custos and his council. Fr. Venanzio Fenech was elected as first Custos and the novitiate was founded. The new Custodia was dedicated to St. John the Baptist.

This first foundation of the Maltese Custodia was, however, short-lived. The protests of the Sicilian friars in front of the King and the pressure on Grand Master De Rohan and even on Pope Pius VI, during a delicate moment for relations between the papacy and France, prompted the Grand Master to issue a decree on 26 October 1791, revoking the privilege of the Maltese Franciscans to be an autonomous Custodia. The Sicilian provincial Ignazio di Caltagirone came to Malta, removed the Custos from office and brought matters to what they were before 1790. The ousting of the Order of St. John from Malta by Napoleon in 1798, during the time when the provincial was a Maltese, Sebastiano Barone from Senglea, the last Maltese provincial in Sicily, effectively sealed the end of relations between the Maltese and their Sicilian confreres.

With the turbulent period of French domination, followed by British rule, Malta underwent a radical change. As regards religious orders, the British were adamant that these should not depend any longer upon their superiors in Sicily and upon the King of Naples. In 1801 the British Commissioner Charles Cameron wrote to Bishop Labini informing him that, henceforth, religious orders were to depend solely upon their superiors in Rome. From that moment the Maltese religious had a Commissary Delegate representing their interests directly to the Sicilian superiors. This was just the first step towards autonomy. When Malta passed definitely under British rule after the Treaty of Paris of 1814, Governor Maitland continued to insist that monastic and religious orders had to gain full autonomy and break away from Sicily and the pretensions of the religious and secular authorities of the Kingdom of Naples.

The pretensions of the Sicilian friars continued for a long time, but to no avail, even though some Maltese friars were still in favour of union with Sicily. Among them was Fr. Salvatore Anton Vassallo, who for many years was guardian in Rabat and who also became Custos of the Holy Land in 1816-1820. At long last, on 26 July 1838, the Minister General Giuseppe Maria Maniscalco from Alessandria, himself a Sicilian friar, declared the two Maltese friaries to be an independent Custodia with the title of St. John the Baptist. As first Custos he chose Salvatore Anton Vassallo, who had already been General Delegate from 1821 to 1838 and who would remain in his role until 1851, and again in 1854-55. Unfortunately this friar clung on to power until his old age and had to be removed forcefully from his role by the Minister General Venanzio da Celano. The rest of the 19th century was marked by turbulent events in Europe, where religious orders suffered at the hands of secularist regimes. In Malta the Franciscan Custody suffered from inertia, as a result of the long years of rule of Vassallo, until providence donated to the Order a holy and capable Minister General in the person of Fr. Bernardino dal Vago da Portogruaro (1869- 1889), and to the Maltese Franciscans a dynamic leader who would refound Franciscan presence in Malta, namely Fr. Anton Maria Cesal.

The foundation of the Province of Saint Paul the Apostle (1914)

On 30 July 1877 the minister general Bernardino dal Vago wrote a letter to Anton Maria Cesal, who though a Maltese friar, was a member of the Aracoeli province in Rome, sending him to Malta as Custos. Cesal had formerly been a missionary in Bolivia (1864-69) and in Egypt (1870-1876) where there were many Maltese. In 1887 he was also pro-Secretary of the Holy Land Custody in Jerusalem. He obeyed promptly and even requested to pass over from the Roman province to the Maltese Custody. Anton Maria Cesal was Custos from 1876 to 1883, and again from 1899 to 1902.

Cesal embarked on a courageous programme of reform. New vocations arrived. He opened two new friaries, namely the Madonna del Sacro Cuor friary in Sliema (1883) and Saint Anthony friary in Għajnsielem, Gozo (1899). He was also contemplating of establishing the Friars Minor at Saint Paul’s Bay. This was a moment of rebirth for the Franciscan Order. In 1897 Pope Leo XIII had published Felicitate quadam, in which the reformed families of the Franciscan Observance dropped their names and differences and henceforth were known simply as Ordo Fratrum Minorum, Order of Friars Minor.

In the meantime all the other religious in Malta had been constituted as autonomous provinces in their Orders. Cesal worked tirelessly to accomplish this, especially by increasing the Franciscan presence on the island. He was against the Order’s plan to join the Maltese Franciscan Custody to Egypt and Cyprus, and insisted that the Maltese Franciscans had sufficient numbers and means to become an independent province in the Order. By the end of the 19th century the Maltese Custody had more friars than its mother province of Val di Noto. A memorandum was written by Fr. Ġorġ Scerri, signed by all the Maltese friars, and sent to the minister general, requesting an apostolic dispensation so that the Maltese Custodia could become a Province.

The minister general of the Order at the time was Fr. Pacifico Monza ofm (1911-1915). In 1914 he came over to Malta for a general visitation. On 7 April 1914 the General Definitorium issued the Decree of the foundation of the Maltese Franciscan Province, with the title of Saint Paul the Apostle. The original Decree, however, was published at the Ta’ Ġieżu friary in Valletta on Easter Sunday, 12April 1914.

The new minister provincial, Anton Maria Cesal, convoked the Provincial Definitorium on 1 July 1914. By the time he had to convoke the second meeting on 16 December, Anton Maria Cesal had died on 14 December 1914, after only 8 months in office. He can be rightly considered to be the father of the Province.

Article by Fr. Noel Muscat, OFM (SPIRIT + LIFE No. 108)