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malta – More than just jewellery taken in Zabbar church burglary

November 20, 2009 – 14:38

by Elaine Attard

The Zabbar church yesterday lost much more than just the jewels that adorned the parish’s statue of Our Lady of Graces when it was burgled on Saturday night.

Zabbar vice-parish priest Josef Mifsud told The Malta Independent that the jewellery items just could not be valued.

“Those jewels meant much more for the Zabbarin. Zabbar families offered jewellery to Our Lady for graces granted after prayer. This tradition is still alive. Some of the jewels were quite ancient and were inherited over generations. Luckily not all the jewels offered to the statue were on display,” said Fr Mifsud.

Fr Mifsud, who does not originate from Zabbar, explained how yesterday morning he came better to understand what Our Lady of Graces means to parishioners. Their faith is still strong even among young people. Many dropped by in the morning to pray and share their grief with fellow members of the parish. They felt as if part of them has been stolen, said the priest.

Most of the jewels donated to Our Lady of Graces are stored in a safe place. There are so many of them that they are never all used at the same time. The charms are used to decorate the statue on the feast day in September.

Laurence Buhagiar, a volunteer who works at the Zabbar church said the faithful were more concerned about the spiritual values lost, than the monetary.

“The thieves entered our church and had the temerity to steal items from the statue of Our Lady. What else are we to expect?” one Zabbar resident asked in disbelief.

Apart from a spiritual value the jewels had a cultural value. Fine arts museum curator Sandro Debono explained that the potential loss of the stolen jewels goes beyond the economic. “Old golden objects were made using different techniques from those used today. Maltese goldsmiths’ work used to be regulated in a strict way that guaranteed a high quality. The dimension in which these items were made is lost forever. Some of the jewels were the last souvenirs left from a long lost epoch. It has a meaning, which symbolises the identity of the Zabbar community.”

Mr Debono said he is against the use of jewellery to decorate statues. He said the weight of certain jewellery might damage the statue. Luckily, the statue did not suffer extensive abrasions on the paintwork during the robbery.

Sources who are conversant in the science of conservation explained that properties of gold used in old jewellery are probably different from the properties used in gold today. The quality depends on the purity of the gold measured in carats. Some of the jewels may be just covered in gold leaf or gilded. It also depends on the method used to encrust them with precious stones.

It is not yet clear how the thieves entered the church, although it is believed that since the church’s façade is currently undergoing restoration, the thieves used the scaffolding to make their way into the sanctuary. But the jewels on Our Lady of Graces are not the only Zabbar treasures.

When the late Mgr. Joseph Zarb was appointed parish priest of Zabbar in 1943, he quickly realised how rich the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Graces was in terms of historical artefacts. Being a researcher and a scholar, he became aware that many precious objects such as banners, sails, anchors, weapons, slave chains, model ships, church vestments, altar fronts and votive paintings, all listed in old inventories, were already lost forever, most probably due to neglect and an underestimation of their importance.

These were all offerings to Our Lady of Graces from people coming from all walks of life, from poor peasants to popes. To halt the unintentional destruction of more precious patrimony, Mgr Zarb thought of building a Museum to house and preserve what remained. His dream came true in 1954 when the Sanctuary Museum was opened to the public. Up to this day, it remains the only building in Malta, which was purposely built to house a museum.

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