The Early Years of the Augustinians in Rabat

Although it is not known for certain when our brothers built their first convent near Mdina, it is certain that in the year 1429 these already existed. Most probably, the Augustinian presence in Rabat goes back to the end of the 14th century.  
In July 1551, the Turkish fleet of around 140 warships landed in Marsamxetto Harbour and without delay headed towards Rabat. At the time Malta was still bare of fortifications in spite of the fact that the Order of St. John had been in Malta since 1530.Seeing that there was nobody that could defend them against the Turks, the Maltese sought refuge behind the walls of Mdina. The Augustinian convent, a mere stone’s throw away from the walls of Mdina, could serve as a Turkish base for the attack on Mdina. Therefore the people went out of Mdina and completely demolished the convent and church and with it were lost all the artefacts of the church and the sacristy (including various precious objects together with the archives, the library and the personal belongings of the monks.  
Thus the religious brothers lost everything even the stones and the wood of the church and convent. In this way the monks ended up with any proof as to their properties and belongings. They also ended up without a place where to live and conduct their religious life in the community due to the fact that the convent was the only one existing in Malta at the time. The one in Gozo was too small and was not suitable to accommodate also the Maltese monks.
After six years of wandering from place to place, amongst which the Hospital of Santo Spirito in Rabat, the Augustinians were finally, in 1555, granted by the Mdina Cathedral Chapter the chapel of St. Mark the Evangelist on Saqqajja together with a few abandoned and dilapidated rooms and corridors. After acquiring all the necessary permits, they started the building of the church on the design of the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar. The foundation stone of the church was laid in 1556 and the church was finished in 1588.

The Building of the Present Convent

After almost two hundred years of presence on Saqqajja, the need was felt that a considerable part of the convent needed to be rebuilt because it had suffered a lot of damage. Therefore in the chapter held on the 15th March 1739, the monks unanimously agreed to build a new convent – the third one on Saqqajja.
After many consultations in Rome, amongst which with Valvasorio, it was recommended to use the plans made by the architect Andrea Belli, especially because the design had very good proportions while preserving parts of the original plans. Belli’s design was considered to be the best especially as it offered an excellent ambience for study, which had always been considered as a most important aspect in the Augustinian life. In fact, from the earliest times, this convent was considered as ideal for welcoming those young men who wanted to join the Augustinian Order.
Apart from the ordinary pastoral work, the community also had the mission to teach both clerics as well as some lay people. It was also a place for the novitiate of young people where they prepared themselves for the priesthood
The prior managed to get the necessary permits from the Grand Master Despuig to demolish and rebuild the convent. Work started on the 26th August 1740 while the foundation stone was laid on the 5th October of the same year. Work on the building took a long time to complete due to various problems that arose from time to time. However, with the help and support of the General Augustinian Curia in Rome they managed to overcome every obstacle.

From the time of the French to the Present

With the advent of the French occupation of the Maltese Islands, the religious orders in Malta were suppressed and could not have more than one convent. Unfortunately, the Augustinian monks were left the convent in Gozo which at that time was in a pretty bad state. The Rabat and the Valletta convents were taken over by the French with all their contents. Since the monks of Rabat and Valletta couldn’t be accommodated in the convent in Gozo, most of them went to live with their respective families
Thanks to the efforts of father Peter Paul Laferla OSA, the convent and church were given back to the monks on the 24th December 1798. After these had been occupied by the Conventual Franciscans (Grey Friars). As soon as they returned to their home, the Augustinian monks started to embellish once again this temple that had been stripped of all gold and silver. At the same time a number of new projects were also built.
On the 16th May 1893, the community accepted the design for a new perspective in the church’s choir. This was made by the artist Giovanni Galdes and approved by the architect Galizia. Due to this, one of the titular paintings, that stood side by side, was removed. That of St. Augustine, painted by Mattia Preti (1694) was placed in the sacristy. The titular painting of St. Mark the Evangelist, probably painted in the year 1604 from a disciple of Girolamo Muziano, was left where it was.  A marble statue of St. Augustine, made by Paolo Triscornia (1894) was place under the painting of St. Mark.  The Main Altar of the church was consecrated by the bishop Gaetano Pace Forno OSA on the 9th October 1869 and by the Bishop Giovanni M. Camilleri OSA on the 26th June 1906.
The convent of St. Mark did not serve only the needs of the community of the Augustinian monks as required by the Rule of St. Augustine. During the Second World War, Rabat was highly sought after as a place of refuge by those trying to escape the dangers of German bombing. In order not to disrupt children’s education, the government sought places that could be used as a school.
In October 1940, the ground floor corridors started being used as a boys’ school. On the 21st of January 1941, instead of the school boys the convent played host to 300 male refugees.  At other times during the war, the convent was converted into a large warehouse that housed a lot of the furniture of those refugees that had lost their homes. Up to June 1942, the convent the Augustinian convent in Rabat had not been hit so badly as the one in Valletta; although it had suffered some minor damage such as the breaking of glass and windows. On the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the 12th June 1942, the biggest tragedy happened. During an air raid, at 9.45pm, a large bomb was dropped and hit a house right opposite the large window of the refectory in Main Street. The stones of that house together with the shrapnel from the bomb damaged the Refectory as well as the Professory and there were no casualties hat was above it. Fortunately the monks, who had had their meal earlier in order to attend to their duties, escaped harm. The only casualty was a sick student who lost his life because he was too weak to take shelter downstairs.

The Mission of the Rabat Community

After the war, the convent in Rabat continued with its ministry of providing formation for those young men wishing to join the Augustinian Order as well as proving pastoral service to the people frequenting St. Mark’s church. Nowadays, apart from receiving humanistic, spiritual and Augustinian formation in this convent, these young people also follow academic or vocational studies according to the period of formation in which they are at.
At the moment, in this convent there is a programme of restoration and appreciation of the cultural heritage bound with this magnificent architectural complex. As religious people we feel it is our duty to share with the people that which has been passed on to us with so much sacrifice by our forefathers. We also need to cultivate this heritage and to discover anew its evangelical value as it is expressed in art, architecture and value it also as an encounter with the cultural world through cultural initiatives held in the convent. 

This community also provides services in various other realities in the Province, amongst which in Bahrija and in the chapel of the President’s Palace in Buskett.  

© 2024 agostinjani.org. All Rights Reserved.