Seven outstanding facts about the church of St John the Baptist in Xewkija
On our last day in Gozo, we simply had to make the trip to the church we had dubbed the “Sacre Coeur”, a large rotunda a couple of kilometres behind the ferry port: after all, we had lived in the shadow of the “original” for 20 years and were eager to find out whether their close resemblance was mere coincidence or not.
Although our visit failed to shed any light on this question, we found out a great many things about Gozo’s “Sacre Coeur” – such as, for instance, that there are only three larger free-standing domes in Europe: St Peter’s in Rome, St Paul’s in London and St Maria Assumption on Malta. And this was only the first of many surprises.
Here are seven even more astonishing facts about the church of St John the Baptist in the Gozitan town of Xewkija.
1. The walls of St John were built to encase an older, 17th century church…
…which had become too small for the needs of the community, a technique that allowed the parishioners to attend Mass regularly in the old church throughout the construction period. When the new building was completed, the old church was then taken down, stone by stone, and re-erected as an annex in the back.
2. The new church was consecrated in 1971, after a construction period of 20 years.
In 1971! I don’t think I know a church that was built so recently (during a period, after all, when churches in Western Europe were already beginning to be converted into anything from pubs to community centres), while the ones that come close all look like municipal libraries and certainly not like this.
3. The huge interiors of St John …
… are packed five times every Sunday – two more masses are “only half-full”, as Father Carmel admits with a guilty shrug.
Only!?! At home, we live in a nominally Catholic town with a population roughly the size of Gozo’s (never mind Xewkija’s), and the only Sunday Mass in the town’s central basilica is usually “celebrated” by about 100 elderly folks.
What is the secret of St John – or is it merely that the people here have nothing else to do on a Sunday? (I must say that Maltese TV, from what I have glimpsed in passing, does look rather awful.)
4. Perhaps one of St John’s secret is Father Carmel …
… a true whirlwind of an entertainer, a show-biz natural and a one-man campaign for the City of God and the Fund to Rebuild the St John Church Organ.
Any visitor who drifts into the church interiors is immediately greeted by Father Carmel and gently steered in the direction of the museum (entrance fee: €2 p.p. but larger donations are gracefully accepted) from where, as an added extra, a lift goes up all the way to a viewing platform underneath the belfry.
During the ride, Father Carmel entertained the party with a joke that he, I am certain, had told hundreds of times before – but this time, it appeared that he had his timing slightly wrong, and the punchline, clearly timed to coincide with the opening of the door on the top floor, only arrived when the doors had already opened and then closed again, and since nobody had dared to leave the lift while Father Carmel had not finished his story, we had to go all the way down and up again.
Father Carmel, meanwhile – and this is where you can tell the true Old Pro from the mere dilettante – appeared completely unflustered, kept entertaining us with little observations and a preview of what we were going to see. What a guy!
5. It must be said that the product Father Carmel sells with such passion and engagement is actually rather good.
The museum – in essence, the annex that represents the old 17th century church – is great …
… and the views from the rotunda’s belfry are just as impressive.
6. The top of the St John Rotunda is the highest point in Gozo….
… and from the windows inside the dome you can look all the way down, down, down. This is no problem on the way up, but when you are descending the spiral staircase from the very top, you should perhaps rather watch your step than let your eyes roam too freely. (Otherwise, you may remember the plot line from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” with a rather uncomfortable level of intensity.)
7. Not very far away from St John (on Soil Street: straight out of the main entrance and then left towards the town school), there is a bakery (called Ta Saminu) …
… where you can taste authentic Maltese food: ftira (dough covered with vegetables, not unlike a traditional Italian pizza), meat pies or Torti (mainly with rabbit) and qaghaq helwin (sweet rings).
Where did we get the address from? By asking Father Carmel, of course. He is a treasure, I told you. Hopefully, one day, he will get the stage he deserves – and perhaps make Maltese TV more watchable.