When you consider the age of many of Gozo’s churches, The Rotunda Church in Xewkija is a mere youngster. Despite appearances the building of this ‘classic style’ church honoring St John the Baptist only began in the early 1950’s and was completed by the 1970’s.
Yet the site of this church has had sacred significance for centuries. Xewkija is Gozo’s oldest inhabited village and way back in 1647 ruins from megalithic temples dedicated the goddess of fertility were unearthed here, with remains from prehistoric temples also discovered in Xewkija.
Creating the church we see today.
After the II World War, Rev. Ġużepp Grech who was the Archpriest of Xewkija at that time gained approval from the Government and church authorities to build a new church for parishioners. Xewkija’s population was growing by around 100 people a year and locals had outgrown their church. Xewkija wasn’t a wealthy village; its workforce were mostly fishermen, farmers and construction workers. But, more importantly these industrious people had faith.
So, the joyful church we see today is a church for the people, made possible by the people. It was built from the blood, sweat and tears of local parishioners.
When plans for this bigger church were first announced during the 1950’s, many families in Xewkija were living hand to mouth – yet still the locals rallied raising £18,000 and donating £2,000 worth of gold ornaments, with many women gifting their jewellery. Each week the Archpriest Ġużepp Grech, a popular people motivator made house calls to collect donations from villagers. Every family in Xewkija gave what they could, farmers and fishermen gave up a share of their produce. Even Gozitans who had emigrated overseas sent money back via their families and it was because of these contributions that work on the church never stopped during its 18 year build.
So, the Rotunda Church of today is a testament to those 3,000 Xewkija residents and their indomitable spirit, dedication, perseverance and devotion.
Architect Mr Joseph D’Amato designed Rotunda church which was inspired by Venice’s ‘Santa Maria della Salute’ church. For the architect and stonemasons involved this was a challenging build because the new church had to be built around the former church, which was to remain intact throughout and continue being used for religious services. So, these highly skilled craftsmen were essentially building a church within a church.
Rotunda’s dome is 27 metres wide and stands 75 metres high, weighing around 45,000 tonnes. It has the third largest unsupported dome in Europe, behind St Peter’s in Rome and St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Mons Carmel Mercieca, the former Archpriest for Xewkija recalls “Many people should know the majority of the construction for our church was done by hand, there was little machinery involved and the women of the village were like a reserve troop, instrumental to making this happen. They organized fundraising, helped with lifting the building materials when more hands were required and were regularly supplying food and nourishment to the workers.”
On 4th May 1952, the Bishop of Gozo His Lordship Mgr. Joseph Pace was escorted into Xewkija by cavalry to the sounds of hymns and triumphant cheers; where he laid the first stone of Rotunda’s church, weighing about 1 ton. Secured in a hole inside the stone were silver and gold coins, some relics from saints and a crystal tube with a parchment so that future generations would know of the posterity of this occasion.
Brothers Toni Vella (tal-Malla) and Ġużepp Vella (tal-Malla) were highly skilled local Mastermasons who worked together for the best part of the church’s construction. For the first four years Toni Vella and stonemason Ġużepp Cauchi (tas-Sellieħ) worked simultaneously on the project. Ġużepp worked on the perifery wall and Toni built the eight certral columns. In 1956, Ġużepp Cauchi left the project and it was then that Toni’s genius younger brother, expert mastermason Ġużepp Vella came in. Ġużepp Vella was the chief mason for 14 years with many locals regarding the erection of the dome as his greatest work.
Ġużepp Vella was a genius when it came to geometry, despite the fact he couldn’t read or write. When architect Joseph D’Amato died mid-way through the project before overseeing his designs to completion, it was Ġużepp Vella’s precision and mastery which helped achieve the astounding dome we see today. The dome was completed on 31st May, 1970 and it was Ġużepp Vella who, with tears in his eyes placed the cross on the top of the main lantern as the world watched in awe.
Throughout its 18 year build the church became a popular site with many thrill-seeking local children who relished playing hide and seek amongst the giant limestone rocks or running around the circumference of the open dome getting a bird’s eye view of their village, before it was covered.
A historic day during the church’s build and one which involved huge community effort was on Saturday 16th July, 1964. This was when the first circular concrete lintel supporting the dome was built. This circular concrete support had to be mixed, set and then lifted to the top via a pulley system during one day. This required 1,300 sacks of cement, 2,600 sacks of sand, 5,200 sacks of crushed pebbles and 10 tonnes of iron to build the circle and arches underneath. Hundreds of locals worked tirelessly starting at 05:00 am and working until 7.00 pm. All men in the village took leave from their jobs and women supported them by cooking food onsite and helping to lift the heavy sacks of cement and buckets of water, along with young family members too. Everyone lent a hand.
Erecting the 8 ferro concrete columns was another challenge, each was made from 300 sacks of cement and nearly 2 tonnes of iron. Four of these columns had to be built inside the old church and another had to pierce the belfry.
The construction phase of the church was completed by 31st May 1970 and before the new Rotunda Church was finally completed, stone sculptures and marble features from the original church were carefully dismantled, labelled and then delicately rebuilt inside their museum within the new building. Every single stone was meticulously numbered whilst in the old church before being transported and rebuilt exactly inside the Museum of Sculpture.
The Rotunda Church was consecrated on June 17th, 1978 by the Bishop of Gozo, Mgr. Nicholas Cauchi in a monumental ceremony where 12 Marble crosses were blessed and secured onto the walls of the church.
Why not visit the Rotunda Church and savour the sense of hope and glory found inside Gozo’s largest church. Make sure you visit The Sculpture Museum to experience the incredibly delicate lacework on some of the old Maltese stone.
With special thanks to: John Attard , Mons Carmelo Mercieca, Ted Mizzi and jjpzammit.