This is one of the oldest churches in Gozo and has a unique festa celebration. The church was first built before 1400 but rebuilt in 1601. By this time it included an adjacent cemetery and zuntier (front terrace). The Church of St Anthony Abbot became the first parish church of ix-Xagħra when the village gained parish status in 1688 and remained the parish church until 1692.
After the plague of 1814, which carried off 104 Gozitans, some of the church’s possessions were burnt in order to disinfect the place. The present painting, depicting St. Anthony with the people of Xagħra living in tents during the plague, was painted by Dun Salv Bondi` in 1816. The church suffered damage during the Second World War but was repaired and re-consecrated in 1947 under Bishop Giuseppe Pace, who was known for his devotion to St. Anthony. Gozo’s famous sculptor Wistin Camilleri then made a new statue for the chapel showing St. Anthony surrounded by animals.
Since 1948 the feast of the Saint, which falls on the 17th January, has included the very popular ceremony of the blessing of pets and animals. The tiny square in front of the church is decorated and in the morning the Bishop delivers Mass and blesses rusks (known as ‘the Bread of St. Anthony’), and oats, both representing a traditional ritual connected with charity. The feast ends with a procession from the Collegiate Church of Xagħra to the chapel of St. Anthony where the Bishop blesses pets and animals brought along by locals, usually including cattle, horses, ponies, donkeys, dogs, rabbits, cats, guinea pigs and birds!
Following the blessing, the owners are given a symbolic memento: a picture of the St Anthony, a bag of oats, and a rusk.
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