The jewel of Vittoriosa’s waterfront is undoubtedly the beautiful church of St Lawrence, a 17th century reconstruction of the original church built by the Knights of St John in 1530. It is an imposing landmark with a magnificent dome and twin clock towers. The interior of this historic parish church is lavishly decorated with a unique collection of priceless treasures including the wonderful painting, ‘The Martyrdom of St Lawrence,’ by Malta’s greatest artist, Mattia Preti.
In 1941, as World War 11 was raging and Malta was suffering severe bombing raids, the arrival of the aircraft carrier HMS ‘Illustrious’ into the Grand Harbour was a welcome sight for the war weary Maltese. Many believed the war was coming to an end. But it soon became apparent that the ship had suffered severe damage and loss of life. The aircraft carrier was hit six times while escorting a convoy in the Sicily channel and was hit a seventh time in another attack as it approached Malta. Despite the savage attack it suffered, and having been hit by more bombs than any other carrier, HMS ‘Illustrious’ managed to contain its fires, stem the flooding and limp into the relative safety of the Grand Harbour on January 10, 1941. The loss, however, was tragic: 126 crew members had been killed and 91 injured.
The presence of this famous enemy ship in the shelter of Malta’s Grand Harbour didn’t deter the German Luftwaffe and soon the first dive-bombing raids began with their menacing Junkers 88 and 89, so brutal and devastating that they reduced the inner harbour area, particularly Senglea and Vittoriosa, to a vast heap of ruins.
On January 16th, 1941 the Church of St Lawrence was bombed by a German air raid. Both the sacristy and the chapter hall were destroyed. Thirty-three civilians, who were sheltering in the sacristy, were buried under the mass of rubble. The parish priest, who was sheltering in the belfry tower, dazed and badly shaken, rushed to the scene giving the last rites and helping the rescue efforts. The bodies were subsequently recovered from underneath the debris and miraculously, there was one survivor, a young baby.
On March 22nd of the same year the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament was destroyed and on April 4th 1942, the dome of the church was destroyed. The chapel was re-built in 1951 and the dome was re-built in 1952. A visit to this beautiful, peaceful church today brings me back to those awful days of war horror and I say a silent prayer in gratitude for the peace we now enjoy and in memory of all the victims who gave their lives in those tragic events.
From ‘IN LOVE WITH MALTA’ (The Hidden Treasures)
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