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Immaculate Conception Parish Church

Considering its establishment on the 1st January 1968, the parish of the Immaculate Conception of Hamrun is a young parish. Its story actually starts a little further back in 1921 when Paul Burlo of Valletta who lived in Vitale Street had the idea of gathering the children of the neighbourhood in his house during May for the recitation of the Rosary. He was a simple religious tinsmith who had no more space for this purpose than the small hall of his house under the staircase. These prayers in front of the statue of Mary proved so popular that in a couple of years he had to rent a larger house on the same street to accommodate the numbers. The prayers now began to include some sermons by his friend the cleric Karmenu Gatt and this developed further with a wish to go outside in procession with the statue of Mary on the last day of May. But this needed permission from the ecclesiastical authorities and Paul was a shy man, so he sent his friend with the request.

Not only did the Curia grant their wish for processions, but also for the institution of a small chapel in the premises. This came to reality when the Hamrun pastor of the time Fr.Joseph Muscat gave the name of The Immaculate Conception to the little oratory on the 15th May 1923.

Soon, an increase in attendance necessitated moving to still another house nearby where a sizeable room was turned into a chapel and two small access halls used for catechism. It was at this time that Paul Burlo acquired a large picture of the Immaculate which decades later even saw service in the new parish church for the first few years. The same could be said of a small statue used by these devout people in this humble place. It was in use up to 1967.

While all the regular liturgical functions were being celebrated throughout the year, even this larger house became inadequate, so Paul found a one-storey space on Sorrows Str., Raised the roof higher and covered the backyard to serve as a sacristy. This made for the largest space yet, at least enough for the devotees of the immediate vicinity. In 1945, the 25th anniversary of opening was celebrated with a commemorative plaque being installed.

Paul Burlo died on the 20th October 1950 and Fr.Edgar Vella, who had already been helping for six years, took over, well knowing that the space would not be adequate for any much longer. His mother urged him on with his idea of a new large and permanent church to serve the ever-increasing numbers. She suggested praying to St.Cajetan of Divine Providence. Though financial difficulties cost him all he had, with help from Archbishop Michael Gonzi and pastor Matthew Chircop of St.Cajetan parish church, a plot was found right on the area where the railway used to pass, and bought from the government.

The corner stone of a new church on the plan of architect Guze DAmato, was laid and blessed by Bishop Emmanuel Galea on the 23rd March 1958. Stonemason Geraldu Camilleri started the work on the foundations which were soon ready, but Fr.Edgar was bankrupt and already had debts with the Curia amounting to $10,000.

In the same year the basement was completed with a roof so that Mass could be celebrated there. This saw the end of activities in the oratory of Sorrows Street. These premises were later used by the group Z.H.N. (Young Christian Workers), and still later opened as a soccer club.

The work continued but the untimely death of Fr.Edgar at 43 on the 20th November 1962, robbed him of the honour of seeing it completed. He had been serving at the oratory and overseeing the raising of the new church for 12 years.

A few months after his death, the shell of the building was complete, and here the work stopped for a while. It only came to life again when pastor Chircop nominated Fr.Joseph Misud Bonnici as rector to try to clear the debt of $32,000, which had accumulated by this time, and also proceed with the work.

The quiet manner of this young priest belied the fire within because he at once found volunteers within the community itself and started putting them to work on the electrical system, installing windows, paving floors and a hundred other jobs that had to be done. This idea saved lots of money while the work still went on. On the 14th August 1963, the eve of the feast of the Assumption of Mary, the church was blessed and opened for the congregation by Bishop Galea. Three years later it was declared Vice Parish while on the 1st January 1968 it was declared an autonomous parish with boundaries within Hamrun taken from St.Cajetan's parish and some streets from Msida and Gwardamangia. On the 11th February of the same year Fr.Mifsud Bonnici took possession of this new parish as first pastor in time for the first celebration of the feast of the Immaculate Conception on the 8th December of the same year.

The style of this church is Ionic with the wall at the back of the shallow sanctuary formed of three huge niches. It has a very stylish modern dome made out of concrete and a single belfry at the front. Two sacristies at the back are of ample space while there is one single altar in the church itself. The total inside measurements are 40 metres length and 15 metres width.

As a lot of activity was going on among the groups of the new parish, there came the need for a parish centre where the different groups could hold their meetings. On the 3rd July 1971 the corner stone was laid for a three level edifice with an ample number of rooms and halls for every activity. At this time a house for the pastor was also built adjacent to the complex. But as soon as this was finished it came to light that all the work done by volunteers previously was only temporary and so the Italian architect Mons.Valerio Vigorelli was called for his technical expertise and also for his understanding of the Liturgy through his priesthood. The electrical system was found inadequate and had to be redone, the walls had to be scraped and sized and the dome painted. All this happened during the tenure of the first pastor Fr.Joseph Mifsud Bonnici. Later on, two small streets in the area were renamed after Paul Burlo' and Father Edgar Vella.

On the 18th February 1979 Fr.Manwel Agius took the place of Fr.Mifsud Bonnici as pastor, continuing the work of his predecessor especially on the sanctuary. Work on this started in July 1982 and soon a new tabernacle was inaugurated. Five years later the floor was paved with granite and on the 28th may 1988 Archbishop Mercieca consecrated the church. In 1993 festivities were held on the 25th anniversary of the installation of the parish, and for the occasion, a set of four bells founded in Italy by Achille Mazzola were installed in the belfry. For the feast of the next year the church had a new stand for the statue made in walnut. Fr.Nazzareno Caruana became pastor on the 10th December of 2000, during the 150th anniversary of the declaration of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception celebrations. The installation of Fr.Salv Borg as pastor took place on the 8th December 2004.

Actually the feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated the world over on each 8th of December, in fact that is when this parish celebrated for the first few years. In 1970, because of severe weather, all outside festivities including the procession were cancelled. There was even some damage to the decorations, some of which were from the time of Paul Burlo.

In 1971, a referendum was held amongst the parishioners and the feast was changed to the first Sunday of July. This parish does not celebrate its feast in the strictly traditional style with fireworks and band marches though the local band takes part. Parishioners concentrate more on giving praise to Mary through the various meetings of groups, which celebrate inside and outside the church. There are always hordes of young volunteers decorating, taking part and celebrating with the pastor as is befitting a young parish.

The statue, which is taken out in procession on the feast day, is the third one the church is using. Paul Burlo ordered the first one for his chapel and this small but beautiful statue was still in use up to 1967. It was replaced by a larger one made in Spain and this was in use until 1984. It had been brought to the church together with another one of St.Joseph on the 10th February 1968. The church also keeps a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows made by Wistin Camilleri and donated by Anglu Cassar. This statue was taken out in procession for the first time on the 9th April 1976.

The present titular statue befitting this church was acquired in 1985 by pastor Agius. The Arch confraternity of St.Francis of Valletta donated this one. It was soon regilded and a pedestal built to support it. Originally this statue was made in 1903 by R.Zanzio & Co. of Rome on a pattern by the famous Murillo. Before being brought to Malta, it was taken to the Vatican to be blessed by Pope Leo XIII. The halo of stars around her head is etched with the date 1916. Between 2000 and 2002, the backdrop was changed and the statue including and Gannutell or hand embroidered flowers and four specially made wooden urns were installed around the base.

The titular 'picture' too happens to be the third one in the parish. The first was on canvas depicting the Immaculate Conception with a serpent beneath her feet and was donated to the Paul Burlo chapel by the cleric Karmenu Gatt. Though we do not know its provenance, we know that the cleric bought it from a certain Mr Licari who had a shop in Valletta. The second titular picture is a more recent one painted by one of the Franciscan sisters of Egypt and was donated to the church during the tenure of Fr.Mifsud Bonnici as pastor. It is an oil on canvas copy of the Immaculate Conception by Murillo and is nowadays kept in the sacristy.

During the time Fr.Manwel Agius was pastor it was decided that this picture did not match the style of the church building, and moreover it looked too small in the sanctuary at the back. Pastor and parish council decided in favour of a more befitting titular picture more in line with the space and style of the sanctuary. A work in mosaic was commissioned to the company of T.Sarti of Pietrasanta of Lucca Italy. This new work of art is also based on the work of Murillo but the media is totally different from the one before. It was planned for the location and so it fits the sanctuary perfectly and is so imposing that now no one can doubt to whom the temple is dedicated. It was installed in place during a ceremony and inaugurated by the pastor on the 25th June 1983.