The Malta Independent 15 July 2024, Monday
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The nuns who lived off the proceeds of prostitution

Noel Grima Monday, 30 January 2017, 14:13 Last update: about 8 years ago

At the lower end of Merchants Street there is a church that was closed up and neglected for many years and only used as a place for Carnival preparations.

The church had been hit in World War II along with the entire area and was rebuilt, after insistence by the local church, with War Damage funds. Then it was forgotten.

It was because of the publication of this book that the church was cleaned up and re-opened - and it turned out to have the most astounding baroque carvings.

The church is what remains of the Convent of the Repentite, those who repented. This book is about this little-known institution.

When the Order came to Malta in 1530, it was followed by camp followers from the Order's previous residence, Rhodes, including some prostitutes.

These merged with the prostitutes already operating in the harbour area.

The records of the time give us many names which are indicative of what they excelled at: Catarinuzza detta la turca, Margarita Giliberto detta la bionda, Domenica Zorba detta Cuzza (the bitch), Marica Mexita detta la pugnalata (the stabbed one), Teresa Buscaina detta la spezzalotta (maybe the herbologist), and best Anna Maria detta la fragatina (the boat).

In those post-Great Siege days, and also post-Tridentine days, many efforts were made to convert these prostitutes and get them to change their ways. In 1580, 15 years before the establishment of Santa Maria Maddalena, Oliviero Vasco and his wife Caterina, founded a church and a house for daughters of prostitutes. A similar house was erected close to St John's, then the Conventual church. Later these two houses were merged, but such work was not exempt from scandal. In the late 17th Century, a Jesuit, Andrea Agius, founded two refuges for prostitutes, supported by benefactors, but the priest was later accused of consorting with prostitutes and sent to jail.

So there were orphanages, rehabilitation centres, and there was even a retirement home for prostitutes. Santa Maria Magdalena was not an orphanage, nor a rehabilitation centre, nor a retirement home. It was a cloister that embraced penitent prostitutes who took vows of chastity, obedience, poverty and enclosure.

The concept was not a novel one: there are different versions but one of these states that the Magdalenes were founded by Grand Master de Verdalle in 1594 and three senior nuns from the monastery of the Holy Cross in Syracuse were brought here to help out.

There were also Repentite in Rome.

There is some discussion as to the relations between the Magdalenes and the monastery of Saint Ursula also established by Grand Master de Verdalle with the help of a group of nuns who came from the monastery of Santa Maria di Ara Coeli in Syracuse.

In Matteo Perez d'Aleccio's map of Valletta, published in Rome in 1582, the monastery of Santa Maria Maddalena does not feature. But the Magdalene monastery appears in an engraving by Francesco Villamena, reproduced from a design by Francesco dell'Antella, published in Rome in 1600.

In this city plan, the monastery appears under the name Monastero delle Repentite overlooking Santa Barbara bastions. It seems larger than the monastery of St Ursola that lies diagonally across the road.

Finally, in Johann Friedrich Breithaupt's map, dated 1632, the Magdalene monastery was located between Merchants Street , then known as Strada San Giacomo, and North Street, formerly known as Strada Sant'Elmo.

Life in the monastery was a constant struggle. Living from hand to mouth, the nuns were forced to accept anything and everything. Hence the long battle between the Repentite and the Confraternity of Our Lady of Charity for the rich inheritance of the Ciantar Foundation.

Hence too the Flaminia Valenti case. In 1637, following the death of her companion, Grand Master Antoine de Paule, Flaminia Valenti joined the Repentite as Sister Dorothea. "Touched by God", the declaration stated, she donated 18,000 scudi "acquired dishonestly'.

The monastery's rules stated that nuns who conceived in the monastery would be expelled. Three years after taking her vows, Sister Dorothea conceived but she was not sent away. Her daughter Anna was born in the cloister. On reaching adolescence, Anna took the veil but later seems to have obtained a dispensation from her vows. In a ledger where prostitutes' dues were listed, she is registered as Anna Pitard and she later mothered a boy she christened as Domenico Pitard.

This book says she is interred in St Paul's church and there is her portrait in the church's sacristy.

In 1671, Caterina wanted to order her dues to the monastery. She claimed that for the past 16 years she had been living an honest life, but she donated 7,000 scudi earned through her 30 years of life as a prostitute. She thus set up a foundation in St Paul's church and later added a further 2,000 scudi.

Another Caterina is the far more famous and notorious Caterina Vitale whose tomb can be found in the Carmelite church in Valletta and about who other books have been prodigal with savoury details. The wife of the Holy Infirmary's pharmacist, she regularly visited her daughter Isabellica who was among the monastery's nuns.

On 25 September 1610, Caterina accused the knight Fra Jean-Paul Lascaris-Castellar of being the nuns' lover. In her law suit against the Repentite, she produced Annica Faenza who testified that some stone masons working at the monastery reported witnessing Lascaris-Castellar being bombarded with eggs full of rose water by the nuns during Carnival.

Later on Lascaris became grand master who came down with strict rules as regards Carnival.

In 1615, Caterina together with her friends Annica Faenza and an elderly Greek woman known as Costanza Smeralda, stormed into the monastery and forcefully dragged her daughter Sister Cherubina away. Later Sister Cherubina renounced her vows and married Centorio Cagnolo.

Caterina Vitale is portrayed dressed in white in a painting by Antoine de Favray which used to hang in the Selmun Palace chapel and which is now to be seen in the modern Selmun chapel.

In 1602, hearing about the critical state of the monastery's finances, Pope Clement VIII extended to the Valletta monastery the benefits granted by successive popes to the Santa Maria Maddalena monastery in Rome. He also proposed that the monastery in Valletta be given one fourth or at least one fifth of all the goods and inheritances of deceased prostitutes. But while in Rome it proved very difficult for the nuns to get anything more than a few rags, in Malta, given its small size, it was easier for the nuns to watch over the prostitutes and get their dues. A veritable social network ensured no prostitute escaped paying up.

Obviously, this provoked interminable disputes and in cases where the prostitutes were found to have tried to evade paying, the nuns got the entire inheritance.

Later on, the Cassa della Morte was set up - through annual contributions by the nuns, a fund was set up to provide for Masses and other benefits when the nuns die.

All this focusing on death and money gave the monastery a bad name and it led, we may say, to its doomsday. After the French invasion in June 1798, on 23 July the monastery was suppressed and the Magdalene sisters were ordered to join the monastery of St Catherine. The order was irrevocable. Other female monasteries were closed or suppressed but under the British they were re-activated. But not the Magdalenes. Precious items belonging to the Repentite were stolen by the French and even more during the blockade of Valletta.

On 29 July 1798 the Magdalenes were evicted and sixteen nuns and a novice were forced to walk to the monastery of St Catherine between a file of French soldiers with fixed bayonets.

Twenty-four nuns stayed on, mainly because they were very old. Eventually, they were evicted: eight nuns were allowed home and died there. The rest took to the streets but could not live outside the monastery: most turned up on the doorstep of St Catherine and were reunited with their sister nuns.

The church exerted heavy pressure on the five Magdalene renegades, even threatening them with sanctions. Four eventually returned but one just disappeared.

Thus ended the whole history of the Repentite. Objectively, one can see how it carried within itself the germs of later failure: for one thing they were created by the Order and thus shared in the decay of the Order.

They were as elitist as the Knights, divided into an Upstairs Downstairs regime, madly in love with money and less on their religious duties.

And their history was a long series of scandals.

A notorious case regarded Vicar Azzopardi, the nuns' spiritual counselor was accused of having an affair with a young nun. He used to visit her every day at 11pm and leave at 1am. He was also said to have encouraged his brother, Baron Azzopardi, in his relationship with another young nun. This amounts to pimping. At the same time Vicar Azzopardi was accused of having a parallel relationship with a nun from the St Catherine monastery.

Santa Maria Maddalena was also a convenient place for Grand Master Pinto to house a lady who assisted him generously throughout his reign. At the age of 24, in 1705, Manuel Pinto de Fonseca became a knight. Soon after, his companion, the young Resenda Paulucci professed and became a nun at Santa Maria Maddalena. Some say she entered the cloister out of her own free will, while others claimed Pinto placed her in the monastery to conceal their relationship. Resenda Paulucci became Sister Melania Paulucci while Pinto became grand master.

When Pinto went to the theatre, she would be waiting for him in the Grand Master's box at the Manoel Theatre. She became Abbess and died after being a nun for 66 years. Pinto organized a grand funeral for her and wrote in the epitaph that she had assisted him generously during his reign.

Some sources say that Sister Paulucci bore Grand Master Pinto a son, Jose Antonio Pinto de Fonseca. In 1746, Jose Antonio married his first cousin Maria Inacia Pinto de Fonseca de Souza Teixeira e Vilhena, the illegitimate daughter of Francisco Vaz Pinto, the grand master's brother.



Christine Muscat

Magdalene Nuns and Penitent Prostitutes Valletta

BDL Publishing



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