The Malta Independent 17 May 2022, Tuesday

The curious case of the priest who was removed from his tomb five times

Noel Grima Tuesday, 25 January 2022, 11:08 Last update: about 5 months ago

Mill-qighan ta’ l-istorja. Edizzjoni ‘Il-Hsieb’. Author: Frans Ciappara. Published: 1987. Pages: 80pp

The parish priest of Zebbug, Dun Guzepp Marku Azzopardi, died on 6 April 1762.

His last year had been very troublesome for him. The new head of the Zebbug Regiment, Fra Carlo Zarzana, a haughty Spaniard, expected extra honours during church ceremonies but his demands were turned down by the bishop of Malta, Mgr Rull.

It was the parish priest who suffered for this refusal. On 2 April 1761, the populace, undoubtedly egged on by Zarzana, deserted the church and instead stayed in the square. When the parish priest left the church the soldiers refused him access back and the parish priest went to Valletta and informed the bishop what had happened.


The bishop informed Grand Master Pinto and in a short time the soldiers were withdrawn. The parish priest never went back to Zebbug and died, as already stated, on 6 April 1762. But the antagonism against him did not die with him.

The parish priest was buried in a new tomb he had dug in the sanctuary (presbiterju) of the church, next to the altar for himself and for his successors.

The procurators of the church objected to this and pointed out this practice went against church law. They thus asked for the parish priest to be disinterred and buried in the priests' tomb behind the main altar. Bishop Rull accepted.

The body of the priest was thus removed and reburied behind the altar. This took place in September but tempers had been aroused. Those who removed the body of the parish priest did not wait for the arrival of the bishop's representative. Besides it was reported that swear words and offensive epithets against the priest had been uttered. And animal remains and rubbish had been dumped in the empty hole.

The matter did not end there. The ringleaders were identified and reported to the Vatican since they were priests.

On 15 October 1764 at 10am the Vicar General of the diocese, accompanied by the bishop's guards, went on site and ordered that the parish priest's remains be taken back to the sanctuary. Two priests and two other persons were arrested with the priests having to beg for sanctuary in two churches.

The issue became wider when the procurators appealed to the Metropolitan Curia in Palermo, which still functioned as having jurisdiction over the diocese of Malta (this was removed much later).

The Palermo Curia ordered the release of the arrested and again the relocation of the parish priest's remains back to behind the main altar.

This turned the issue into a national one because both the Bishop of Malta and the Grand Master refused to obey the order by the Archbishop of Palermo.

The execution of the order by the Palermo Archbishop was left in the hands of the Archdeacon of the Malta cathedral, Canon Pietr'Antonio Damico Inguanez who in turn asked the help of the Inquisitor and his officials to execute the sentence.

But the Inquisitor, on orders from Rome, refused to interfere. Seeing this, the procurators decided to appeal to the Grand Master to help execute the Palermo Curia's decision. But Pinto never got to receive this appeal.

The Archdeacon had already nailed the excommunication document to the doors of the Mdina Cathedral and the Zebbug parish church. On 21 April 1767 the people hearing Mass were read a Monitorio, which informed about the Palermo decision.

The next day, at 2pm, the body of the parish priest was taken back to behind the main altar.

But those opposed to the Palermo decision mounted a spirited opposition. They left the gaping hole in the sanctuary open and relocated the Eucharist to a different altar. And the parish priest went to Valletta, a highly unusual thing for him on a Sunday.

The ringleaders fanned the rebellion and told people they had nothing to fear since they had the protection of the Grand Master.

So the next day, Sunday 26 April, Domenica in Albis, the bells were rung and around 2,000 persons gathered in the square and entered with much shouting in the church.

Once again they dug up the body of the parish priest and organised a garish funeral procession inside the church with some robed priests taking part and with the bells pealing, put the body of the parish priest back in the hole in the sanctuary.

On 21 June 1767, Archbishop Serafino of Palermo wrote to the Viceroy asking him to put a stop to this abuse. He also suggested that the Maltese Church's property in Lentini be confiscated.

On 2 September 1767 officers, sent by the Bishop of Malta, went to Zebbug and for the fifth time dug up the remains of the parish priest and reburied it behind the main altar along with his predecessors. The marble tombstone in the sanctuary was removed as well. 

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