The Malta Independent 15 April 2024, Monday
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St George’s Basilica pjazza - revisited!

Emmanuel J. Galea Sunday, 21 January 2024, 07:58 Last update: about 4 months ago

I have already expressed my thoughts about the critical state of the charming St George’s pjazza on 3 December 2023. From the comments I heard and received, I feel I should review this situation more intently and thoroughly.

Several concerns require attention, and resolving them hinges on previous decisions, some of which are not easily reversible. Blaming others won’t help us achieve the primary goal of unravelling this complicated situation involving access to the basilica through the pjazza.

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Construction of the St George’s Basilica, a baroque masterpiece, took place from 1672 to 1678. But, an earthquake in 1693 damaged it significantly, resulting in a delayed consecration until 1755. The facade was coated in 1818.

The Knights of St John built Pjazza San Ġorġ during this period as part of the urban plan for Victoria. The square’s primary use at first was for military activities because it was near the city’s defences. 

During the 1980s, parked vehicles occupied most of this pjazza, except for a few shops. Development and progress supported each other towards transforming this pjazza into a catering hive of activity. Outlet owners sensed the hidden potential and resorted to encroach as much space as possible from the pjazza to accommodate more tables. The amount of space allotted to them was according to the regulations stipulated by the Lands Authority. So now is this Authority monitoring this situation which has now spiralled out of control?

Fast forward to July 2006, this pjazza was in a disorganised state as regards parking of vehicles. It was a free for all, everyone parked wherever they wanted. So much so that on Friday morning 07 Jul 2006 St George’s Basilica Archpriest, Mgr Dr Joseph Farrugia had an unexpected discussion about the parking problem on St George’s pjazza with Victoria Council mayor Robert Tabone and councillors who were attending a council meeting at the Banca Giuratale.

Mgr Farrugia had dropped by to ask whether the local council had considered his verbal request concerning ordinary access into the basilica. Drivers had taken to parking their vehicles in front of the basilica’s main door, apart from creating an eyesore, and blocking access to the basilica through the main door, mornings and evenings.

Later that afternoon, the problem of indiscriminate parking on St George’s Pjazza manifested itself during a funeral procession which could not proceed up the basilica stairs because of a car parked by the front stairs of the church.

So access to the pjazza was already an ongoing concern about 20 years ago. Since then, the problem has snowballed so much that a solution is difficult and bordering on the impossible. Now it’s not vehicles that are restricting access, but several catering outlets which have branched out of every residence entrance onto the pjazza.

During the PN administration from 2008 to 2013, local councils had more administrative power and enjoyed the trust of the government. So they were authorised to carry out any projects necessary for their localities.

This is not the case anymore. The situation has gone from bad to worse. So much so that for a funeral to have access through the pjazza, the permit from the local council has to be endorsed by Lands Authority.

In 2008 the Victoria Local Council started works to resurface the pjazza with porphyry slabs and a bronze fountain, besides laying the wiring underground, and construction of water culverts. Italian artist Stefano Dall’Osso collaborated with engineering company “Galea Curmi” to design the illumination of this pjazza. He intended this lighting to be energy efficient. Gozitan artist John Grima handled the design of the pjazza.

PN Parliamentary Secretary, Dr Chris Said, visited this ongoing refurbishment in St George’s pjazza accompanied by Victoria Local Council Mayor Robert Tabone. But these works dragged on till 2010. According to a plan, dated August 2007 by architect Edward Scerri, this included areas reserved for tables, which are much less in area from those in place today.

From 2012 to 2018, the pjazza served as the venue for various events, especially during Christmas, such as the Christmas village, Gozo Stoneleigh Youth orchestra concerts, Christmas cribs, and even acrobatic shows. The key organisers of these events were the Victoria Local council, Gozo Cultural Council, and Youth association in collaboration with the La Stella Philharmonic Society. Gradually, catering outlets started to operate and encroach on the pjazza area.

In 2013, Il-Fondazzjoni Belt Victoria opened officially “Il-Ħaġar”, which is a museum and Cultural Centre. It houses the significant artistic and historic patrimony of St George’s Parish Basilica, with which it is closely associated including donations and bequests it has received since the constitution of the Foundation. This centre serves as a venue to cater for the cultural events which St George’s community organises all year round offering an alternative to the pjazza locale.

Meanwhile, the Georgians were likewise active. They contributed financially and offered their services voluntarily to enhance the inside decorations of the Basilica complemented by religious services. Their financial support brought about the immense interior grandeur, which fascinates all visitors. This contributed to elevate this basilica to the Golden Basilica–a gem in our small island of Gozo.

But accessibility to the basilica did not improve. On July 2022 in connection with the feast of St George the La Stella Philharmonic Society and St. George’s Parish, in a joint statement on Facebook, said that they are “having to resort to a public statement in order to appeal again to the authorities and all concerned in order to maintain order in St George’s Square.”

The statement called upon the outlets to “respect the permits of the feast in such a way that there are no obstacles to the conduct of the marches, the liturgical functions and the safety of the public.”

All along, the government authorities were blind to the situation developing around them and deaf to all the pleas uttered by the church and band authorities.

So this is the unfortunate disturbing situation today. The Georgians have contributed vast amounts of their hard-earned savings, spared precious time of their life in voluntary work towards enhancing their beloved basilica, to end up deprived of decent access to their cherished basilica. They have to face the unpleasant situation to beg some of the outlets to access the basilica to have their newborn ones baptised, their grown-ups married and even more the bereaved to pay their last respects to their dear departed. 

Shameful, indeed disgusting and I say this with all responsibility. These outlet owners should abide by the conditions of their permits and respect the parishioners. I humbly call on the authorities concerned the: Victoria Local Council, Lands Authority, Planning Authority, and Police to be loyal to their duties and responsibilities which these parishioners rightly expect from them.

Where does the buck stop? 

The Lands Authority rubber stamped these permits which the Victoria Local Council did not amend or object to regarding accessibility to the basilica. 

Can anyone stand up and assume responsibility how and when the architect’s plan originally drawn up in 2007 has been totally overlooked?

It would be appropriate for the Gozo Diocese to air its views and insist on the right of all year access to the basilica for all special occasions and emergencies. The diocese rightly stated its views regarding the public sector workers’ abdication of duties, and the PA approved building permits near the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ggantija temples. This also involves enforcing the rights of all parishioners, outlets, and restore the respect and status of all concerned for the common good.

The parishioners “Giorgiani” were, are, and remain here, passing on their beliefs and legacies to the new future generation. So whatever the arguments of the outlets and authorities, these parishioners deserve their unrestricted rights, which unfortunately are being eroded gradually but consistently to attend their Golden Basilica. Can these parishioners celebrate a wedding, a baptism, and surely a funeral of their missing beloved ones? Clearly, there are urgent questions that need to be answered and whoever is ignoring this duty is on the wrong side of history. History is not a country lane deciding to shift from one side to the other at the mere instinct of the driver. History remains etched in stone, serving as a reference for future generations to judge those who neglected their responsibilities. 

Goodwill should prevail from all sides towards a respectful and harmonious atmosphere which should ultimately restore unrestricted access to the Golden Basilica all year round. This should instil renewed pride to its faithful ‘Ġiorġani’, and shower the pjazza with inspiring good feelings.

 

 

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