Lorenzo Balbi, benefactor of the parish church of Marsa, died 100 years ago
This week, Marsa is celebrating, ready to celebrate the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity on Sunday. Many may ask: why the Holy Trinity? What is the link with Marsa?
It was Maria Carmela born Ozzini, wife of Lorenzo Balbi, who wanted the church her husband was building to be dedicated to the Holy Trinity.
That’s how it all started.
Balbi and his wife had expressed their desire to build a small chapel where they would eventually rest. When the Bishop of Malta, Bishop Pietro Pace, heard about it, he asked the couple to build a church in Marsa where the growing population had no place of worship.
At the time, the colonial government had embarked on the construction of the Porto Nouvo (New Port), in the inner area of the port, where national goods could be unloaded or exported. Indeed, the Royal Navy had taken over much of the traditional landing places, such as Vittoriosa and Senglea, leaving Maltese merchants without adequate port facilities.
For this purpose, Balbi bought two quarries in Qrendi
These works in the late 19th and early 20th century led many workers from Malta and Gozo to settle in the Marsa basin with their families.
Marsa was then divided into several parishes, some parts belonged to Ħamrun, others to Qormi and even Tarxien, but had no church of its own.
The construction of a new church
Lorenzo Balbi, a merchant from Valletta, responded to the bishop’s request and began looking for land to build this church. Eventually, he purchased land in the area known as Xatt il-Qwabar, which belonged to Ta’ Sawra Hospital in Rabat.
He hired the famous architect Giovanni Domenico Debono who gave him a plan for a very different type of church: simple, classic and attractive, inspired by the 14th century Renaissance.
Work on the ground began in August 1909, and on Sunday October 20, 1909, the first stone was laid at 7:30 a.m. The master mason Mikiel Mifsud is entrusted with the construction of the church.
For this purpose, Balbi bought two quarries in Qrendi which belonged to the Ta’ Raimond family. Unique and solid granite columns were imported from Trapani, Sicily.
The church is not intended to be given to the Capuchin friars
Halfway through the construction of the church, Balbi was persuaded by his friends, the clergy of St. Paul’s Collegiate Church in Valletta, to donate the sanctuary to the Capuchin Friars, who would better serve the community. They accepted the offer.
Balbi therefore bought more land behind the church to build a convent there to house the new religious community. According to the original plans, a house had already been built for the parish priest of the diocesan parish, today the parish office. The convent was eventually connected to the church by entrances at the rear.
The construction of the church and convent was completed in a record time of two years and nine months, on May 25, 1912, but it took another 11 months for the church to be furnished and embellished.
Balbi paid for much of the decorations, including the titular painting of the Holy Trinity by well-known artist Lazzaro Pisani in 1910. Balbi also donated much of the required church ornaments, including chalices in silver and church vestments.
It is the faith of these two benefactors that gave the locality its true identity.
The set of bells from the Prospero Barigozzi firm of Milan arrived in March 1912. This was the very first set of bells to arrive in Malta from this famous bell foundry, which went on to produce bells for many other Maltese churches and Gozitans, including the largest bell in the Basilica of Birkirkara.
When the brothers moved into the new convent, they found everything ready, including a kitchen with a stone oven and all the necessary utensils. The rooms were fully furnished down to the smallest detail, such as a small chandelier and a box of matches.
Balbi is on the verge of bankruptcy
It is said that Balbi figuratively exclaimed that he had a bunch of grapes and with a grape he built the church of Marsa. That was in 1913 but four years later, in 1917, he lost much of his wealth after investing heavily in Imperial Russian bonds which the Bolsheviks failed to honor after the revolution.
The new church was declared a parish on April 12, 1913, and opened to the public a week later on April 19, when the 24th International Eucharistic Congress was held in Malta.
This new parish was indeed very large, covering the area of the inner port from the Pinto Stores, il-Menqa, with the overhang of l-Għolja tal-Ġiżwiti, to Ras Ħanżir, below Kordin, going around from the entire Marsa hippodrome, l-Istabar, through Qormi, to Ħamrun and Blata l-Bajda.
The people of La Marsa and the Capuchin community are very indebted to Balbi and his wife.
The parish church they built gave Marsa its identity. For even though Marsa can be found on centuries-old maps of Malta and is frequently mentioned in history books, it was the faith of these two benefactors that gave Marsa its true identity.
For their pious action, Balbi was honored with a knighthood of the Order of San Silvester while his wife received the Pro Eclesia et Pontefice, a decoration from the Holy See, which is conferred on people for their distinguished service to the ‘Catholic Church.
Balbi died on July 10, 1922. The solemn funeral procession set out from Blata l-Bajda along Via Croce Della Marsa, (Cross Road) to the new church in Marsa, accompanied by the clergy and newly formed.
His wife died a few months later, on October 21, 1922. They were both buried in the middle of the magnificent church they had built with their own money.
The author refers to the book Il-Marsa 1913-1963 by the Rev. Donat Spiteri, OFM Cap.
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