In the year 1596, Senglea witnessed the building of a third church, this time at the far end of the peninsula. It was the Porto Salvo church. It was built on the initiative of Fr Vincenzo Caruana, Senglea’s second parish priest, who was very anxious to see this project accomplished so that parishioners who lived on ‘the height of the mill’ (as the area was known in those days) would be easily reached and assisted in their spiritual needs.
This new church was dedicated to Our Lady of Porto Salvo (the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Saint Elizabeth) a name which definitely means much to sailors, boatmen, and those who earned their living from the sea. In fact, a good number of local mariners contributed towards the building.
1662 marked the beginning of the Oratorians of St Philip Neri in Senglea. The first Provost (Superior) of the Oratorians was Fr Simon Schembri. The Oratorians of St Philip were not monks. They did not even take the monastic vows of poverty and obedience. They merely promised their obedience to the bishop, like diocesan priests. Nonetheless, they lived a community life dedicated mainly to prayer, study and the apostolate.
In 1669 a convent with a middle courtyard surrounded by an arcade in the form of a cloister, was built on the same ground. This is the same convent which we can see today. Whilst the convent was being built, the Oratorians decided to include a huge beautiful statue of their patron on the façade.
In 1670, they also demolished the old church and rebuilt it. The master mason of this new church was the Senglea-born Carlo Vella. This church was designed in the shape of a Latin cross. The four altars, all adorned by unique front elevations, placed in the main aisle were dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, St John the Baptist, St Leonard and St Michael. The main altar on the right transept was dedicated to St Philip Neri and that on the left was dedicated to St Andrew. Due to the plague (1675-1676), the construction lasted until almost 1690.
Towards the end of the 17th century, when the church was near completion, a large stone statue of the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus was placed in a central niche in the upper part of the church’s façade. This statue, facing the Grand Harbour, has always been coloured white and set against a blue background so that it would be clearly visible from afar. In fact, on entering or leaving the port, mariners used to pay their respects to the statue with the firing of petards, while the church’s bells tolled to acknowledge their salute.
The new church of Our Lady of Porto Salvo was consecrated by Bishop Vincenzo Labini on 22 April 1781.
It is adorned with interesting works of art. The main altarpiece is an impressive work by Stefano Erardi painted around 1690. Here, Our Lady of Porto Salvo is depicted pouring her blessings upon the Grand Harbour. In the painting, she is seen accompanied by four other saints: St Paul and St Agatha, patrons of Malta, and St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Elmo, protectors of mariners.
Between 1943 and 1957, while the Senglea parish church, destroyed by enemy action during World War II, was being rebuilt, the church of Porto Salvo served as Senglea’s parish church.
Once parochial duties were resumed in the parish church, the parish community sought to give a new meaning to the church of Porto Salvo.
In 1958, a community of Jesuits moved in and started to give pastoral assistance in the church, the parish, and the people of Senglea, especially those in the vicinity of the church. The church of Our Lady of Porto Salvo and St Philip’s convent were placed under their care. Since 20 October 2008, the Porto Salvo church and St Philip’s convent have been entrusted to a Salesian Community with Fr Victor Mangion SDB as the first Rector.
Since its arrival, the Salesian community has embarked upon a project for the improvement of the physical structure of the church, the better to serve youths and the local community.
© Text & Photo – Fabian Mangion