Malta is home to over 365 chapels and churches – one for every day of the year. Some of these are recent, but the majority are at least two-hundred years old. Places of worship range from small wayside chapels, to lavish parish churches and ornate cathedrals, such as those in Valletta and Mdina. Some of these churches and chapels are very old, with several contenders for the accolade of the oldest church or chapel in Malta. The older ones often have graffiti scrawled on the outer walls, a legacy left behind from the times of the Knights, and often images of galleys were carved into the soft globigerina limestone from which many Maltese buildings are made.
This maritime graffiti is thought to have been left by sailors about to embark on a trip on the high seas, and perhaps it was done to bring good luck for the impending journey – after all the Mediterranean was infested with corsairs and pirates back then. The oldest church in Malta is that of St Lawrence in Vittoriosa (Birgu). It’s widely believed that it was a donation from Count Roger the Norman, who visited Malta in 1090. The present building dates back to the 17th Century and was designed by the Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafa. The Knights of the Order of St John used the parish church of St Lawrence as their Convent Church, in the days before Valletta was built and became the capital city.
One of the older small chapels is that of Santa Marija ta’ Bir Miftuh, now situated in the limits of Gudja very close to Malta International Airport. It was built approximately in 1430 and is probably one of the best examples of a fifteenth Century parish church surviving on the islands today. Declared a parish in 1436 by Bishop Senatore de Mello, the chapel wasn’t located in a village centre but served as parish church to several outlying, more remote villages. Bir Miftuh remained the parish church for the area until 1676, when the parish church of Gudja was built. The chapel is now under the care of Din L’Art Helwa and is open on the first Sunday of every month from 9.30 am until 12 noon.