Queen Adelaide, widow of British King William IV, spent the winter of 1838-39 in Malta and found it had no church that conducted worship in the Anglican tradition. She offered to pay for one. At that time Malta was under British rule, so the government provided a site and Queen Adelaide laid the foundation stone on 20 March 1839. The church was named in honour of St Paul, the first missionary to Malta, who was shipwrecked on the island in AD 59-60. Externally the neo-classical cathedral matches the surrounding city architecture. Internally the building is a spacious oblong box, not enormous but looking bigger than it really is because it is so high, and enhanced by pillars topped by Corinthian capitals. Most of the windows are plain glass. The altar is backed by oak panelling on which are listed all the Navy, Army and Air Force units that served in Malta during World War II. Above this hangs a large picture of the Crucifixion. Above the altar on the left hang the organ pipes, and below them the Royal Arms of Queen Adelaide. The screen separating nave from choir includes a stone pulpit and wooden lectern, the latter a memorial to Sir Winston Churchill. The cathedral also has a massive undercroft, which featured at the end of the service.
Anglicans worship in three different locations across the Maltese islands: St Paul’s Pro-Cathedral in Valletta, Holy Trinity Church in Sliema, and the congregation of Our Lady and St George in Victoria, Gozo. There is a branch of the Mothers Union and an international group of Friends of St Pauls Pro-Cathedral Valletta, which was founded in 1968. The "First Friend" on the Roll is HRH Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who attended the recent annual Friends reunion celebrations. There is one mass each Sunday at the cathedral, plus a Monday mass and morning prayer on the other weekdays. The cathedral is open during the week to all seeking a quiet place for prayer and meditation, and greeters are on hand at all times to welcome visitors. They appear very much attuned to the ecumenical spirit, as their website requests prayers for Pope Francis and has links to the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Malta and Gozo.
Valletta is the capital of Malta. Three islands constitute the Maltese archipelago, which lies at the mid-point of the Mediterranean, 93 km south of Sicily and 288 km north of Africa. Malta is the name of the largest of the three islands as well as of the whole country. Malta has a long history of human habitation, and was ruled by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs before becoming part of the Kingdom of Sicily toward the end of the 11th century. In 1530 the Maltese islands were given to the Order of St John after it had lost its base in Rhodes. In 1798 the French under Napoleon briefly occupied Malta before being ousted by the Maltese. In 1800, the British took control. Malta became a self-governing nation in 1964.
The Revd Canon Simon Godfrey, cathedral chancellor, led the worship, though he did not have much to do apart from welcome the congregation and lead prayers. The St Paul Choral Society, directed by Dr Hugo Agius Muscat, sang carols and led congregational singing. Elizabeth Conrad, organist for the St Paul Organ Society, presided at the cathedral's organ (about which more below). There were, inevitably, nine readers: Clive Bennington, Nicky Petit, Lino Camilleri, Gita Furber de la Fuente, Nicholas de Piro, Jean Kingsley, Simon Walker, Michael Frendo and Jon Knight.
What was the name of the service?A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
How full was the building?
Packed almost to capacity, including extensive extra seating at the back of the nave. There were a few spaces in side aisles, but there must have been well over 300 people present.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A charming lady welcomed us with a warm smile, saying "Good evening" as she handed over service booklets. Several people (complete strangers) introduced themselves as we sat in our pew.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. A padded cushion ran the whole length of the pew, and the pew was at a good height with a supportive back.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Jolly. The congregation were not large when we arrived but grew rapidly. Everyone seemed to want to chat to all their friends. There was a sense it was a special occasion.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Once in Royal David's City," sung solo by a member of the choir at the back of the cathedral, before they processed in. The first spoken words launched the bidding prayer: "Beloved in Christ, be it at this Christmastide our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels ..."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A specially printed service booklet.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. The cathedral's organ was originally located in Chester Cathedral; it is reputed to have been played by George Frideric Handel as he was en route to Dublin in 1742 for the premiere performance of his new oratorio, The Messiah. Rebuilt by the London firm of Gray and Davison in 1844 and again in 1886, and by Orgelbau Goll of Lucerne, Switzerland in 1905, it was extensively renovated in 1949 by the London firm of William Hill & Son & Norman & Beard Ltd. An appeal for funds to enable much needed repairs has resulted in the organ's being newly renovated.
Did anything distract you?
A family a couple of pews behind allowed their children to whisper or mutter throughout the service. Very distracting during both music and readings. And the children were old enough to know better!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A dignified service, well ordered, to a traditional pattern (which was explained on the opening page of the service booklet).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
No sermon. The message was all in the readings.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir were good: well trained and singing with conviction. It was a particular pleasure to hear some new carols (two sung in Maltese, both of them arranged for the choir by its director). One of these was so popular with the congregation that some people hummed along appreciatively, so perhaps they were enjoying a heavenly foretaste too.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, those children were distracting. And some of the congregational carols could have done with a bit more support from the congregation, which was often very tentative. However, this was entirely understandable when we got to "Unto Us a Boy is Born," as the choir were clearly singing a completely different version of the words to those printed in the service booklet. Most of the congregation gave up the struggle to follow and just stood listening.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The entire congregation were invited to post-service refreshments in the undercroft, and when a congregation of that size starts moving, it sweeps all before it. We went with the flow, chatting about the service to people around us as we went.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Mulled wine and mince pies. There was a modest charge of €2 but after that one could help oneself to as much as one wished. There were heaped platters of mince pies and apparently endless glasses of mulled wine. The party was still going on when we left.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – This was such a welcoming place, and so many people had obviously been involved in preparing the refreshments. Its clear this is a community with a generous spirit. However, this was a special service. We might want to check out a normal Sunday before making a final decision.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The music and the friendly welcome from everyone. It was well-prepared worship and a party celebrating the real meaning of Christmas. Unbeatable!