St Teresa’s Missionary College at Cospicua, Malta

compiled by Fr. Manny Schembri, O.C.D.

The Discalced Carmelite Friars arrived in Malta to make their first foundation in the year 1625. The entire Order was behind the founding-project. Malta, as a port of call, was perhaps unique at the dawn of the Teresian venture in the missionary field. St. Teresa’s love for the Church expressed in her contemplative lifestyle and missionary zeal, will be always linked to the island of Malta. It was here that St. Teresa’s Missionary College saw the light of day and many young promising missionaries received their initial formation in evangelization. Here it was where the first church ever dedicated to the Saint since her canonization opened its doors to those who found solace in her teaching and companionship in their spiritual journey.

Foresighted and shrewd as he was by temperament, Father Paul Simon of Jesus Mary, Superior General of the Order based in Italy, could not have missed the right assessment and prospects of Malta’s unique strategy at the centre of the Mediterranean Sea. The Venetian fleet, monopolizing as it did the sea routes, was bound to call from time to time on the Maltese Islands in order to replenish its ships with provisions and commercial cargo, as well as to load and unload passengers to and from the East. The Father General wasted little time for the establishment of a Missionary College in Malta. He and his General Council gave their go ahead by officially establishing the first O.C.D. community of Friars on December 18, 1624.

Fr. Joseph Angel of the Mother of God, a Spaniard, was commissioned to investigate the possibilities of realizing this missionary project, before taking up his new office as prior of the house at Palermo, in neighbouring Sicily. Fr. Theodosius of the Holy Spirit, a Frenchman, joined him in the endeavour and both embarked on a Venetian vessel and set sail to Malta, arriving at the end of 1625. On their landing they were met by none other than their acknowledged friend, His Grace Balthassar Cagliares, Maltese by nationality and Bishop of Malta. He offered the friars his warm hospitality, while they dealt with Grandmaster Antoine de Paul and his Knight’s Council regarding the proposed foundation.

After the initial set-backs and difficulties that accompany such an undertaking, Fr. Joseph Angel was happy to report to his Superiors in Rome about the positive outcome. Fr. Paul Simon, a seasoned missionary himself, could scarcely have overlooked the difficulties involved in the handling of this projected foundation. To cope with such, he wisely chose to involve as many influencing personalities at his disposal. He obtained the patronage of Pope Urbanus VIII and King Ferdinand III. Bishop Cagliares proved to be a life-long benefactor and bought at his own expense the site selected by the friars.

By now, the young Fr. Alexius of St. Angel, from Naples, together with the laybrother Joseph of the Immaculate Conception, from Rome, arrived on the ship Santa Maria and concluded the necessary negotiations of the community with the Knights of Malta, for Fr. Joseph Angel had proceeded to nearby Palermo. The date of purchase was November 11, 1625. Fr. Alexius, then Vicar of the community, was soon after elected as the first prior during the General Chapter of the Order held six months later. Temporary alterations to the building proceeded at such a swift pace that soon after their purchase, the friars moved in their new home within the area of the Grand Harbour in Bur Mula (later named Cospicua). It was a site that proved to be so conducive to the friars’ lifestyle and projected mission. On January 11, 1626 a first and provisional church dedicated to St Teresa was blessed by Bishop Cagliares.

More was yet to come. The Order and Rome itself kept a close eye on the project. The head of the Order in Rome solicited to have the Missionary College in Malta placed under its direct jurisdiction. This plan was fulfilled when the Order’s General Council, on March 1, 1633, granted the independence of the College from any religious Province of the Order. Its Rector was to be elected by the General Chapter. The hour had struck for the announcement of the official birthday of St. Teresa’s Missionary College. Urbanus VIII definitely consolidated such provisions by issuing the Bull, Decet nos, March 2, 1634. This document safeguarded the running of the missionary college for many years to come, and contributed in its own way to maintain the prestige of the international character of the house.

For over 150 years the house served its formation purposes through professors drafted from all the religious Provinces of the Reform of St. Teresa. Its tenor of life was duly checked and reinvigorated by pastoral visitations of General Superiors and Definitors. For the years 1636-1782, a number of 245 students hailing from different nations were recruited and trained for missionary purposes. Together with the courses of theology, particular attention was given to the studies of Oriental languages, such as Arabic, to facilitate communication for the future missionaries. Many more friars found a hospice in the house as they traveled to and from mission lands.

It was a thriving community and many a friar contributed to the prestige of the college and the good of the Order. Among them one may mention the Italian Balthassar of St. Catherine, the Frenchmen Isidor of St. Joseph and Dominic of the Trinity, the Belgian Dominic of St. Nicholas, the Dutch Caesar of St. Bonaventure and the Maltese friars Julius of the Holy Saviour, Joseph Mary of the Sacred Heart and Cyril of the Mother of God. To the first Maltese mentioned is due the onus et honora of the definite reconstruction of Mount Carmel, single-handedly obtaining the licence from the Emir of the land in 1825. Many years apart from each other, both the original claimant of the cradle of the Order Prospero of the Holy Spirit, and the later definite claimer of Mt Carmel Julius of the Holy Saviour, walked through the hallways of St. Teresa’s College.

Cyril of the Mother of God is reckoned as Father of the Maltese Province due to his untiring efforts and skills to gear the then dormant college into a potential province able to provide for its future. At the end of the 18th Century the provinces of the Order were disbanded due to the repercussions of the French Revolution throughout Europe. As Malta depended on recruits from abroad, with this source petering, the College could only die a natural death. However, every cloud has its silver lining. A reduced community survived with a different assignment. The house was eventually transformed into a regular novitiate, retaining its character to provide for the formation of the young Maltese who were called to embrace the Teresian way of life.

The house in Cospicua was established for the first time as a novitiate by the Congregation for the Discipline of Regulars in Rome, October 3, 1790. Yet provisional norms issued by the Order retained the Maltese recruits as members of foreign Provinces. Matters changed with the establishment of the Semi-Province of Malta in 1896 when a second house was opened in Birkirkara. Today the monastery retains its role as a house of formation for the young Maltese who join the Discalced Carmelite Order, in particular in their initial stages of postulancy and novitiate. The monastic walls of St. Teresa’s still evoke a thriving era of the past, yet within them a life of prayer, service to the Church, and missionary zeal remain the heart and best expression of every formation program.