TA’ PINU – A TALE OF MIRACLES AND PILGRIMS ON GOZO
For a small island, Gozo has a lot of churches – some 46 in all, varying from small village chapels to magnificent structures that you can see from miles away.
One of the most famous churches on Gozo is The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu, which dominates the open countryside on the outskirts of Gharb – a village in the north west of the island.
This neo-Romanesque church, which soars to an impressive height of 61 metres (200 feet), was constructed between 1920 and 1931 on the site of an earlier 16th century chapel, parts of which can be found behind the present-day altar.
Ta’ Pinu holds an important and beloved place in the lives of Gozitans everywhere – even those living abroad. And each year hundreds of thousands of devoted Roman Catholics from all over the world make a special pilgrimage to Ta’ Pinu.
We interviewed the rector of Ta’ Pinu, Fr. Gerard Buhagiar to find out more about this special church, its special events, and the pilgrimages that are made.
The Karmni Grima miracle
Fr. Buhagiar has been rector of Ta’ Pinu since 2008. He explained that Ta’Pinu is central to the life of all Gozitans.
“The church has always been dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, even going back to the first chapel which dates back to 1545. But the tradition of devotional pilgrimages can be dated back to 22 June 1883, when a local woman called Karmini Grima was walking past the chapel, as it was then, and heard the voice of the Blessed Virgin Mary calling her to enter.
“Once in the church she a voice from the painting of the Blessed Virgin, which was in the chapel, asking her to recite three Hail Marys in honour of the three days that our Lady rested in the tomb before her assumption into heaven.
“She kept this spiritual experience a secret for a while but then found that a friend, Franġisk Portelli, had also experienced a call from the Blessed Virgin in the same place. Various miracles were reported over the years involving people recovering from terminal illness, including the mother of Grima’s friend, after prayers had been made to the Madonna Ta’ Pinu.
“The first pilgrims started coming in around 1919 and then the present basilica was constructed incorporating the original chapel, including the devotional painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
Continued importance of Ta’Pinu
Fr. Buhagiar also said that this image is so important to Gozitans that copies of the painting can be found in shrines in all the places that Maltese and Gozitan people have emigrated to over the years, including the United States, Australia, India, Europe, and even Peru. When visiting their homeland, these emigrants will make a point of visiting Ta’ Pinu to offer thanks for their safe journey.
“Many people come here to pray for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary when they have health or other problems, “ said Fr. Buhagiar. “Then many of these people return to Ta’ Pinu to give testimony to their prayers being answered. These votive offerings (ex-voto) can be seen decorating the walls of two rooms either side of the altar at Ta’ Pinu and include written stories, photos and various objects silver hearts.”
Another important aspect of Ta’ Pinu is the annual presentation of babies for baptism.
“On the first Saturday closest to 2nd February each year, the Bishop of Gozo conducts a beautiful ceremony. After the babies have been baptised the Bishop personally presents each child to the devotional painting of The Blessed Mother of Ta’ Pinu, and the parents pray to ask to the Mother of God to protect and love their children.”
Pilgrimages to Ta’ Pinu
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu is visited all year round by pilgrims from near and far. Fr. Buhagiar said that in 2016, just under 400,000 people visited the shrine – that’s an increase of 10% compared to the previous year.
There are two main annual devotions at Ta’ Pinu that attract pilgrims in large numbers.
“Our main feast is held on 15 August every year and we have a tradition called The 15 Wednesdays. This begins on the first Wednesday in May and continues until 15 August. Every Wednesday for 15 weeks there is a pilgrimage to Ta’ Pinu, which is open from 5.00am until 10.30pm,” said Fr. Buhagiar
“Many people will make the effort to come along on all 15 Wednesdays. And we usually expect around 2,000 people to attend the vigil mass in front of the church, which is held on 14 August.
“The other important devotion is The Feast of Our Lady of Ta’ Pinu. This is held on 22 June and marks the anniversary of the Karmni Grima miracle. On this day Ta’ Pinu opens at 4.00am and remains open until 11.00pm. The main celebration is a mass held at 9.00pm by the Bishop of Gozo.
“Many pilgrims to Ta’ Pinu also like to climb Għammar Hill, located opposite the church, stopping at the 14 statues made from Gozitan marble that represent The Way of the Cross.
“And in 2015 Ta’ Pinu inaugurated The Pilgrim’s Way – comprising five niches containing frescoes. The niches are placed on the final kilometre of the main road leading to Ta’ Pinu. Pilgrims can walk from one niche to another, stopping to meditate along the way.”
Things to see at Ta’ Pinu
While the size and architecture of Ta’ Pinu is certainly impressive, the church interior also has many attractions, including beautiful windows, sculptures, and mosaics. Ta’ Pinu is known as ‘The Oasis of Peace’ and offers a quiet and cool sanctuary from the outside world.
Fr. Buhagiar recommends visiting The Sanctuary Museum which houses paintings by two 20th century Maltese artists: Giuseppe Biffra and Emvin Cremona. You may also see the silver heart ex-voto containing a record of one of the first organised pilgrimages to the shrine in 1895.
You can also visit the Karmni Grima Museum located in her original farmhouse just 1 km from the church. Here you can get a feel for how people lived in rural Gozo in the 19th century and explore various artefacts related to Karmni Grima and Franġisk Portelli.
The museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday between 9.00am and 4.00pm and on Sunday from 9.00am to 12.30pm. Many people like to walk from the Karmni Grima Museum to Ta’ Pinu, retracing the route she took on the day of the miracle.
Ta’ Pinu is revered by all in the Catholic church and was honoured to receive its first papal visit on 26 May 1990. Pope John Paul II celebrated mass on the open space (known as the parvis) in front of the church to thousands of pilgrims, who had gathered there from the Maltese Islands and from around the world.
“During his visit, the pope decorated the famous painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary with five golden stars in the shape of a crown, to mark the devotion of the Maltese people to Our Lady,” said Fr. Buhagiar.
“On 18 April 2010, Pope Benedict XVI visited Malta but didn’t come across to Gozo. However, we took the miraculous painting of Our Lady over to Malta for this special occasion and the Pope placed a golden rose in front of the painting, and invited those gathered there to pray to her.
“The painting remained in Malta for a week so people could visit and worship there. A national pilgrimage then followed when we brought the painting back to Gozo. All the ships and boats in the Gozo Channel were full of people. The image was placed on a special truck and we stopped at each parish church we passed by, so parishioners could offer flowers and prayers.”
New mosaics for the Ta’ Pinu parvise
In June 2017, Ta’ Pinu will unveil a set of new mosaics which are being installed in the parvis in front of the church. The mosaics depict the Stations of the Cross and have been created by the internationally renowned artist Fr. Marco Rupnik, whose mosaic art can be seen in the Vatican, at Lourdes, and many other famous religious sites around the world.
“Even when the church is closed, many local people come to Ta’ Pinu in their cars to say a prayer in front of the church,“ says Fr. Buhagiar. “We hope that the new mosaics will not only help them to pray during the night when they come to the church, but will also inspire the many visitors and pilgrims who visit Ta’ Pinu.”
Other future plans
Fr. Buhagiar said that he has seen an increase over the last two years in the numbers of visitors to Ta’ Pinu from Poland and Slovenia. Many organised pilgrimages are also made from Italy, Ireland, Germany, and many English speaking countries.
To cater for this increased interest, Fr. Buhagiar said that Ta’ Pinu was planning to open a small retreat house for pilgrims. Other plans include establishing a new pilgrimage walk, perhaps from Mgarr in the south of Gozo to Ta’ Pinu, and the creation of a biblical garden on Għammar Hill, alongside The Way of the Cross.
“Many pilgrims and visitors suffer from hayfever,” he said. “So we are gradually replacing the acacia trees with trees and plants mentioned in the bible. When pilgrims walk up the hill and pass the stations of the cross, they will be able to reflect on the significance of the plants they see around them.”
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