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Santa Marija: Explained

mosta dome

photo by josef awad

The feast (or festa) season on the Maltese Islands comes to a peak in mid-August, with the feast of Santa Marija, which takes place on the 15 of August.

Santa Marija, also known as the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady is one of the most popular feasts on the islands, as it’s celebrated in over eight different towns and villages, including Għaxaq, Gudja, Attard, Mosta, Mqabba, Qrendi, Birkirkara and Victoria in Gozo. Why are the celebrations for Santa Marija so widespread?

In essence, Santa Marija is the celebration of a miracle. Here’s why:

During World War II, the Maltese population was saved from starvation and provided with enough supplies to sustain the islands due to a food convoy, which arrived during the week of the feast day. The arrival of the convoy is seen by many to have been a great turning point of the war in the Mediterranean, as otherwise, the Maltese would have had no alternative but to surrender.

In August 1942, Operation Pedestal was mounted from the UK, with the aim of relieving Malta. The convoy was intercepted by the Axis, who deployed no less than 20 submarines, 19 motor torpedo boats and over 850 aircraft. They faced a gruelling five-day ordeal, which saw nine out of 14 merchant ships succumbing to the attacks.

Four of the ships that survived reached Malta between the 13 and 14 of August. However, there was no sign of the tanker named Ohio, which was filled with oil, fuel and kerosene supplies, which were vital for the Maltese to survive. In fact, the tanker was singled out from the start and faced vicious attacks and was found destroyed some kilometres off of Malta. The ship was bombed and holed, a series of fires were started and her boilers blew up and engines failed.

With their hope waning, the Maltese called on their faith and prayed, desperately, to Santa Marija for a miracle.

In spite of the attacks, the tanker did not sink and on 15 August, 1942, on the feast of Santa Marija, the Ohio, towed by two destroyers, Ledbury and Penn and a minesweeper, Rye, entered the Grand Harbour. As it entered, crowds cheered, waved British and American flags and sang along to Rule Britannia. Ohio discharged her cargo and as soon as the 10,000 tonnes of fuel oil and kerosene were extracted from the destroyed hull, the Ohio sank and rested on the seabed.

Believing that a miracle had occured, the ships became known as the convoy of Santa Marija and the devotion of the population to Santa Marija and the feast of her Assumption, became even more acute.

While the story is one that took place many years ago, celebrations of the historical feast became more and more prominent, with fireworks dominating the night skies, and religious processions, food stalls, horse races, bands and parades taking over the streets of many villages. Many Maltese families adorn their homes and churches are illuminated with lights, inside and out.

The impressive convoy is recorded in Malta’s National War Museum, where many items are on display, including photos of the 14 ships, a plan showing the route and the locations where the ships were sunk and the helm and nameboard of Ohio.