The story behind the St Paul’s Shipwreck Church is one that is taught to Maltese children almost before they have started to walk. As legend has it, St Paul was on a ship headed to Rome, where he was set to undergo trial. The vessel encountered a big storm, and crew and prisoners wound up on a small island, reportedly one of the tiny isles just off Selmun that are now in fact called St Paul’s Islands. After a series of interactions with the inhabitants, St Paul converted them to Catholicism – and thus it was to be that Malta became Catholic.
So of course, it is only fitting that the capital city is home to the Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck, another of Valletta’s parishes. Aptly located in St Paul’s Street, the church was also – like the neighbouring St Dominic’s Church – designed by architect Girolamo Cassar in 1582.
Inside, it boasts magnificent marble interiors and a number of valuable artistic works, most notably a d’Aleccio altarpiece, paintings by Giuseppe Cali and the statue of St Paul itself, which was carved by Melchiorre Cafa. A rather more grim relic is also on view, for those who are not too impressionable – the right wrist-bone of the saint himself.
St Paul’s Shipwreck Church – the festivities
The feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck is celebrated on February 10, which is also a public holiday in Malta. This is the first outdoor feast to be celebrated throughout the calendar year, as the bulk of religious feasts are celebrated in the warmer months. However, devotees from all over Malta still turn up unfailingly, even in the cold February weather. Because of the significance of the saint, the celebrations tend to be of a more solemn nature than those of other feasts. But St Paul’s Street itself becomes a sight to behold, with all balconies and homes decked out in banners and festoons, and the bars and restaurants in the area also joining in.