It is a strange drive to San Dimitri Chapel. First you must make your way to Gharb, on Gozo`s westernmost tip; then, you must follow a narrow side road that winds past the large parish church into the countryside outside the town. Finally, as you leave the village of Gharb behind, you might get the first glimpse of it, a little chapel looking even smaller in the wide expanse of the countryside, somewhere between the Tal-Gordan Lighthouse on the one side and Ta` Pinu shrine on the other.
I parked my car and walked up the little steps at the back of the chapel to the beautiful parvis at the front. The old wooden door was open and I peered inside, through the bars of an inner iron gate. A candle burnt at the chapel entrance, suggesting that, despite its seclusion, the chapel is still visited often and that devotion for Saint Demetrius remains alive. The gate was locked, but allowed views of the chapel inside. The interior seemend dark compared to the afternoon sunshine outside, but I could make out the rows of chairs, a few paintings on the walls and a stone altar in its recesses. On top of this, some lettering read, “Saint Demetrius pray for us.” Underneath it was a painting of Saint Demetrius on a horse, red cloak fluttering and a miraculous cloud of angels and a central dove denoting his saintly status. Beside him, a woman stretched her hands towards a man in chains while, in the background, a galley was discernible.
I tore my eyes off the interior and walked around the parvis, taking in the countryside views, the setting afternoon sun and the rustling of the wind through the countryside, as it swept over the landscape, stirring legends and memories. San Dimitri Chapel is famous for its legends; the most well-known revolving around the painting on its altar. The woman shown with arms outstretched is none other than Zgugina, whose son was captured by Muslims who often descended on Gozo at the time, taking the population into slavery. Desperate, Zgugina ran to the chapel of San Dimitri and prayed for the return of her son, promising that she would burn an oil lamp in return. According to the legend, the figure in the painting stirred and Saint Demetrius rushed out, returning with Zgugina`s son Mattew. He then vanished, leaving a hoofmark in the rock surrounding the chapel.
Other legends rustle in the wind around the chapel. One relates how, years after Zgunina`s son was returned, an earthquake shook the ground on which it was built, dropping rock and chapel into the sea. However, the chapel remained intact and fishermen said they often saw a light emerging from the sea depths – the oild lamp Zgugina had promised San Demetrius.
Another story relates how a galley once anchored close to St. Demetrius` Cape, but its anchor got entangled and a sailor dived in to release it. When he took long to resurface, another one was sent in to save him and when they emerged, they related a story of a beautiful chapel at the bottom of the sea, with an oil lamp burning brightly inside it.
and shadows were beginning to vanish around the beautiful square, as parishioners hurried home from mass, while the old man sitting on the benches slowly started getting up to leave.
An elderly priest answered my knocking and led me inside. This was Rector Canon Achille Cauchi, who has been taking care of San Dimitri chapel for over 26 years. We sat down inside an old study, on a stool next to a beautiful old piano, the elderly priest on a chair opposite to me. Eventually he took out an old chest, full of old papers and pictures of the chapel.
“The stories that surrounded the chapel are not merely legends,” said Can. Cauchi, in the silence of his study, as the summer evening light waned. “They are based on historical fact. The method in which Zgugina`s son returned might now have become the fabric of legend, but Mattew`s return is based on historical fact and the legend forms an important part of Gozo`s historical material,” said the gentle elderly priest. “Legends are not born out of nothing; they emerge with the passing of time.”
Can. Cauchi sees to the chapel`s needs, lighting the candles, keeping it clean and celebrating the occasional mass, usually a baptism, funeral or wedding. He also sees the organization of the chapel`s feast, which is held at the end of this month.
The artist of the altar painting, which dates back to 1810, is not known, he says, but the painting was restores by the Gozitan artist Wistin Camilleri. The mosaic pavement was laid in 1935, and the walls were coated with mosaic in 1950. Other paintings represent St. Paul, St. Aristarchus, the Assumption and the Holy Face of Christ. The current chapel is the third to be built, he says. The first chapel, built by Dun Frangisk Depena early in the fifteenth century, collapsed and was desecrated in 1657. A second chapel was built but, with the passing of time, even this collapsed. Finally, in 1736 Dun Mario Vella caused a third chapel to be built over the remains of the previous one. The new chapel was blessed in 1809 by Gharb archpriest Dun Publius Refalo, on behalf of Archbishop Ferdinando Mattei.
But even the current chapel – which is surrounded by three firework factories – is now in need of restoration as its very high walls and ceiling are beginning to show signs of crumbling, says the priest sadly.
How was the devotion toward San Demetrius born in the Gozitan village of Gharb ? “Some say that it was introduced at the time Byzantines or that it was personal devotion – but it is still a mystery,” replies the elderly priest, dropping his voice in the evening silence.
A little later, I walk out of the old house into the village outside. The streets are almost empty now – only the trees rustle a little, shaken by the same wind blowing in the countryside around the chapel, stirring the legends and scattering them like leaves around the village.
Sandra Aquilina – GTA (Gozo Tourism Association)