Early in the morning of Saturday 29th September 2012, feast day of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, Fr. Ġorġ Aquilina ofm passed away at the Franciscan friary of Saint Mary of Jesus (Ta’ Ġieżu) in Valletta. He was 73 years old.
Marjanu Aquilina was born in Qormi on 18th July 1939, the son of Joseph and Rosaria Saliba. He received his education at the Government schools and at the College run by the Franciscan Friars at “Ta’ Gliex”, close to Saint Anthony’s friary in Għajnsielem, Gozo. As a teenager he was at home at the Franciscan Friary of Ta’ Ġieżu in Valletta, where he received his Franciscan calling. He entered the Novitiate house at Saint Anthony’s friary on 9th October 1955, changing his name to Ġorġ, out of his devotion to the patron saint of his parish in Qormi. He made his first Temporary Profession on 14th October 1956 and his Solemn Profession on 31st July 1960. He studied philosophy and theology in the Franciscan friaries of Ta’ Ġieżu in Rabat and Valletta. On 14th March 1964 he was ordained priest.
After his priestly ordination Fr. Ġorġ was sent for higher studies at the Pontificio Ateneo Antonianum in Rome (nowadays the Università Pontificia Antonianum), where he specialised in Ecclesiastical History acquiring a doctoral degree after defending his thesis on the Franciscan Minister General, Marco da Viterbo, entitled: Marco da Viterbo [1304-1369]. Volume 47 di Studi e Testi Francescani, Roma 1971. In Rome he also attended the Diploma course at the Scuola Vaticana di Paleografia Diplomatica e Archivistica.
Back in the Maltese Franciscan Province Fr. Ġorġ Aquilina took over the work of the late Maltese Franciscan historian Fr. Ġorġ Xerri (†1942). He lectured Church History to the Franciscan students of the Province and became Provincial Librarian and Archivist, a post he was to hold until his death. For many years Fr. Ġorġ was also the Chronicler of the Maltese Franciscan Province. During his long years as Librarian and Archivist he revamped the Provincial Library of the Maltese Province, housing it in a more spacious environment on the floor above the south aisle of Saint Mary of Jesus Church in Valletta, overlooking Grand Harbour. He also moved the Provincial Archives from the cramped space they occupied in the Provincial Curia to the premises of the old theological seminary. He took care of the microfilming and cataloguing of the entire archive.
In the Maltese Franciscan Province Fr. Ġorġ was also Provincial Secretary (1973-1978) and Provincial Vicar (1990-1996). He also promoted and supported the building of the Church and Friary of Saint Mary of the Angels in Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq. His love for Franciscan life and studies, which he communicated with love and care to younger friars, was also mixed with a sense of enthusiasm for fresh initiatives in Franciscan life, which the Maltese Franciscan Province undertook particularly during the period 1982-1996. Fr. Ġorġ stood up to defend what he truly believed in, even though, like many other learned and enthusiastic Franciscans before him in the history of the Order, he was sometimes misunderstood and misjudged. For those who knew him well, his loud voice, in years gone by, was only the cry of a heart yearning for renewal and seriousness in concrete choices regarding Franciscan values in the field of study and care for the artistic and historical patrimony of the Province.
The long years of research as a historian at the Archives of the Order of St. John in the National Library at Valletta, at the Cathedral Museum in Mdina, at the Notarial Archives, and at many other archives in Malta and abroad, particularly the Archivio Segreto Vaticano, and the Archivio di Stato in Palermo as well as in other towns in Sicily, were the basis of many publications of local and international renown regarding the history of the Order of the Knights of St. John, and the history of the Franciscan Order in Malta and Sicily.
Whoever knows Ġorġ Aquilina in our Franciscan friary of Saint Mary of Jesus (Ta’ Ġieżu) in Valletta, knows him as a laborious historian, always studying old documents in the Provincial library and archives, or in the National Library, the Notarial Archives, the Monastery of St. Ursola, where he has been chaplain of the nuns for about 35 years. Ġorġ Aquilina has made extensive research in the State Archives in Palermo, Rome and other Italian towns, as well as in the Secret Archives of the Vatican. It was in the Vatican that he discovered important documents shedding light on the arrival of the Friars Minor in our islands towards the end of the 15th century. With the collaboration of other eminent historians, like Prof. Fiorini, Ġorġ Aquilina published the earliest documented history of Franciscan presence in Malta, particularly with reference to the friary of Saint Mary of Jesus in Rabat. This monumental work was published through the encouragement of Fr. Raymond Camilleri ofm, founder of the Maltese Franciscan publishing house, Edizzjoni TAU. The last work that he published, and which can be said to be the synthesis of his life’s dedication to historical research, was the complete history of the Maltese OFM Friars, ever since the foundation of the first friary in Rabat in 1482 till more recent times during the Second Vatican Council. The voluminous work covers 483 years of history of Franciscan life in Malta. It was published in 2011. Another work regarding the history of the Franciscan church and friary of Ta’ Ġieżu in Valletta was next in line on the author’s desk. Unfortunately he did not conclude it in time.
For many years, Fr. Ġorġ Aquilina ministered to many Franciscan sisters, particularly to the Congregation of the Franciscan Sisters of the Heart of Jesus and to the Franciscan Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. He was instrumental in the canonical process of the Servant of God Madre Margherita Debrincat, foundress of the Franciscan Sisters of the Heart of Jesus. As vice-postulator in the canonical process of Beatification of Nazju Falzon, Fr. Ġorġ worked tirelessly to see that this Tertiary cleric who was buried in the Franciscan church of Valletta be promoted to beatification, as indeed happened in Pope John Paul II’s pastoral visit to Malta in 2001.
For 35 years, as we have said, Fr. Ġorġ has been chaplain to the Nuns of the Monastery of St. Ursola in Valletta. Every morning at 6 am he would celebrate Mass for the Jerosolymitan Cloistered Nuns. For them Patri Ġorġ, “il-Kappillan”, as they affectionately called him, was more than a chaplain. He took care to plead with the highest authorities of the Order of the Knights of St. John in Rome to officially recognise the Nuns of St. Ursola as part of the Jerosolymitan Order. He worked hard to raise funds and sensibilise local associations for the restoration of the 17th century monastery. The publication on the history of the Jerosolymitan Nuns saw three editions in Maltese, Italian and English, with a presentation by the Grand Master of the Order of Malta Fra Andrew Bertie (†2008). Through his close collaboration and friendship with the Order of Malta and with the local authorities Fr. Ġorġ managed to bring to the monastery the relics of Blessed Gerard, founder of the Jerosolymitan Order, where they are now venerated. For his services to the Jerosolymitan Order Fr. Ġorġ was decorated with the title of Magistral Chaplain of the Order. His last contribution to the monastery church was the placing of an old artistic marble altar that used to belong to the Church of St. Alphonse of the Discalced Carmelites in Birkirkara. Fr. Ġorġ was earnestly preparing for the solemn celebration of the blessing of the new altar on the occasion of the feast of Saint Ursola on 21st October. He did not live to see this joyful event. Patri Ġorġ died just as he was preparing himself to go to say Mass at St. Ursola’s Monastery, as he used to do every morning. To the very end he meticulously carried out his religious duties. May the merciful God reward him for his faithfulness to his Franciscan calling.
The following is the list of the most important among the publications of Fr. Ġorġ Aquilina during his long years as a leading Maltese historian:
• Marco da Viterbo (1304-1369 Ministro Generale dei Frati Minori, Cardinale e Nunzio Apostolico, Roma 1971.
• L-Ispiritwalità Franġiskana, Edizzjoni TAU, Malta 1982.
• The Maltese Franciscans and Marian Devotions in the 17th. and 18th. Centuries, in Marian Devotion in the Islands of St Paul, (V. Borg, ed.) Malta 1983.
• Il-Moviment Franġiskan, Edizzjoni TAU, Malta 1984.
• Il-Ġimgħa l-Kbira tal-Belt, Edizzjoni TAU, Malta 1986
• Una Devozione Nazionale a Malta per il Crocefisso di Frate Umile, in Frate Umile da Petralia, (Atti del Convegno, Mojo Alcantara 20/21- XI- 1985, S. Agati-S. Nibali, edd.), Catania 1987, 81-88.
• Catalogue of the Records of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, Vol. II, Part 8, Malta 1991. Les Hospitaliers à Malte (1530-1798), in L’Ordre de Malte dans les Pays-Bas Méridionaux (XIIe-XVIIIe Siécles), (in French an in Flemish)1993, 31-40.
• The Carmelites, the Oratorians and the Nuns in Birgu, in Birgu the Maritime City, (L. Bugeja, et al., edd.), Malta 1993.
• The Origin of Franciscanism in Late Medieval Malta, in conjunction with S. Fiorini, Malta 1994.
• New Documents relating to the Origins of Religious Orders in Malta, in Proceedings of History Week 1994, The Maltese Historical Society 1996, 1-23 (in conjunction with S. Fiorini).
• Organs and Organ-Builders in 17th. to 19th. Century Malta, in Old Oragns in Malta and Gozo. A collection of studies, (H. Agius-L. Buono, edd.), Malta 1999, 133-168.
• Il-Franġiskani f’Għajnsielem. Il-Knisja u l-Kunvent ta’ S. Antnin, 100 sena ta’ storja, Malta 2000.
• Il-Qaddejja ta’ Alla Madre Margerita De Brincat: Evanġelizzatriċi ta’ l-Imħabba, (in Maltese, English, Italian), Malta 2000.
• Documentary Sources of Maltese History, Part IV, Documents at the Vatican, Visita Apostolica di Mons. P. Dusina, (in conjunction with S. Fiorini), Malta 2001.
• San Ġorġ Martri ta’ Kristu. Tagħrif storiku, Malta 2003.
• San Giorgio, il Santo della Palestina, in San Giorgio e il Mediterraneo, (Atti del II Colloquio internazionale per il XVII Centenario, Roma, 28-30 nov. 2003, G. de’ Giovanni-Centelles ed.), Citta’ del Vaticano 2004, 21-40.
• Is-Sorijiet Ġerosolimitani: Il-Knisja u l-Monasteru ta’ Sant’Ursola, Valletta, Malta 2004 (translated in Italian 2005 and in English 2008).
• Documentary Sources of Maltese History, Part IV, Documents at the Vatican, Cancelleria Apostolica and related sources at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 417-1479, (in conjunction with S. Fiorini), Malta 2005.
• The full clause explaining the “et coetera” abbreviation in two manuscripts of the National Library of Malta, Malta 2005.
• Fra Diego Bonanno OFM. Franġiskan li ħaseb fil-fqir, Malta 2006.
• Le Arti Figurative nelle relazioni conventuali tra Sicilia e Malta, in Sicilia e Malta Le Isole del Grand Tour, (R. Bondin – F. Pantano, edd.), Malta 2007, 125-133.
• Malta e il Conte Ruggero. La Liturgia dopo la Conquista Normanna per un nuovo Status Quaestionis, in Ruggero I Gran Conte di Sicilia 1101-2001, (Atti del Congresso internazionale di studi per il IX Centenario, Troina 29 sett.- 2 Dic. 2001, G. de’ Giovanni-Centelles, ed.), Roma 2007, 25-33.
• Il-Franġiskani Maltin (Ta’ Ġieżu)1482c-1965c (sal-Koncilju Vatikan II), Midsea Books Ltd., Malta 2011.
Fr. Noel Muscat ofm
Jerusalem, 30th September 2012