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St. Joseph's Church

Ref: HLBP1/030

St. Joseph’s Church is a parish church that serves the Catholic community in the South District. The church was built in 1863 by Bishop Canilla, Vicar Apostolic of Gibraltar on land donated by merchant and landowner Antonio Mateos initially to serve the mainly Maltese community which had settled in the area.

There had been a number of important chapels and shrines in the southern part of Gibraltar prior to 1704. One of these, the Church of San Juan el Verde, stood at the bottom of Witham’s Road, some 250m from the present St. Joseph’s Church. According to Portillo, this early 16th Century Church had its own peculiar links with Malta … de la encomienda de los Caballeros de San Juan del hospital, que ahora dicen de Malta...1In other words, the church of San Juan el Verde was run, and received the protection of the Knights of Malta.

During the 16th and 17th century, the Order of the Knights of Malta had, in addition to the establishment of hospitals, also offered their services to the protection of Christian merchant shipping in the Mediterranean and the freeing of Christian slaves captured by the Barbary corsairs. In Gibraltar, the Order was known as the Real y Militar Orden de Nuestra Señora de la Merced Redención de Cautivos. In England this Order was simply known as the Mercedarians. It is probable the Mercedarians established themselves in Gibraltar following the Turkish Corsair raid of 1540 which ransacked the city and took a number of captives.

Knight of Malta emblem.

1608 - San Juan el Verde Capitan Cristóbal Rojas (detail).

The chapel of San Juan el Verde overlooked the small cove known as la Ensenada de San Juan el Verde. This small cove stood in the natural curve of the bay where North Jumper’s Bastion and Cumberland stands today and was used to beach and repair the galleys of the Strait’s squadron which in the early 17th Century was led by Admiral Roque Centeno. Naval galleys flying under the flag of the Knights of Malta may well have been part of this squadron.

In addition to their defensive responsibilities the Knights also took care of the religious affairs of the pilgrims who followed the Stations of the Cross erected at various points in the south and starting at the area of the Red Sands. These crosses appear on Bravo de Acuña’s 1627 plan and culminated in a Calvary, which according to Portillo, was set up in honour Admiral Roque Centeno commander of the Spanish squadron charged with the defence of the Straits of Gibraltar:2

Y cerca de esta ermita (San Juan el Verde) se ha hecho un calvario con muchas cruces, estaciones y pasos en memoria de los que Cristo anduvo por nuestra salvación obrada por la devoción y limosna del Almirante Roque Centeno que lo fue de la armada del Estrecho de que fue General Don Francisco Tarando y fue esto por el año 1623.

Kenyon, without evidence identifies the Cavalry as being on the site of present day Mount:

the commencement being at red sands and the termination at “The Mount” where there was a chapel which together with the fourteen crosses, was under the care of the Knights of Malta who occupied San Juan el Verde

No map or historical record suggests such a chapel was ever built at the actual site of the Mount. However, two possible contenders for the chapel which oversaw the Calvary of Many Crosses (Calvario de Muchas Cruces) stood directly below, or to the South of the area of The Mount.3

1627 - Luis Bravo de Acuña - Area of Rosia showing the religious houses and Stations of the Cross on route to the Shrine of Our Lady of Europa further South.

Felipe Crame map dated 1762, detail.

The first, the hermitage of Nuestra Señora del Rocio from which it is believed Rosia Bay derives its name stood somewhere on, or very near the area of Mount Pleasant being shown as located immediately behind South Barracks according to the Felipe Crame map of 1762. The second contender is another small Chapel further up the Road and known as el Cristo. This chapel, which still exists today stands very close to the present area of the Mount and would be a much better location to erect the Cavalry.

According to Bravo de Acuña’s map the Stations of the Cross began at the Red Sands, passing the Church of San Juan el Verde before climbing up the steep hill now known as Witham’s Road passing the site of the present day St. Joseph’s heading towards the small hermitage of Nuestra Señora del Rocio.

Continuing towards the south along the rear of South Barracks the path led to yet another hermitage known as the Ermita de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, a small hospital for mariners overlooking Camp Bay which during the Spanish period was known as the Cala de los Remedios. The British later demolished the hermitage in 1733 to build the Navy Hospital.

This path would then climb up the steep hill to reach a junction with Europa Road at whose intersection a third hermitage could be found as already mentioned - The Chapel of Christ. This building still stands just above the crossroad between Europa Road and Naval Hospital Hill and was probably the location of the Cavalry mentioned by Portillo.

Europa Road was yet another pilgrimage route which led to the Shrine of Our Lady of Europe, a former medieval mosque converted into a Christian shrine on the southernmost tip of the Rock. The Chapel of Christ was therefore where both pilgrim routes converged and pilgrims who followed the Stations of the Cross could either finish at the Cavalry here or continue their pilgrimage towards the South.

This then was the religious sites in the southern part of the Rock before 1704.

Depiction of Diego de Salinas leaving Gibraltar in 1704. Artist unknown.

For the next one hundred years, much of the southern part of the Rock remained sparsely populated. Apart from South Barracks and the Naval Hospital, the area of Rosia consisted mainly of cultivated gardens and orchards, the most notable of which, known as the Vineyards, belonged to a Genoese gardener by the name of George Picardo. 

In the early 1800’s, however, the strategic shift from military garrison to a naval base of operations resulted in the expansion of the dockyard facilities, the creation of an arsenal in the area of Cumberland and construction of the Victualling Yard at Rosia. A number of foreign workers were subsequently employed in these works and the Government facilitated dwellings to accommodate these workers near the dockyard. A 1799 Map of Gibraltar by Barbie de Bocage shows a number of dwellings in the higher ground between what is now North and South Pavilion Road.

1799 - Barbie du Bocage Jean Denis Hardy showing the area of Rosia (detail).

In 1816, as a consequence of the increasing population in the area, a small chapel was established at Rosia Steps in a small room where a chaplain had taken up residence. This chapel measuring 10m in length by approximately 2.5m in width gave practising Catholics the opportunity of celebrate Holy Mass and attended to the spiritual needs of the residents. However, St. John’s Chapel, as this chapel came to be known, was not conferred with any Parish rights: until 1885, St. Mary the Crowned was the only recognised Parish Church in Gibraltar.4 Nevertheless, it is recorded that in 1834, a certain Father Nicolás was being paid $15 (Spanish) a month by the Junta of Elders for taking on the Chaplaincy of Europa. They would not pay him extra for the increased efforts he would make during Lent or any other such exercises.5

In 1841, the Methodists established a new Mission and school in the South District which was in addition to the regimental school already in the area. To counter this Methodist advance, the Rt. Rev. Fray Henry Hughes, Vicar Apostolic and Titular Bishop of Heliopolis using his own private funds obtained a short lease from the Government renting the premises beneath St. John’s Chapel which he converted into the first Catholic school for boys and girls in the South District.6

Despite his efforts, the Catholic Mission in the South District was less than adequate and Rev. Hughes spent many years trying to obtain grounds to build a new church and school for his congregation. Divine providence intervened when Gabriel Femenías heard about a plot of rocky land in the South which had recently been granted by the authorities to a Spanish businessman by the name of Antonio Mateos, his employer. On this piece of ground, Mateos had built himself a house with gardens and an orchard.7

1830's Piaget et Lailavoix Rosia & Scud Hill. Much of the area of Scud Hill was waste ground.

In 1854, Gabriel Femenías, the son of a hotel owner at Rosia Parade, approached Bishop Hughes intimated that his employer, Antonio Mateos, would be open to the idea of transferring ownership of the site in order to build a church to attend to the necessities of the faithful in the South District. Femenías had by then already laid down much of the groundwork and finally approached Bishop Hughes after being told by Antonio Mateos ‘Go just now to His Lordship and tell him that I make a present of the said piece of ground.8

Work on the new church began using voluntary labour under the patronage of St. Joseph. It is not clear why it was St. Joseph rather than St. John, heavily associated with the south, which ultimately prevailed when it came to naming the new church. However, even as the building was being constructed, Rev. Hughes – a controversial figure in Gibraltar – retired to his convent in Megford, Ireland. He died on the12th October 1860, aged 72.

Antonio Mateos owner of the land donated for the building of St. Joseph's Church.

Fray Henry Hughes Vicar Apostolic and Titular Bishop of Heliopolis.

Hughes’s successor was Dr. Juan Bautista Scandella, Titular Bishop of Antinoë, a native son of Gibraltar who had been a student at the Institute of Propaganda Fide in Rome. Even under his direction, construction of the new church progressed slowly, often hampered by a severe lack of funds. In the meantime, Scandella wasted no time in appointing Fr. Gabriel Femenías, who had been ordained into the priesthood in 1860, as the new pastor to the church. That same year, the first services began to be held despite the fact that work on the building was far from being completed. It would take another three years, thanks Fr. Femenías appeals to both public and private subscription, before St. Joseph’s Church was finally completed. In October of that same year (1863), Fr. Femenías was proclaimed rector of St. Joseph’s Church.

1870 - John Baptist Scandella, Vicar Apostolic of Gibraltar

1861 - View from Sand Pits by Benjamin Bowling. Despite appearing finished it would take another two years before the Church was completed.

St. Joseph’s Church included a crypt and outhouses which was converted into two schools – one for boys and the other for girls with a large patio, also divided, to serve as school playgrounds. This school was in addition to another school established in 1858 in an old barracks building in New Mole Parade, opposite the Dockyard South Gate. This was a higher educational establishment known as St. Bernard’s College which offered secondary education to young men. This college would transfer five years to another building in Europa Main Road9, on grounds presently occupied by Mount Alvernia. Scandella had also purchased the extensive grounds beneath the college which consisted of a house, gardens, orchard and two large storehouses which he converted into a convent and school for girls – today’s Loreto Convent.

Until then, most Catholic children were educated in either Methodist or Protestant schools and continued to do so even after the creation of these, and other, Catholic schools. However, a very public spat between Dr. Macauliffe, Scandella’s secretary, and the Anglican Civil Chaplain, the Venerable Archdeacon Sleeman over the education of Catholic children in Anglican schools in 1865 resulted in Dr. Scandella issuing a Sacred Edict in which he forbade Catholic parents to send their children to Protestant schools. This pressure forced many parents to withdraw their children from these schools10 with those in the South District being enrolled in the new St. Joseph’s school run by Mother Scholastica Taylor.

In 1873, Mother Agnes Fitzgerald, a trained National School teacher, arrived in Gibraltar and joined Mother Scholastica Taylor at St Joseph’s. A small piece of the extra classroom given to the nuns by Father Femenías was boarded off to make a place in which the Sisters could at last take their lunch instead of fasting from breakfast until school broke up for the day. Father Femenías also gave them a small patio which the girls could use as a playground.

1873 was also the year that the Christian Brothers arrived in Gibraltar for the second time. Two years later Brother Virgilius Jones took over the teaching of the boys at St Joseph’s, while Mother Scholastica continued teaching the girls there, now with Mother Agnes, until 1879.11

Nevertheless, the early years in the life of the new church were defined by its Spartan surroundings. The church furniture consisted of three provisional altars, a Holy Cross of Christ, two small images of Our Lord and a dozen small benches for benefit of the congregation.12

St. Joseph's Church by Samuel Buckle, 1879.

In 1864, the beautifully restored statue of Our Lady of Europe, carved in wood and poly-chromed in royal red, blue and gold and standing at nearly two feet tall was returned to Gibraltar from Algeciras thanks to the unceasing efforts of John Baptist Scandella the Vicar Apostolic of Gibraltar and the beneficence of the Romero family in Algeciras under whose custody the statue had been entrusted since 1704.

The statue initially resided at the Loreto Sisters Quarters behind the Convent Guard House (now 6 Convent Place) but on the 17th May 1866 it was conveyed in solemn procession to the new Chapel at St. Bernard’s Convent at the Little Sisters of the Poor (now Mount Alvernia). It was installed above a marble altar and cupola donated by Pius IX himself and carried inscribed at the centre of the altar face a florid M, for Maria, superimposed by a cross. This symbol was later to be used on flag days in aid of the Shrine Restoration Fund.13 To the left of the altar were inscribed the armorial arms of His Holiness the Pope and to the right, that of Bishop Scandella. In doing so, Scandella kept his promise made during the Cholera outbreak of 1865 of transferring the statue of Our Lady of Europe to this new chapel once the epidemic had been contained.

Our Lady of Europe on the altar at St Bernard's Chapel (Mount Alvernia).

In 1867, Mgr. Femenías engaged all his resources in a second phase of construction which included replacing the metal sheet roof of the church, which although recently erected, was by then no longer serviceable. In that same year, the church’s distinctive rounded belfry was finally completed and a wooden High Altar was constructed - blessed by His Lordship the Bishop. This carved altar would be greatly modified during the years. Other additions to the church included a balustrade that also served as a communion rail, large lamp was placed above the sanctuary and a pulpit made of metal and bronze was erected with all its accessories. To pay for all the above, a loan was obtained via the Mashick Bros Trading Company, a Protestant family based in London. It took twelve years to pay off this loan.

 The following year, Bishop Scandella founded the diocese’s first ecclesiastical bulletin appointing the Rector of St. Joseph’s Church, Mgr. Femenías as its first editor and communicated to the general public through a letter published in the Gibraltar Chronicle on the 24th June. The bulletin would eventually cease publication as a result of a lack of resources.

Mgr. Femenías depended heavily on the generosity of benefactors to embellish many of the main ornamental features of the church. In 1871, thanks to the extreme generosity of Messrs. Juan Carlos and Martin Larios, sons of Pablo Larios (the elder) and brothers to Pablo Larios (of City Hall and Calpe Hunt fame) donated the two marble altars on either side of the High Altar. Martin Larios dedicated one altar to the memory of his late wife, Doña Aurelia Larios who had been an ardent devotee of the cult of St. Joseph.

Left hand side marble altar donated by the Larios family 1871.

Right hand side marble altar donated by the Larios family 1871.

Another religious devotee who would dedicate her entire life to St. Joseph’s Church was Sor Magdalena Lugaro, known for her fervent devotion to the Sacred Sacrament and to Our Lady since her childhood. Sor Magdalena’s association with St. Joseph’s Church began in 1873 at around the age of twenty-three and her influence on this church in particular was so profound that on the 6th September 1884, Bishop Canilla granted her special permission to wear the habit of the Third Order of St. Francis (today known as the Secular Franciscan Order) and to found her own secular fraternity. Other devout women soon joined Sor Magdalena’s Order and assisted her in running St. Joseph’s lower schools and in the cleaning and maintenance of St Joseph’s Church. However, only Sor Magdalena wore the Third Order of St. Francis’s religious habit and this peculiarity would prove controversial years later when Bishop Bellord thought it bizarre that a non-canonical institution with only one member should be allowed to continue. Sor Magdalena, a strong and independent woman stood her ground and supported by her authorisation letter (now in the St. Joseph’s Church archives) refused to concede her exceptionally endorsed privilege to the extent that the Bishop sent an ultimatum to the parishioners of the South District that he would resign if she continued to wear the habit. This appears to have been met with short-thrift as far as the congregation of St. Joseph’s was concerned for shortly after, in 1901, Bishop Bellord tended his resignation. 

The influence and extraordinary work carried out by the sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis and Sor Magdalena in particular cannot be underestimated and was manifested in the formation of a number of choirs of almost 100 youngsters all of which Sor Magdalena zealously presided. Sor Magdalena also became responsible for the religious instruction and the preparations to receive the Sacred Sacraments, the Holy Communion and Confirmation of all the Catholic children in the parish. Also notable were her tireless efforts to provide charitable relief to the more destitute parishioners in the parish. As superintendent of St. Joseph’s Church Sor Magdalena refused to draw on her monthly allowance to which she was entitled. Her residence at 23 Witham’s Road was just opposite the church and Sor Magdalena devoted her entire life towards the maintenance and embellishment of St. Joseph’s Church.

Throughout her life, Sor Magdalena often exhorted friends and family for pecuniary gifts or for valuable objects to be donated for her church, amongst which were a number of carved altar images and silver utensils as well as the chasuble or liturgical vestment worn by the rector during the celebration of the Eucharist earning her the appreciation and respect of everyone associated with the church. She was a true and constant benefactor and it was in appreciation to her enormous contribution to her parish church that Bishop Canilla had seen fit to empower her with the authority to wear the habit of the Third Order of St. Francis. Sor Magdalena died in 1927, twenty-six years after her non-canonical position had been challenged by Bishop Bellord. Sor Magdalena’s extensive writings and correspondence are still preserved in the church archives in her personal wooden box.

Third order of st Francis. Flor Magdalena would have dressed like this.

Another important church benefactor was Mr. Geronimo Saccone a banker and his wife Josephine, who erected the altar representing the Calvary, with its four beautiful images and a bronze and iron fencing as well as a large artistic lamp which was now placed under a large oil painting representing the death of Saint Joseph – a gift by Pope Pius IX on the occasion of the opening of the church in 1860.

Jerome Saccone.

Josephine Saccone nee Langlais.

By 1885, a large Maltese community estimated at around 1,000 or so had settled in Gibraltar, many of them taking over works previously carried out by the convict labour establishment finally disbanded in 1876. A large number of Maltese immigrants had settled in the South District and being fervent Catholics this new community turned to the local Church of St. Joseph’s to administer to their spiritual needs. That year, simmering socio-political tensions relating to immigration manifested themselves openly when a cholera epidemic threatened the British fortress colony of Gibraltar. As opposed to previous cholera epidemics, this outbreak was marked by scapegoating, and Maltese immigrants were repeatedly blamed for the threat of disease in the colony.14 Many of these immigrants who had arrived to work in the expansion of the new dockyard had proved vital in the completion of St. Joseph’s Church who had freely volunteered their skilled services. Yet, despite all their assistance and devout Catholicism it was none other than Bishop Scandella who throughout the 1870 condemned the Maltese immigrants as:15

worthless … scum …  habituated to vice … the dregs of society … and a public disgrace …

According to the Bishop, the reason that they had immigrated to Gibraltar was that they had been thrown out of Malta because they were incapable of earning a decent living there.16 The real reason was that the Malta HM Dockyard had just been completed and many had immigrated to Gibraltar in the anticipation that works to expand the Gibraltar dockyard was imminent. In the event the project was shelved until 1896, but nevertheless, many of the Maltese who had arrived were in fact very skilled and able workers. Bishop Scandella backed up his claims alleging that the Maltese were responsible for the majority of crimes committed in Gibraltar – an accusation not backed up by the police own statistics. Despite his deep resentment, Scandella, nevertheless, assigned the mission amongst the Maltese to the Rev. Fr. Gonzalo Canilla, his personal secretary and friend.

Bishop Gonzalo Canilla as Vicar Apostolic of Gibraltar.

On Scandella’s death in 1880, Canilla was elected to succeed him, however his accession was met with considerable opposition by a so called ‘Committee of Elders’ formed by a group of influential members of the congregation of St. Mary the Crowned many of whom were also members of the Exchange and Commercial Library - a moneyed class that had refused to support Scandella in 1876, when he had lobbied against the imposition of a tobacco tax proposed by Governor Lord Napier of Magdala and aimed at reducing tobacco smuggling into Spain. Scandella had argued that that before such a tax was imposed, alternative employment for the dependents of the smuggling trade had to be provided.

A large mob instigated by the Elders prevented Canilla from entering his own church August and again in December in 1881 forcing the Bishop Elect to reside at his mother’s residence until the situation was resolved.

Meanwhile, this self-serving and self-appointed committee announced that they would proceed to install their own ‘chief priest,’ a Greek by the name of Stephanopoulos (of the eight priests in Gibraltar only Canilla himself and Stephanopoulos had dissented). Instead, the Committee justified their actions by suggesting in the press that the 35 year-old Canilla was too young and inexperienced to be installed as Bishop.

It was at this most crucial juncture that Canilla received the strongest and unconditional support from his loyal congregation from St. Joseph’s Church. Monsignor Femenías organised the principal parishioners in the South District who were determined to oppose by all lawful means all projects and actions of the opposition committee for the purpose of which they wrote and gave the public press an energetic protest censoring the conduct of the obstructionists and solemnly declaring that they adhered with unconditional obedience to the provisions of his Holiness, abiding and respecting the Vicar Apostolic appointed by the Pope – and stating that they would not recognize any authority in the aforementioned opposition committee to intervene in any matter related to the ecclesiastical administration under any circumstances.17

With the assistance of Fr. Weld an English Jesuit, who had been sent to investigate the problems in Gibraltar and subsequently ejected from St. Mary the Crowned by the mob. Femenías and Weld had gathered over 400 signatures from locals in support of Canilla – many of them from the South District. This strong memorandum in support of the Bishop Elect swayed opinion at the Colonial Office in London in favour of the legally appointed Bishop.

The uneasy stand-off prevailed until the 2ndMarch 1881 when under pressure from London Governor Napier (who had clearly been sympathetic with the rebel committee) was finally forced to intervene and ordered the army to assist the police and force entry into the Cathedral of St. Mary the Crowned. To do so, the troops and police were confronted by a mob of around 200 men who had barricaded themselves inside the Church and refused to disperse. The authorities had to make over four dozen arrests in order to gain entry and establish order but in the end Canilla finally managed to gain entry into his Cathedral.

St. Joseph's Church by Samuel Buckle 1879.

In 1885, St. Joseph’s was granted the status of parish on the 13th February 1885. The decree was signed by the Rt. Rev. Bishop of Lystria, the Vicar Apostolic Mgr. Canilla with special faculty from Rome and naming the loyal Monsignor Gabriel Femenías as the first parish priest and later rector of the same church.

Baptisimal font dated 13 Decembris AD 1885, to mark the occassion of being granted the status of a parish.

Baptismal font detail.

In the intervening period, a number of religious institutions from the hinterland had set-up up their own missions in Gibraltar. One of these was the Little Sisters of the Poor whose house in Gibraltar was opened on the 1st December1883 at the old St. Bernard’s College in Europa which became a hospice for the care of the infirm and old – Mount Alvernia. Another house was established in the South District – the Brotherhood of San Juan de Dios – whose mission was based at St. Joseph’s Church with the consent and formal sanction of the Bishop. Another house - Las Madres del Desamparo –took charge of Gavino’s Asylum down the road from the Sacred Heart Church which was being completed at around this time.18

St. Joseph’s Church received a number of notable alterations to its interior namely the erection of new altars and carved effigies as well as a new choir and a new baptistery and choir in the west dated 13th December 1885. Behind the Sacristy a small, three storeyed building was added which served as archival offices and stores for use by the Sexton. The Sacristy was now provided with a marble altar replacing the old wooden one and a number of cupboards were built to store many of the relics, books and chasubles and other vestments used by the priests and his attendants. Much of the funds for these accessories was provided by Mrs Victoria Recaño’s volunteer ladies who had organised a bazaar to raise the required sum.19

Some of the original Church relics now in storage.

In 1889, a church bell for the belfry was cast at the Hayne’s Calpe Foundry which he established in Bayside in 1865. Thomas Haynes was a marine engineer whose engineering and shipbuilding business included facilities both in Gibraltar and Cadiz. The bell was blessed and christened with the name of ‘Santa Emilia’.  It was erected together with another bell dedicated to St. Gertrudis, and cast in 1736.

St Gertrudis Bell dated 1736

Santa Emilia Bell dated 1889.

Meanwhile, Bishop Canilla, who had continued the work of his predecessor as far as the education of children was concerned constructed to the east of the Church a new large and spacious Secondary school to replace the old St. Bernard’s College in Europa Main Road. In 1889, this school transferred to Naval Hospital Hill where it became known as Rosia School.20 The vacated premises was instead converted into a primary School for girls run by the Loreto Nuns and consisted of four spacious rooms, one of which was used for needlework, and another for the teaching of infants. These works were carried out thanks to the legacies provided for by Messrs. José Benso and Geronimo Saccone.

José Benso, a wealthy Portuguese merchant was Gibraltar’s Consul for Portugal & Brazil. Benso and his sister-in-law Mariquita Shakery, both of them childless, had decided to leave their fortunes to charity. In addition to the new school building, his will and that of Mariquita Shakery also provided funding for a new orphanage - the Asilo de San Juan de Dios – which was set up in South Barracks Road. It was run by the Rev Ignacio Ayesterán with help from Brother Antonio Almazán and two others. The Orphanage was duly opened in the summer of 1890 but in 1896 transferred to La Línea de la Concepción where it became known as either Villa San José or Casa Saccone.21

In 1910, the institution returned to Gibraltar after having obtained a suitable place in ‘la Morada de Danino’, better known as Palace Gully and close to Arengo's Palace and the Sacred Heart Church.22

Rosia School in Naval Hospital Hill.

Yet another altar dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary was donated by two sisters, Mrs Adela and Matilde Terry. The last marble altars and accompanying carved statues were erected in 1896 each of which was solemnly blessed by the Illustrious Bishop Canilla. This would be one of Canillas’s last acts at St. Joseph’s for on the 18th October 1898, Bishop Canilla died suddenly at his mother’s house as he recited the Holy Rosary aged 59. In contrast to the vehemently strong opposition faced by Bishop Canilla in his early years as Bishop, by the time of his death he was a much-loved figure, recognised for the support he gave to workers’ rights during disputes and for the good work he had done for the Jews and for the poor but particularly in the continuing improvement he encouraged in education. Nearly 2,000 children in Gibraltar were receiving primary education when he died. It was noted that whilst in nearby La Linea 10% of the Catholics there went to church, in Gibraltar the figure was 50%.23

1890's -G Washington Wilson South from Jumper's Bastion.

Whilst a successor was identified Mgr. Femenías was appointed interim Vicar Apostolic. Canilla's natural successor was nearly another Gibraltarian, Peter Amigo, however Amigo's father had figured prominently as one of Canillas’s main vocal detractors at the Exchange and Commercial Library where the dispute had started.24 In the end, Amigo was appointed Bishop of Southwark and James Bellord became Canilla's successor.

In 1910, a special Mass was held at St. Joseph’s to celebrate Mgr. Femenías 50th anniversary as a priest. By then however, Mgr. Femenías was in declining health. On the 15th February 1915, he finally passed away at the patriarchal age of 86. His obituary, reported in the Gibraltar Chronicle that same day concluded with the words:

 ‘The whole career of the venerable deceased was distinguished by his zeal for his parishioners, for his saintly and retired life, his disinterestedness and unblemished character’.

Special Mass ofertory for the occasion of Mgr. Gabriel Femenías 50th Anniversary since his ordination as priest.

Gibraltar Chronicle cutting anouncing the death of Mgr. Gabriel Femenías.

Mgr. James Chincota was named parish priest following Mgr. Femenías death. Mgr. Chincota was born in Gibraltar on the 8th March 1871, to John and Emmanuela (née Ramos).25 After studying at the Spanish Seminary in Cordoba, he was ordained into the priesthood at the age of 23. On his return to Gibraltar he ministered in the Cathedral for a number of years and was created Honorary Chamberlain to His Holiness Pope Benedict XV. He remained Administrator at the Cathedral until he succeeded Mgr. Femenías as Parish Priest of St. Joseph’s Church in 1915, to which parish he dedicated the rest of his life.26

During his time as Parish Priest, Mgr. Chincota replaced the original wooden altar with the present marble one, which he dedicated to the memory of his parents. In later years, the altar was altered to allow for the celebration of Mass facing the congregation. Mgr. Chincota died in 1927, aged 56.27

Mgr James Chincotta (1915-1927).

Marble altar dedicated by Mgr. James Chincotta to his parents.

Following Mgr. Chincota’s death, the parish was temporarily run by a Spanish priest, Dom Ildefonso Vilaplana who ministered in Gibraltar from 1911 to 1930, acting for a few years as Vicar General of the first Bishop of Gibraltar, Mgr. Gregory Thompson OSB. A few months later the Parish was entrusted to Mgr. Carmelo Grech. Grech had been born in Gibraltar on the 23rd November 1880, the son of Felix and Adela (nee Torres) and baptised at the Cathedral of St. Mary the Crowned (Book XIX-17). As an infant he was taken to Malta where he received his education and was ordained to the priesthood on the 30th November 1904. He returned to Gibraltar three years later and appointed Assistant Parish Priest of St. Joseph’s in 1911 and later Parish Priest in 1927.

Dom Idelfonso Villaplana (1927).

Mgr Carmelo Grech OBE (1927-1967).

In 1939, Personnel Air Raid Shelters began to be built within the town area as Britain declared war on Germany. In the South, few shelters were available and the crypt beneath St. Joseph’s Church was reconverted into an emergency air raid shelter – the largest in the entire area. Tragedy befell the parish on 18th July 1940, an Italian plane off-loaded its bombs short of the Bay, and three fell on the Rock in the South district. The first fell on Loreto Convent Europa, killing Sister Lorcan, Mr Dalia the gardener and his wife and causing considerable damage to the convent. Sister Milagrosa McGovern and Sister Thomas More Devaney were injured and taken to the hospital.28 The entire civilian population was evacuated shortly after.

As the war in Europe reached its final stages the first civilian contingents trickled back to Gibraltar on board whatever transport ship could be afforded to return the evacuees. The acute shortages in housing was further augmented by the lack of available school buildings. The crypt which was no longer required as an emergency air raid shelter was once again refurbished with school furniture and St. Joseph’s Junior Girls School re-opened under St Joseph’s Parish Church on the 18th June 1945. The first Headmaster was Mr John Dunne and there were 73 girls on the school’s register with some pupils attending classes at the nearby Plata Villa which had been converted into Officer accommodation during the war, later becoming a Grammar and Secondary Modern School for girls in 1945.

Loreto Convent following the Italian air raid of 1940.

Crypt used as school and air raid shelter.

Crypt used as school and air raid shelter.

Serious concerns were raised by the Commissioner of Lands and Works Mr. C. McGrail in the mid 1950’s over the safety of the school premises under St. Joseph’s Parish Church particularly around the area of the playground and water closets which despite repeated repairs the ground kept cracking and was considered a danger to children. The apparent cause of the trouble was the sliding movement which affected the retaining wall adjoining the water closets in the yard. The cost of repairs was estimated at £550 with a further £250 to extend the retaining wall but the issue of liability and responsibility of these works became a thorny issue between the Bishop as lessee and the Colonial Government.29 In the end the school was forced to close and move to new premises at Grand Parade until in 1971 it moved once more to Plata Villa to become St. Joseph’s Middle School.

The abandoned fromer orphanage and school of Plata Villa.

Plata Villa sensitively refurbished into four residential which received the Group Heritage Trust Award in 2018.

After the war, Mgr. Carmelo Grech returned to resume his duties as Parish priest for St. Joseph’s Church. In 1954, the year of his own Golden Jubilee as a priest, he had the interior of the Church completely restored and the altar was completely improved upon by the construction of the semi-circular reredos two years later. The existing beautiful marble pulpit, designed by Mr N. A. Langdon, was presented to him to mark the occasion of his Golden Jubilee by Messrs Ernest Latin Builders and Decorators and Marble Works. The restoration was carried out with advice, and under the expert supervision of Mr. Cyril McGrail.30 

However, during the restoration process, the invaluable painting of the death of St. Joseph presented to the Church by Pope Pius IX in 1860 was lamentably either lost or destroyed. A similar fate would have awaited the cupola also donated by Pope Pius IX which had been dismantled in 1964 when the old St. Bernard´s College was demolished to make space for the new Mount Alvernia. These marble pieces were removed to St. Joseph´s Church for ´safe-keeping´. Years later, the church gardener, Mr. Carlos Rocca, finding the cupola lying in a sorry state in a far corner of the garden fixed it on a concrete pillar which was to be conveniently used as a bird bath. However, by doing so, he managed to preserve, albeit in an unorthodox manner, such a priceless ornament.

Following the interior refurbishments, the Church was entrusted with Gibraltar’s most iconic and priceless religious artefact – the statue of Our Lady of Europe.

St Joseph's Church proposed alterations and additions, 1952.

St Joseph's Church cross secton proposed alterations, 1952.

East wing before 1954 alteration.

Marble pulpit donated on the occassion of the Golden Jubille since the ordination of Mgr C Grech dated 30 November 1954.

During World War II the statue had been removed to the Cathedral for safe keeping until on the 15th August 1954 (the Marian Year proclaimed by Pope Pius XII) the statue was paraded in a torchlight procession to St. Joseph’s Church, at the time the southernmost place of worship where it would remain for the next fourteen years. During the 1950’s devotion for Our Lady grew and a ‘Plegaria’ was composed by Luis Diaz and performed by Los Trobadores which has now become part of the local identity of the people.31 For his services to the community Mgr. Grech was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1964. He died in 1967 at the ripe old age of 87.

Fr. John Aher who succeeded Mgr. Grech was born in County Cork, Eire in 1913. He joined the White Fathers at the age of 18 and went to their seminary in Belgium. For his novitiate he was sent to Carthage, near Tunis but his training was cut short when he was forced to flee Tunisia following the German invasion of North Africa during WWII. He later decided to become a priest for Gibraltar being ordained in 1945, arriving in Gibraltar the following year. He worked as a curate at the Cathedral of St. Mary the Crowned until 1959 when he was transferred to St. Joseph’s to assist Mgr. Grech. During his time in charge of the Cathedral’s archives. Fr. Aher completed the colossal task of indexing all the registers dating back to 1704.32

On the 7th October 1968, on  instructions of Bishop Healy, Father John Aher who was also the army Chaplain for the Gibraltar Regiment organised the lightning transfer of the statue of Our Lady of Europe from St. Joseph’s Church to the Shrine, escorted and carried in procession by a number of Officers and men of the Gibraltar Regiment commanded by Colonel A. M. Rugeroni.33 Father Orfila who had been patiently preparing the sanctuary for the eventual return of the statue was taken completely by surprise by the Bishop’s decision. Nevertheless, after two hundred and sixty three years in exile the statue of Our Lady of Europe had finally returned home.34

Gibraltar Regiment procession with statue of Our Lady of Europe, 1968.

Gibraltar Regiment procession with statue of Our Lady of Europe, 1968.

Fr. Aher continued to discharge his duties as Parish Priest until his death in 1975 following a long and painful illness. By then he had managed to save up to £2,000 which was used to completely re-decorate the interior of the Church. The work was carried out by Messrs James Frames & sons, and once completed the Church was solemnly consecrated by Bishop Edward Rapallo.35Fr. Aher was succeeded by Fr. Bernard Buckley, born in Bristol, England in 1911, the second of three brothers all of whom became priests. He joined the Vincentian Fathers (Padres Paules) in Spain, where he did all his priestly studies and where he was ordained in 1935. During WWII he was commissioned as Chaplain in the RAF, and in 1948, after a period of parish work in England, he went to Dublin to start a series of home missions and retreats throughout England, Ireland and Scotland.

In 1963, he went to lecture on divinity at St. Mary’s teacher-training college at Twickenham, England and from there went with two other staff members to found the Ullathorne Grammar School in Coventry, where he taught for eight years. After further periods at Strawberry Hill (Twickenham) and on retreats and missions, he was asked by the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster to assist in the spiritual welfare of the many Spaniards living and working in the Greater London area. This was followed by further parish work in areas where there was an acute shortage of clergy, until in 1972 when he came to Gibraltar to organise a number of retreats in English and Spanish. His first visit lasted a month, but later returned and with permission of his Vincentian Superior returned to Gibraltar and stayed for five years – the last three of which he was the Priest-in-Charge of St. Joseph’s Parish Church. Fr. Buckley oversaw the completion of the restoration work at the Church and its consecration in 1977, including the adaptation of the basement which under his supervision was transformed into a retreat house. In 1978, he returned to England and became the Parish priest of Our Lady at Belmond Road, Hereford.36

Fr John Aher (1967-1975).

Old school building and playground later converted into a Retreat Centre.

His replacement was Fr. Mario Tong, born in Malta on the 29th April 1953. He did his priestly studies in the island and having been ordained in 1977, arrived in Gibraltar 3 months later. He spent three months of duty at the Cathedral of St. Mary the Crowned before being appointed Assistant Curate to Fr. Bernard Buckley. When Fr. Buckley left, Fr. Tong was made Priest-in-Charge where he was assisted by Fr. Carmelo Zammit as Curate. Fr. Tong remained in charge until he returned to Malta in 1980, greatly loved and respected by his congregation.

Fr. Tong may best be remembered for starting the publications of the church newsletter The Parishioner, a regular feature still employed by the Parish of St. Joseph’s to this day.

On his return to Malta, Fr. Tong was first appointed curate in the Parish of Our Lady of All Graces in Zabbar and later Parish Priest of Our Lady of the Rosary in Marsaxlokk both located in the South Eastern Region of Malta.37

An even shorter term as Priest-in-Charge of St. Joseph’s Parish was enjoyed by Fr. Edwin Gordon. Born in Gibraltar to Edward and Catherine (nee O’Reily) on the 16th July 1934, he had left Gibraltar in 1940 during the evacuation where he grew up. In 1962, after studying law he opted for the priesthood and was ordained at Clifton in 1962 at the age of 28. He served as Assistant Priest at Mayhead, and later at Burnham-on-Sea before becoming Spiritual Director of the English College in Valladolid, a post he held for three years.

In 1980 he was inducted Parish Priest of St. Joseph’s Parish but was forced to return to England the following year to receive specialist treatment for his failing eyesight.38 Nevertheless, during his year in charge of St. Joseph’s Church, Fr. Gordon carried out much needed repairs and reformations to the clergy house. He would later become blind in the 1980’s, continuing to run a small rural parish at St. Joseph’s Nymphfield, Gloucestershire until his retirement in 2002. He nevertheless continued to publish many articles, gave talks to students, conducted retreats and taught at Catholic summer schools. Whilst convalescing after becoming blind, Fr. Gordon taped and later wrote the original edition of book ‘Upon This Rock and a Catechism of the Holy Rosary’ in the form of letter intended for his parishioners in St. Joseph’s parish, Gibraltar. This book would later be published in 2005 – two years after his retirement.39

Fr Mario Tong (1978-1980).

Fr Edwin Gordon (1980).

Upon This Rock and a Catechism of the Holy Rosary by Fr. E Gordon.

On the 1st November 1981, Fr. Coronato Grima was appointed administrator of St. Joseph’s following the departure of Fr. Gordon and he Parish priest on the 11th April 1982. He was formally appointed by Bishop Rapallo on the 9th May 1982.

Coronato Grima was born in Victoria, Gozo, Malta on 18th August 1949 into a large family.  Much like his brother Monsignor George Grima, Coronato was ordained into the priesthood in 1975 by St Pope Paul VI in a ceremony held in St Peter’s Square, Vatican City, together with 358 other ordinants.

Three months after his ordination, aged 26, Fr Coronato at the request of Bishop Rapallo was sent to Gibraltar to help the clergy there, for what was believed at the time, would be a period of one year.  He returned to his home parish, but returned to Gibraltar the following year. He would remain in Gibraltar for the greatest part of his life and worked in various parishes, mainly St Joseph’s where he served as Parish Priest. He was also chaplain to the Legion of Mary and Spiritual Director of the Christian Life Movement (CLM) which during the 1980’s brought spiritual guidance to Gibraltar’s youth through prayer meetings followed by discos held at the Catholic Community Centre.

On the 12th July 1982, H. L. Mgr. Nicholas Gauchi, Bishop of Gozo, appointed Fr. Grima Honorary Canon of St. George’s Parish Basilica Collegiate in Victoria, Gozo.

Fr. Grima was Parish Priest for St. Joseph’s Church when the centenary of the foundation of the Parish was celebrated at a special Mass held on the 13th December 1985. To mark the centenary a special centenary booklet detailing some of the Church’s historical events and biographies of the various Parish Priests that had officiated at the Parish was produced. During the celebrations the present stained glass windows were installed and the Gibraltar Philatelic Bureau designed a set of three Christmas stamps to celebrate the centenary of St. Joseph's Parish Church.

1985 Christmas Centenary of St Joseph's Parish Church.

A further embellishment to the east-wing of the Church was effected a few years later when Mario Finlayson was commissioned to paint the apse of the main altar as a multi-coloured landscape mural on the baroque style which was completed in 1989. The painting depicts the patronage of St. Joseph upon the Universal Catholic Church. The symbolism of the mural is explained thus:40

The Boat represents the Church, 125 years ago, pope Pius IX, after considering the petition of the bishops around the world, proclaimed on the 8th December 1870, St. Joseph as the Patron saint of the Universal Church.

In the painting Pope Pius IX is at the helm of the boat. The Cardinal and the two bishops represent the continuity of the hierarchy of the Church together with our Bishop and Pope John Paul II who is holding in his left hand the apostolic letter “Redemptoris Custos” that is “The Guardian of the Redeemer.” In this letter, published in 1989, the Holy Father explains the role of St. Joseph in the mystery of salvation. St. Francis, St. Theresa of Avila and St. Bernadine of Siena were three promoters, among others, in spreading devotion to St. Joseph.

The Church is also represented by St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.

The rainbow and the dove with the olive branch symbolise harmony and peace.

On the left can be observed the Rock from the South District with St. Joseph clearly showing. The rough seas represent the difficulties of the Church.

The artist himself, appears in a cameo role in the boat, third from the left. This magnificent mural makes St. Joseph’s Church, without doubt, the most visually vibrant Church in Gibraltar.

Mural on the apse of the main altar.

Mgr Grima was appointed an Ecclesiastical Knight of Grace of the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of St George by decree of HRH Prince Ferdinando of Bourbon Two Sicilies, Duke of Castro and Grand Master on the 2nd October 1990.  He was later promoted twice in recognition of his service to the Order with the rank of Ecclesiastical Knight Commander of Grace in 2003 and as the recipient of the Order´s Bronze Benemerenti Medal.

He played a pivotal role in the historic official visit in April 2003 to Gibraltar of then Grand Prefect HRH Prince Carlo, Duke of Calabria and the then Grand Prior, HE Cardinal Mario Francesco Pompedda to celebrate 1700 years of St George.41

Two more church bells were blessed and added to St. Joseph’s belfry in December 1992 by Fr. Grima. The first bell had been cast at the Mears & Stainbank Foundry in London in 1906 and is the largest of the four measuring 3ft in diameter. It had been formerly sited on a lighthouse at the tip of the South Mole and used as a warning signal by the Dockyard Police in the event of a fire. Captain J. Ferro, Captain of the Port was instrumental in obtaining the disused bell through his contacts in the MOD, namely the Queen’s Harbour Master, Martin Rhodes who agreed to the request.

The bell was first taken to the Public Works Garage and Workshop where the bell was thoroughly cleaned, inscribed and an internal hammer fitted. The inscription on the bell being as follows:

Mary the Virgin Mother, George the Martyr, AD 1992

The second bell was presented to the Church by the then Commissioner of Police, Joe Canepa, after it had been found in the sea by the police underwater team a year earlier. The bel had been cast in 1961 for HMS Lowestoft, and to mark the occasion inscribed ‘St. Joseph AD 1991’. The bells, however, were not installed into the belfry until early 1993 requiring the assistance of a crane and the City Fire Brigade to lift and place the two bells into position.

Mears & Stainbank Bell 1906.

St Gertrudis Bell with the much smaller HMS Lowestoft Bell behind.

Canon Grima is best remembered as a zealous priest always ready to address the needs of his parishioners. During his time as Parish Priest at St. Joseph’s Fr. Grima introduced the annual public Stations of the Cross.

After more than thirty-five years spent in Gibraltar, Mgr. Grima returned to Gozo in 2010. However, he did not enjoy his retirement due to poor health. Fr. Grima died on the early morning of Wednesday 22nd July, the Feast of St Mary Magdalene, aged 70.

Father Michael Bonifacio took over the duties of the parish church after the retirement of Mgr. Grima. He would assume those duties for the next seven years.

In June 2017, Monsignor Carmel Zammit, having increased the complement of priests in the Diocese reassigned several parish priests. Monsignor Paul Bear was reassigned from the Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned, where he had been for 18 years, to St Joseph’s Church: whilst its former parish priest, Father Michael Bonifacio, re-assigned to administer to the sick and elderly. Another former Parish Priest of St. Joseph’s Church, Mario Tong who had returned from Malta, with the Archbishop of Malta’s consent, was appointed Parish Priest and administrator of the Cathedral.

1 Hernández del Portillo, Alonso: Historia de la Muy Noble y Más Leal Ciudad de Gibraltar.

2 Ibid.

3 E R Kenyon: Gibraltar under Moor, Spaniard, and Briton. (1938)., London.

4 Femenías, Gabriel: Apuntes historicos cronologicos relativos a la parroquia e iglesia de San Jose en el llamado barrio de Europa en Gibraltar desde 1800 hasta 1899. (junio 1903)

5 Caruana Msgr. C, Vicar General: St. Joseph’s Parish Church Centenray 1885-1985. Booklet.

6 E. G. Archer & A. A. Traverso: Education in Gibraltar 1704-2004. (2004)., Great Britain., p. 29.

7 Femenías, Gabriel. Opcit.

8 Grech. C. Mgr: Saint Joseph’s Church, Gibraltar 1863-1963 (historical notes).

9 E. G. Archer & A. A. Traverso. Opcit., p. 35.

10 Ibid., p. 36.


12 Femenías, Gabriel. Opcit.

13 Palao, George: Tales of Our Past. Ferma, Gibraltar Chronicle Printing Works (1981)., p. 17

14 Lawrence A. Sawchuk and Stacie D. A. Burke: The Barefooted Foreigner. Journal Article.

15 Chipulina, Neville: Gibraltar BlogSpot - The People of Gibraltar.,

16] Ibid.

17 Femenías, Gabriel. Opcit.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 E. G. Archer & A. A. Traverso. Opcit., p. 43.

21 Chipulina, Neville: Gibraltar BlogSpot - The People of Gibraltar.,

22 Ibid.

23 Hills, George: Rock of Contention. A History of Gibraltar. London (1974)., pp. 392–396.

24 Clifton, Michael: Amigo: Friend of the Poor. Gracewing Publishing. (1987)., p. 2.

25 Baptismal Register: Cathedral of St. Mary the Crowned, Book XVII-181

26 St. Joseph’s Parish Church Centenary 1885-1985 booklet., p. 17

27 Ibid.

28 Chipulina, Neville: Gibraltar BlogSpot - The People of Gibraltar.,

29 Land Property File: C.P.Nos.1027 A, 1027 B, & 1030 B, F.P.No.1030 A

30 St. Joseph’s Parish Church Centenary 1885-1985., p 18

31 Upon this Rock issue 95: A Lighthouse of Love., p. 13

32 St. Joseph’s Parish Church Centenary 1885-1985., p 18-19

33 CARUANA. Opcit. P. 57

34 Ibid., p. 59

35 St. Joseph’s Parish Church Centenary 1885-1985., p 18-19

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid., p. 20.

38 Ibid.

39 GORDON, Edwin: Upon This Rock and a Catechism of the Holy Rosary (2005)., p. xi

40 St. Joseph’s Church information leaflet.


St. Joseph's Church Image