The Rotunda Church, Xewkija
The Rotunda Church, Xewkija - built by the love of its people.
Although only 67km², Gozo is home to 50 glorious churches. Each village has a church which is central to community life. Climb any high viewpoint overlooking Gozo and you’ll see many beautiful church domes or spires piercing the skyline.
The Rotunda Church in Xewkija is one of our most celebrated churches and the first stop on Yippee’s Tuk-Tuk tour of Gozo. Dedicated to St John the Baptist, its ‘neo-classical style’ confuses tourists who assume it is hundreds of years old. It was actually built between the 1950’s and 1970’s. The Rotunda Church dome spans 27 metres across, is 75 metres high and weighs 45,000 tonnes. The church has the third largest unsupported dome in Europe, behind St Peter’s in Rome and St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
But what’s equally impressive is how the church was built by its worshippers: by their love, devotion, blood, sweat and tears - completely paid for by villagers, who, at that time were poor, working as fishermen, farmers and construction workers.
The history of The Rotunda Church
After the II World War, Xewkija’s population swelled and the Archpriest Rev. Guzepp Grech gained permission to build a new church, big enough for its 3,000 villagers. Locals immediately rallied, raising thousands, donating family heirlooms, jewellery, even Gozitans who’d emigrated overseas sent money. Archpriest Guzepp Grech made house calls collecting donations, parishioners gave what they could; farmers and fishermen gave up a share of their produce, villagers continually funded and resourced the construction.
A church within a church
Mr Joseph D’Amato was the architect for The Rotunda Church and he used Venice’s ‘Santa Maria della Salute’ church as his inspiration. This was because of its shape, as Xewkija’s new church had to be built around the old church, which would still be used for religious services and had to remain intact.
The Bishop of Gozo, His Lordship Mgr. Joseph Pace laid the first 1 tonne stone on 4th May 1952, when the build officially began. Today, village elders enjoy sharing their memories of how locals united to build the church, as much of the construction work was done manually with everyone lending a hand. Local wives organized fundraising, women and children often helped the menfolk lift heavy building materials and also fed hungry construction workers with home cooked food.
Brothers Toni and Guzepp Vella, Mastermasons from Xewkija, worked together on the church’s build. For 14 years Guzepp was the chief mason. Guzepp was a geometry genius, but couldn’t read or write. When the architect Joseph D’Amato, died mid-way through the project, Guzepp used his natural talent and ability to complete the dome, which was finished on 31st May, 1970
Before completing the new church, decorative sculptures and ornate carvings from the original church were labelled and dismantled, like a giant classical jigsaw puzzle. Each piece was numbered and delicately removed and then rebuilt inside the Museum of Sculpture in The Rotunda church.
If you visit The Rotunda Church, pay a small fee to access a lift up to the roof for excellent close up views of the dome, and amazing panoramic views of Gozo. Be sure to check out the Museum of Sculpture too!