For the first time in hundreds of years, a Grand Master will be buried in the crypt of St John’s Co-Cathedral, its foundation has said.
Fra’ Matthew Festing will be the 12th Grand Master to be laid to rest in the crypt – the burial place of L’Isle-Adam, who brought the Order of the Knights of St John to Malta in 1530, and La Valette, who won the 1565 Great Siege and founded the city of Valletta.
The 79th Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of Malta, Fra’ Festing died, aged 71, after feeling ill in Malta and being hospitalised earlier this month, the Grand Magistry had announced.
He served as Grand Master from 2008 up to his resignation in 2017.
The last Grand Master to be buried in the crypt was Vasconcellos in 1623, although it is understood, despite a lack of documentation, that it is also the resting place, in an unmarked grave, of Ximenez, who died in 1775, said St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation CEO and curator, Cynthia de Giorgio.
The tradition was that the Grand Masters would be buried underground, but from 1623, their remains would be moved to the chapel of their langue in the co-cathedral after a year in the crypt for the “special indulgences it was endowed with”, she said.
Fra’ Festing would be buried in the crypt because he died in Malta, and since he was English, there was no English langue, de Giorgio explained.
“Where else can you bury a Grand Master in Malta?” de Giorgio asked, adding that the decision was taken in agreement with the knights, the archbishop and the prime minister.
A location in the Grand Masters’ Crypt has been found and his burial site prepared, with cultural and cathedral authorities acting fast to identify a space that could accommodate the very tall man.
The last Grand Master to die in Malta was de Rohan in 1797 and he is buried in the Chapel of Provence. Since then, no others have been buried in the co-cathedral, the Order of the Knights of St John having left Malta in 1798.
The last reigning Grand Master was Hompesch, but he had left Malta before he died and was, therefore, not buried here, de Giorgio said.
Fra’ Festing’s funeral will be held on December 3 and Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi, Pope Francis’s special delegate to the Order of Malta, will celebrate the Requiem Mass, while Archbishop Charles Scicluna will concelebrate.
The co-cathedral’s crypt, which was reopened to the public last year, following a €500,000 restoration project that lasted 13 years, was carved out of the rock for underground burial in the 16th century.
It is located beneath the high altar and houses the remains of the 11 Grand Masters who led the Order from 1522 to 1623, including Jean de la Cassière, who commissioned the church that would become St John’s Co-Cathedral.
A descendant of Sir Adrian Fortescue, a Knight of Malta, who was martyred in 1539, Fra’ Festing he led humanitarian aid missions to Kosovo, Serbia and Croatia.