Zgugina - the Lady from Gharb, Gozo and St. Dimetrius

Updated: Oct 17, 2019


Zgugina lived on the outskirts of Gharb in her little house near the sea. She was very poor and all she had in the world was her young son Mattew (Mathew) of eleven years.

She loved him dearly and doted on him because he was her only treasure. In the morning she used to work in the fields, do the house work and the cooking with Mattew helping out to the best of his ability. In the evenings she never failed to walk with him the little distance to the small chapel dedicated to St. Dimetrius.

The saint was depicted above the main altar astride his red steed with his lance at the ready to fight bad people while helping the poor. Zgugina prayed fervently for the saint's blessing and protection and taught her son to do likewise. In his heart Mattew wanted to imitate St. Dimetrius and would have liked to help old people but they seldom saw anyone in their neighbourhood. They lived quite a good distance from the village core. Mattew also hoped to own a horse one day like the saint but his mother was as poor as a church mouse.

After church Zgugina and Mattew hurried home and made sure that the door and the windows were securely locked. In those days it was dangerous to be out of doors especially at night in such a remote locality.

The people were afraid of the night in those far-off days. On calm summer nights pirates and other seafaring dogs used to plague the unprotected shores of the island and instil cold terror in the hearts of the simple village folk. These villainous cut-throats dared to land in the remotest bays and creeks especially at it-Tieqa Ta' Wied il-Mielah, Wied l-Ghasri and Xwejni with the intention of looting and pillaging. They would advance inland and steal whatever they could lay their hands on. In the morning the poor locals would sometimes find the horrifying evidence of blood in the sheep pen or animals missing, hens, fruit and farm produce that had disappeared.

One evening after eating a light supper of bread and home-made cheese Zgugina and Mattew decided to have an early night because both of them were dead tired. They slept soundly little knowing what a tragedy lay in wait for them.

Early next morning the lady noticed that her son was already up and about. She looked outside in the fields as far as the eye could see, in the chicken house, in the sheep pen and in all the other likely places but there was no sign of him. She called him time and time again but there was no answer. She began to worry and looked again in the bedroom and to her consternation she noticed that his work clothes were still on the chair by the bed and that his only blanket was missing. He could not have left the house clad only in his bed-clothes and wrapped in the blanket.

30 minutes later Mattew was still missing and a numbing thought began to materialize in her mind. Could he have fallen from the cliffs into the sea.... Oh no, please St. Dimetrius do not let this happen …. but he was used to roam around …. he knew all the paths and pitfalls by heart.

At noon he was still missing and she could not stop her tears. Something terrible must have happened to her dear Mattew for he knowing how his mum loved and cared for him always made it a point to keep her informed of his whereabouts.

Somehow her legs took her to the back of the house and horror of horrors she noticed large naked footprints in the soft soil of the vegetable garden. When she looked closely at the back door she was convinced that thieves had broken in and stole Mattew from his bed.

How deep was she sleeping not to have heard a thing!! All the time Zgugina was sobbing bitterly lamenting the loss of her beloved son whom she would see no more. In her utter despair and through her tears she thought that she saw a glimmering light or rather a sliver of light was all of a sudden shining her way. In her faithful heart she seemed to hear St Dimetrius calling her name and she prayed with increasing fervour and hurriedly made her way towards the chapel.

She knelt in front of the titular painting of St Dimetrius begging him to take heed of her pleas, “Dear saint protector of the poor, please bring back my son. Please St Dimetrius. Mattew is the only dear possession that I have in this cruel world. Free him from the hands of those bad men. Please St Dimetrius hear the prayers of thy faithful servant and I will burn some oil for you everyday for as long as I live".

As she knelt face down in front of the altar her brow touching the floor, her tears streaming down her face the strangest thing happened. She heard a loud crack and she saw St Dimetrius jumping out of the painting, or so she imagined. Zgugina clearly heard the horse’s hooves thundering in the silence of the chapel and saw bright sparks flying off the flagstones as the great steed galloped out of the open door. She was sure that she was losing her mind of her owing to her utter despair and she knelt there sobbing and praying, “please, please, St Dimetrius".

Zgugina was frozen with sorrow. She could not move at all but seconds later she heard the horse again approaching the chapel at a canter. She could not believe her ears. Nevertheless she turned her face towards the door but had to shield her eyes against the bright flashing light coming from outside. “I am mad", she was thinking, but then out of the glare, wonder of wonders, she beheld her son approaching with arms outstretched, smiling happily and ready to give her a most loving hug.

Zgugina expected to see St Dimetrius next but in an instant the light was gone and when she looked again at the altar the saint was there in the frame as he had been as long as she could remember.

Zgugina and Mattew hugged and prayed, hugged and thanked St Dimetrius for a long time, “don't cry mummy, I am back now, St Dimetrius has saved me from the clutches of those nasty men".

Zgugina kept her promise by offering the saint a small oil light every evening and in return St Dimetrius left an imprint of a horse-shoe in the soft globigerina limestone in the vicinity of the chapel as a memento to his faithful servant Zgugina, the lady from Gharb.

Today the chapel that Zgugina frequented is no more. Tradition has it that it was reduced to rubble by an earthquake but eventually a similar one was erected in its place. Today the large area around the chapel has been given the name of SanMitri by the good people of Gharb. There is also a headland named after the saint "Kap San Mitri" well known to local fishermen and sailors.

The legend ends by saying that on very calm evenings Zgugina's light can still be seen shimmering in the depths of the sea.

October 2019

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