Mysterium Fidei - Atlas Obscura

Mysterium Fidei

After 400 years of being closed to the public, this monastery's underground tunnels and secret garden are now a museum. 

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Hidden beneath St. Catherine’s Monastery in the heart of Valletta is an underground complex and concealed garden that was inaccessible to the public for over four centuries. Today, it remains the residence of a handful of cloistered nuns belonging to the Second Order of Saint Augustine.

In 1575, St. Catherine’s Monastery was established to provide support for female orphans. Originally owned by Marquis Giovanni Vasco Oliviero and his wife, Katerina, the property, known as Casa Vanilla, was donated as a refuge for orphans as a gesture of gratitude for their son’s recovery from the plague.

The couple not only contributed the building itself, but also built a cloister, added an extra floor, and bequeathed all their possessions to the monastery in their will. 

The stones used for constructing the monastery were excavated from beneath the site. The open quarry formed an underground complex that has now been transformed into the Mysterium Fidei Museum. This museum offers a glimpse into the nuns’ daily lives, from their simple bedrooms and laundry reservoir to sewing rooms, kitchens, and bathrooms. It also houses control rooms where the nuns managed young women who were deemed threats to the morality of that era. The fate of these women remains ambiguous, as the sign merely states that the nuns cared for them and helped them reform. 

During the Second World War, one of the underground rooms served as a shelter. Additionally, there is a “hidden garden” with herbs, fruit trees, three freshwater wells, and residents like chickens, rabbits, and a camera-shy cat.

The antechamber functioned as the burial ground for the nuns, who vowed never to venture beyond the monastery walls, even in death. In the burial chamber, when a nun passed away, a solemn procession led to her designated death bed, where candles were lit on each side.

In the 1970s, new burial regulations prevented the nuns from being interred within the monastery, breaking their lifelong oath to God. However, an exemption later allowed burial in the chamber, restoring the nuns’ adherence to their commitment.

Know Before You Go

The entrance is on St. Christopher Street, just opposite the Barrister Hotel. It's easy to find; Valletta isn't large. Just keep walking down the main Republic Street, past St George's Square, and you'll see a sign on the left-hand side. If you pass the Casa Rocca Piccola, you have gone too far. 

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January 31, 2024

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