As the busy traffic roars and belches outside, a pall of gloom sits oppressively heavy inside St Michael’s Church in Mahim. Just outside the gates this iconic city building with a long and fascinating history (see box: steeped in history) boys wend their way through cars selling cheery, bright coloured flannel dusters, toys, cleaning apparatus with feathers in psychedelic colours.
This brightness is in direct contrast to the darkness within hearts and minds of St Michael’s parishioners and priests. They had basked in parish priest Fr. Salvador Rodrigues’s serenity and spirituality which was like a soothing balm in these frenzied, hectic times. Fr. Rodrigues passed away on April 24 (Wednesday) evening after a three-year long battle with pancreatic cancer. He passed away at the Shanti Avedna Hospice in Bandra.
Remembering Fr. Salvador Rodrigues, parish priest and Ecclesiastical Advisor to the Bombay Catholic Sabha (BCS), Gordon D’Souza, president of The BCS simply said that the Rev was popularly known as ‘Fr. Salu’. He was a senior priest of the Archdiocese, a member of the College of Consultors, a member of the Priest’s Council.
“Fr. Salu guided the BCS as Ecclesiastical Advisor for 18 long years. A man of few words, he was known for his unassuming nature and gentle ways. Yet he would deftly impact the course of a discussion. He was much sought after for his powerful homilies. He was an embodiment of love and care. He was known for his dispute redressal abilities and headed so many inquiry committees,” said Gordon.
Rewinding to the past, Gordon added that Father Salu started his priestly duties in the remote mission station of Talasari where he was knocked unconscious together with a fellow priest by some persons who viewed them with suspicion. He rose to become parish priest of parishes such as O L of Nazareth Bhayander, Sacred Heart, Santa Cruz and Our Lady of Lourdes, Orlem.
“It was a home coming for him when he was once again appointed at St. Michael's Church, Mahim, this was the last parish he was asked to shepherd. Two years ago it was discovered that he was suffering from cancer. He battled on bravely going through frequent chemotherapy treatments and yet lived as if nothing was wrong,” Gordon added about his tenacity.
Barely one day after his death and minds are whirring in flashback mode. Dr. Abraham Mathai, Vice-Chairman, Maharashtra Minorities Commission described father Salu as a, “dear friend, who shall be missed forever. He chaired a plenary session at the Archdiocesan Consultation held in October. 2012 and was also the Chief Guest at the Parish Feast of St. Francis Xavier’s Church, Vile Parle on December 9, 2012 where he gave a thundering lecture,” said Mathai about his homilies that hit home with such force. He added though, “Soon after, his health stared to deteriorate and he could not consume solid food and lost weight considerably. He continued officiating meetings and doing parish work from his room. He put on a brave front although he was in pain most of the time,” said Dr Mathai.
Bravery too figured prominently in Fr. Michael D’Cunha’s, (assistant parish priest, St Michael’s) account of Fr. Salvador’s battle with the terminal illness. “He worked through his illness,” said Fr D’Cunha. “He was a priest with special faculties, he was on the Board of Consultants of the Diocese. Even as recently as the last day of his life, he was so alert, he asked about parish matters!” Fr. D’Cunha, who was caught in a whirlwind of activity on Thursday morning, stated that outstanding qualities were that he was so approachable and he was like a, “father to all, since we are such a close-knit community.
He also fostered a great sense of camaraderie. It is not just that people reached out to him, he too, reached out because he was so outgoing. What shone through were his principles and ethics. For all his actions and decisions, he had a solid reason for doing so. We will get a replacement in June, but having said that, we at St Michael’s are just starting to comprehend the magnitude of our loss. Fr. Rodrigues is irreplaceable.”
For Kalina’s Crompton Texeira, St Michael’s is not his regular parish but “I have been there to sing at some weddings,” said Texeira, a well-known choir singer. “I remember meeting Fr, Rodrigues at least 10 years ago. What struck me most was his spirituality. I also think he was a good sportsman, a good footballer in fact and would encourage boys to play football.
He knew that sport is such a great way to live life, it teaches you so much, on and off the field too.” Texeira says that Fr. Rodrigues could connect so well with East Indians because, “he used to preach in Marathi -- fluent and lucid and always thought provoking,” signed off Texeira with a flourish, while St Michael’s parishioner Deborah D’Mello states lucidly that, “Fr. Rodrigues was am inspiring preacher, a true shepherd of his flock.”
With eulogies flowing for Fr. Rodrigues -- gentle, self-effacing, approachable and spiritual being prime, add, accessible (pretty close to approachable) to that impressive list. For Mahim resident Jenny D’Souza, “Today (the day after father's death) seems to drag on endlessly and it is like a heavy weight bearing us (me and my family) down.
I live in Mahim since 1988 and I have known Fr. Rodrigues for years now. Even my daughter Natasha, she is an adult and an entrepreneur now, was always so fond of Fr. Salu. “My father, my father” she used to call him. Anytime we had a problem, we could turn to Fr. Salu who seemed so calm, collected and understanding.
In fact, he was never Fr. Rodrigues to us, he was always Fr. Salu, a term of endearment he had earned, as he was so friendly and approachable. Unlike some other priests he was never dismissive, ‘talk to you later’ was never part of his lexicon. In fact, he would say: ‘talk to you NOW.’ For Jenny, the anecdotes are many and heart warming.
“Even personally, he made such a difference to our lives. When my daughter started her enterprise of cupcakes in Bandra, he came to the shop to give his blessings, despite being very ill. Today, we still feel that the business is growing because Fr. Salu’s shadow falls long over it,” recalls Jenny as she says that there are simply too many ways in which he has enriched their lives. “Too many to recount,” she ends, echoing the sentiments of so many others.
Despite courage, bravery and battles, all those whose eyes have brimmed with tears watching a loved one in combat with cancer will know that it is the hardest thing to watch. A person wastes away as the disease starts claiming a progressively bigger stake on the body, systems shut down and the victim flails against what writer and cancer surgeon Sidhartha Mukherjee calls ‘The Emperor of All Maladies’. What remains are what the person leaves behind -- a legacy too rich to encapsulate wholly in words, a void that seems to gape open and swallow one in its dark depths and a myriad Fr. Salu memories -- to relish and cherish.
St Michael's Church: Steeped in history
St. Michael’s Church is one of the oldest Catholic churches as well as one of oldest existing Portuguese buildings in Mumbai. The church is situated in Mahim, located at the intersection of L J Road and Mahim Causeway. Due to its location, it is also informally known as Mahim Church. The church is famous for its Novenas on Wednesdays. The church, originally built in 1534, is rebuilt a number of times, the present structure dating to 1973. The church also served a refuge to popular icon of the Virgin Mary from Our Lady of the Mount chapel, Bandra from 1739 to 1761.
In 1853, the church witnessed a showdown between vicars Apostolic and the Portuguese padroado order for the control of the church. Not only Christians, but also adherents of other faiths congregate to pay their respects to the Virgin Mary and attend mass every Wednesday. Devotees believe that visiting the church on nine consecutive Wednesdays (Novena) will grant their wishes. They offer floral garlands according to the Hindu customs and repeat prayers before the image.
Weekly Novena services were started in 1948, when a priest, Fr. Edward Placidus Fernandes from Mumbai noticed a similar ritual celebrating Our Lady of Perpetual Succour at Belfast, Northern Ireland, during his visit to Europe. Fr. Fernandes brought with him a picture touched to the original Our Lady of Perpetual Succour picture at Rome. On September 8 1948, the Birthday of Mary, concurrent with a Wednesday that year, Fr. Fernandes as the vicar held the first Novena services.
The original St. Michael’s Church is believed to have been built in 1534 by António do Porto, a church builder of the Franciscan Order. Back then, the Church also served as Franciscan convent and was based on the bank of river Mandave. It is described to be a “large and beautiful church ... with large veranda before the portal...”
When the Marathas conquered Salsette in 1739, Our Lady of the Mount chapel in Bandra was destroyed by the Portuguese at the instance of the British, so that its location remained secret to the Marathas. In this time, St. Michael’s Church was the refuge place for the image of the Blessed Virgin from the chapel. The image remained in St. Michael’s till 1761, when it was moved to its present structure in Bandra.
With inputs by Shailesh Bhatia