100 Years of Solicitude

Feb 01, 2012, 06:50 IST | Hemal Ashar

The St Ignatius Church at Jacob Circle, which has proved to be a citadel of care and concern to parishioners for so many decades, now needs some healing of its own -- only metaphorically speaking. The edifice is in urgent need of repairs even as it gears up to mark 100 years in 2013

The St Ignatius Church at Jacob Circle, which has proved to be a citadel of care and concern to parishioners for so many decades, now needs some healing of its own -- only metaphorically speaking. The edifice is in urgent need of repairs even as it gears up to mark 100 years in 2013

St Ignatius Church at Jacob Circle, opposite the Arthur Road jail and near Kasturba Hospital, is one run short of a century. The magnificent structure is set to complete 100 years of existence in 2013. Like its neighbour in the Byculla-Mazagaon area, Gloria Church, Ignatius Church, which is built in the Greco-Roman style, has started its run-up for the landmark year.

Unique: The canopy above the altar

Says Father Joe D'Souza, parish priest, "Our priority is to get the Church building restored as part of the 100-year celebrations. For so many years now, the structure has endured pollution and vagaries of the weather besides ageing. It now needs extensive repair and renovation."

Church authorities say they would first target the stone exterior, which seems to have cracked in parts and start repairing that. Adds Fr. D'Souza, "Some time ago, somebody tried to beautify this place by planting flower beds around the border of the Church. The water used for those flower beds has seeped underground and eaten into the building." The Church's imposing stained glass windows are an indication of the amount of work needed on the edifice. While one side of the Church's stain glass is intact, the row of windows on the other side has not been so lucky and succumbed to corrosion. So, this has resulted in one side of the Church having stain glass windows while the other side, has plain glass.

Fr. D'Souza also says, that changes in the physical character of the Church, mirrors to some extent, the transformation that the area around and near the Church has undergone. The Church building may be affected by weather and age, and its people have been affected by Mumbai's space crunch and rising real estate prices. Says Fr. D'Souza,

Preserving the soul: Fr. Joe D'Souza at the Church
Pics/Atul Kamble

"Earlier, there was a sizeable Catholic population in Agripada, in the chawls at Parel and in various pockets all around this area. A majority has now shifted to the suburbs as families expanded. When there was a big Catholic presence there were a lot of parishioners. Today that has dwindled. Even then, older parishioners are very nostalgic about the Church. Though they have moved to the suburbs they do take the trouble of making a trip to the Church. Many of them were baptized here; they were married at the Church. Some received their Sacrament of Confirmation." The constant drone of the traffic on the busy road where this Church stands notwithstanding, there is also playful banter thanks to the effervescence of children that adds to the noise level. The St Ignatius School abuts the Church and says Fr. D'Souza, "The school celebrates 100 years, one year after the Church, in 2014. It started as a small shed with a primary section, today it is a full-fledged

The Church has a tiled roof, which is very difficult to maintain. Overall, the Church needs more than Rs three crore to be restored to its former glory. Says Fr. D'Souza, "We will start work when we have collected at least Rs 50 lakh. We have some money in the kitty today, but we need to start work by March this year, before the monsoon. We have to finish by July 2013. One way of doing this is to tell parishioners to pay Rs 10,000 over a period of 10 months. We are not pushing anybody into paying. As priests we have started paying so that people know we practice what we preach. We also go to different parishes for fund raising. Mumbaikars are very generous."

People maketh a place: Bishop Percival Fernandez Pic/Mahesh Chafe

Asked if he would approach heritage organizations for help as the Church is a heritage structure, Fr. D'Souza said flatly that they had no plans to approach heritage committees, "As they only create more headaches for us by delaying work." Fr. D'Souza believes he would be able to garner that very challenging amount, saying, "I have 100 per cent faith. I believe in the Holy Spirit." Besides faith though, a little Facebook would help. The Church is tapping its Non Resident Indian (NRI) parishioners through social networking sites. "Recently, friends in London in the Capel area collected Rs 22,500 and gave it to me," says Fr. D'Souza, proving that the Lord does indeed move in a mysterious way His wonders to perform. Fr D'Souza says that they have been approached by several Bollywood units in the past who offer good sums of money, "For shooting inside the Church, but I insist that the decorum of the place has to be maintained. Sometimes, these units do not err intentionally maybe, but they do not know the right way to conduct themselves."

The Church is proud of the fact that it has given a Bishop to the Bombay Archdiocese. Says, Emeritus Auxiliary Bishop of the Bombay Archdiocese, Percival Fernandez, "I was first Assistant of the St Ignatius Church and also in charge of the adjoining St Ignatius School from 1967 to 1971. After that, I went to other parishes and returned in 1974 to 1978 as parish priest.

Even in the late 1970s, the Church building was showing signs of wear and tear." The Bishop remembers, "We actually re-built the rectory (residence, or former residence, of a rector, most often a Christian cleric) that exists today. It had a chronic leakage problem and we added foundations plus one floor to the rectory. During that time, we made a corridor inside the St Ignatius School. Earlier, teachers had to go from one class to another through the classes, so we made a corridor they could use."

Needs attention: The stonework on the outside of the building

Bishop Fernandez says that he remembers his tenure at St Ignatius, "Because of the people in the area, there was a much larger Catholic presence at that time, I think almost 9,000 Catholics in the area and now it has dwindled to approximately 3,000. Many of them lived in the BIT blocks in the area. Now, of course, I meet these parishioners of St Ignatius in other parishes in places like Mira Road, Borivali and Kandivali. They have moved away to far flung pockets even going to Vasai and Nalasopara for better and bigger flats. At the time they moved, flats in the suburbs were going for much cheaper then. They meet me and say, you were my parish priest, you were my principal (school)," he laughs.

Bishop Fernandez says it is a challenge to repair the Church and preserve the building's heritage structure. Fernandez says of his personal path, "In 1978, I was called by Cardinal Valerian Gracias to look after the administration of St John's Medical College in Bangalore. I was there for two years, after which I went to the USA in 1980 to do my MBA and after that, did my PhD in management. I returned to St John's Medical College as director, and in 2000 I came back to Mumbai. In 2001, I became the Auxiliary Bishop of the Bombay Archdiocese, retiring in 2010 when I became 75. I am now Emeritus." Even as some look with trepidation at the future of churches, Bishop Fernandez says one should have no qualms. "The parishioners on the whole, in Mumbai, have not dwindled, they have simply shifted to the outskirts or in the suburbs," he finishes. 

Fr. D'Souza does say that the average age of parishioners is getting older. "Our average age group of parishioners is about 55, younger people do not come in regularly except on days like Ash Wednesday and All Souls Day, when you see the Church will be jam- packed like at Christmas. One reason for this is that so much has changed. Today, youth work in call centres, which are open on Sundays. Earlier, the Church was social hub with picnics and outings for parishioners. Today, outside agencies take youngsters on outside excursions and entertainment, they who do not need the Church to socialise," says Fr D'Souza.

Compelling: A stain glass interior

Globally, Fr. D'Souza says, "Churches in the West are becoming pubs and nightclubs. Because people are not going to Church, there are no funds. This is not to sound dark but we have lost our way here. I remember a recent visit to Brussels (Belgium). Earlier this was a very devout Roman-Catholic place. One would see statues of Our Lady in little street corners everywhere. On a recent visit there, I went to a chocolate factory selling a huge variety of chocolates from dark to white and chocolates for diabetics too. One counter I found was very crowded. I asked my friends, why is this so? They told me to look carefully at what I see there. I was shocked -- they were selling chocolates of private organs of men and women and people were buying these to give to their friends as novelty items! In Amsterdam, there is a red light area just behind a Cathedral. The world has reached a stage of sin."

Even as Fr. D'Souza lamented the wavering moral compass of the world, some of that gloom lifted as we stepped into the Church, its cool interiors, breathtaking stained glass windows, wooden benches and the unique canopy under which the altar stood. Like all holy places, this one too, exuded a sense of calm even as the relentless Mumbai traffic roared outside. It was a place where for nearly 100 years people have been coming in to find solutions to questions, apply salve to wounds and get the answers they may be seeking.

Whether they got them, one does not know. One thing is certain though, in the hurly-burly of modern living with one foot on the accelerator, it is places like these that allow us to slow down a little, introspect and make peace with oneself.

A common phrase goes: as you go through life, take time to smell the flowers. Inside the St Ignatius Church, one could amend that to: As you go through life, take time to look at the stain glass.

Father Joe D' Souza has used rhyme to put together an appeal for parishioners to contribute towards the Centenary Fund.

Some of those lines read:
>> St Ignatius Church, will soon start its Centenary Fund.
>> The work of painting and outside repairs, need to be urgently done.
>> I feel all well wishers, friends and ex-parishioners can help. 
>> Giving cheques, money, plus some material wealth.
>> Now is the time to rise up and give.
>> As God's people, we will not just sit still. 
>> Thanks be to God, we still have two more years.
>> I (Fr Joe) have absolutely no fear.
>> Under God's Providence every need will be met.
>> Safe and secure and free from any debt.

>> The Church will mark 100 years in 2013.
>> Fund raising for the Church building has already started.
>> The St Ignatius School, attached to the Church will mark 100 years in 2014.
>> Immediate goals are restoration and repair of the Church building.
>> Work is scheduled to start by March 2012.

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