Bombay Showcase

Holy be its name

The glowing frescoes that cover the ceiling of the Cathedral of the Holy Name were executed by a single Italian priest in just a year—Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury  

Where in Mumbai would you find a fierce dragon? Or a charming widow brandishing the decapitated head of her enemy? Or, for that matter, a bell named Paulina?

Strangely, the answer lies not on the fantasy shelves of the neighbourhood library, but in the leafy bylanes of Colaba. For the twin spires of the Cathedral of the Holy Name mark a space that is not just serene and spiritual, but also a repository of eye-popping stories. Some of these unfold on the ruby-and-sapphire-hued stained-glass windows. Others on the golden, vaulted ceilings. While still others are hidden amid the memorial slabs and tombs that dot this lovely church.

Of course, most Mumbaikars have a nodding acquaintance with the 111-year-old stone structure: the cathedral has won heritage awards and its pealing bells and octagonal belfries are prominent denizens of Colaba. Most of us have attended a wedding or funeral under the solemn gaze of St Dominic and St Francis. Or stopped to admire the pretty symmetry — the church is flanked by Fort Convent School and the Archbishop’s House — as we head to Sahakari Bhandar for groceries.

But the Cathedral of the Holy Name (also known as Wodehouse Church/Cathedral) is more than a handsome façade, a fact I discovered when I was a student in Fort Convent.

As schoolgirls, we spent many rainy lunch-breaks in the church, lighting candles, getting acquainted with the saints and sinners, enjoying the golden hush, and, of course, soaking in the stories of Jesus Christ. Then there was Saint George who rescued a princess from a plague-bearing, children-devouring dragon, and Judith who chopped off the head of an Assyrian general to save her people. And, of course, the long-forgotten Bombayites: Dona Rufina Angelice, Relict of the late comendador Jose Correa Aguiarde Aguiar of Oporto; Millicent Eileen Helen, the beloved daughter of Mr and Mrs JR Goodser who died when she was just 13.

Indeed, the cathedral certainly deserves more than its lowly Trip Advisor ranking — 140 of 432 “Things To Do in Mumbai” — and is an integral part of the city’s local history.

The story of the Wodehouse Church began towards the end of the 19th century, when the Catholic community in the Fort outgrew its cramped chapel in Meadows Street. Often, worshippers arrived on Sundays to find every seat taken. While this caused disappointment to some, lukewarm Catholics made “this want of accommodation also occasionally an excuse why they do not go to Church at all.”

The dynamic archbishop, Theodore Dalhoff, realised it was time for a change: away from the bustle and commerce of Fort to dignified Colaba, with its open spaces and salubrious sea breeze. So on March 1, 1900, archbishop Dalhoff shot off a letter to the City of Bombay Improvement Trust requesting two particular plots of land in order to build “a church, a priest’s residence and school.” The Trust was unhelpful, and sniffily suggested another plot behind the Tramway stables (where Nathalal Parekh Marg and BEST Marg intersect).

His Grace indignantly replied that proximity to the horse stables would be obnoxious, and the clatter of the trams would disturb the services. The back-and-forth carried on for months till the archbishop got his way.

Walter Ashbridge Chambers, an established architect, was appointed to build the neo-Gothic church. In July 1902, the foundation stone was laid to sonorous Gregorian chants and a promise from the archbishop that the new church would be made both beautiful and comfortable, and “ample provision would be made for fresh air and breeze.” The Examiner (the Catholic Newsweekly established in 1850) concluded its coverage of the event by contemplating the delight of the Catholic visitor to India when “he enters our new and handsome Church of the Holy Name whose tapering spires have saluted him already far out at sea.”

Over the next two years, these spires rose rapidly, though there were the usual gripes about the monsoon and irregular workmen. Statues of the saints were acquired in Munich and elaborate windows were made of Munich glass. Incredibly, the glowing frescoes that cover the ceiling with Biblical scenes were all executed by a single Italian priest, Brother Moscheni of Bergamo, in just a year. St George and St Theodore bagged pride of place in the church, as they were patron saints of the first two archbishops of Bombay, George Porter and Theodore Dalhoff.

On January 15, 1905, Bombay awoke to the ringing of four new bells, “not altogether with that perfect manipulation which can only be acquired by practice, but sufficiently well to show their musical power.” And at 8 am, the doors were opened to “this great monument of decorative art”.

Over the last century, the bell-ringers have had plenty of practice. The church has been elevated to a cathedral, and visited by Popes. The choir is famous. The frescoes have been carefully restored by INTACH. Still, attendance has fallen, as parishioners have moved to the suburbs: the late Cardinal Simon Pimenta, who compiled a history of his beloved cathedral, once remarked ruefully: “You know, when I was young, one couldn’t enter the church during a service, now there’s enough room for one to sleep on a pew.”

Even so, the Cathedral remains a tranquil sanctuary, disturbed only by the occasional screech of schoolgirls. A place where worshippers beseech St Anthony to help them find lost passports and wedding rings, where others wander in to enjoy the peace, paintings and tales of times past.

See . Shabnam Minwalla is a freelance journalist, who has written three books for children: The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street , The Shy Supergirl , and The Haunting of Model High School .

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 9:29:30 AM |

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