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A spiritual odyssey

June 21, 2009


Place yourself in front of the entrance to the St Patrick's Cathedral and, rest assured, you'll hold your breath. It's a picture of aesthetic grace that gradually but surely helps its viewer embark on a spiritual journey. Flanked by St Joseph's Girls School and St Patrick's Girls High School, the cathedral is not just 'a tall building with towers and bells', it signifies a milieu - of dignity, peace and compassion.

The sight even makes you indifferent to the hullabaloo that has become so characteristic of the Saddar area around it - dingy restaurants, incommodious stores, encroaching pushcarts and an unmissable police station. Perhaps that's why it is important in this day and age to value and protect places that provide inner solace.

The marble, Christ the King monument in the foreground of St Patrick's Cathedral will initially grab your attention. It was constructed in 1931 (half a century after the church was built) to honour the memory of the Jesuit Mission in Sindh. After having a good look at it, you'll slant your head to look behind and see the not-so-ostentatious yet splendid church building. Its imposing tower, pointed lancet arches, wonderful spires and eye-catching vaulting will blow you away. The fact that it is well taken care of and looks picturesque is testimony to the sincerity of those who are responsible for its upkeep.

Hillary Pereira, supervisor of the premises, says “Why shouldn't it look beautiful? It was made by honest people. It's more than a century old, but looks as nice as always. The place is cleaned on a daily basis and we do our utmost to keep it spotless.”

Good point honest people. Who were those honest people and how did the construction of St Patrick's Cathedral come about?

In the latter half of the 19th century the Catholic Goan community in Karachi had increased significantly. They were considered a notable group because they knew the language that the Brits spoke, were enlightened people and tended to grow with the fast-moving time. Therefore it had become rather important to come up with a church. The idea materialised in 1881, and in its initial years its chapel was used as a school, which three or four years later was destroyed by a squally storm.

As far as its design is concerned, it was made by Father Wagner, Brother Kluver and Brother Iau (all of whom were members of the Society of Jesus) and not by any known architect. Strange, but wasn't it befitting? And didn't they do a fantabulous job?

The structure is one of the largest of its kind in Pakistan and has room for 1,500 church-goers. Constructed with Gizri stone, it has a tower with big pointed stained-glass windows, and covers an area of 52x22 square metres. It's built in the Indo-Gothic style, and no church in the subcontinent was used as a model for it. That's it for the research part.

So how well-kept is it? Haven't the vagaries of time done anything to it?

Architect Arif Hasan says “I think they did restore it in recent past, but I don't know much about it. However, it's in pretty good condition.”

He is spot-on. But the question that springs to mind is how do architects or designers manage to create an ambience suffused with tranquility and devoid of worldly woes by using stones, marble and arches? Isn't it oxymoronic? A concrete object conjuring up a calming, intangible feeling!

Mr Hasan says “The magic lies in the elements used in its construction. St Patrick's Cathedral's space divisions are noticeable. Also take note of the proportions - the high arches and lesser width. Such proportions help create a peaceful atmosphere. Those who planned this building were aware of these factors. After all it's a church; it has to have a soothing effect on its visitor.”

He gives another invaluable nugget of information “The cathedral is built in the Gothic style. The 19th century saw the resumption of this method of construction, that is, the one that was in vogue during the Middle Ages in Europe.

“Now what's interesting here is that while the church is an example of Gothic architecture, the monument in the foreground is built in the Renaissance style. The former symbolises spirituality and the latter represents intellect, because the Renaissance period was all about the revival of knowledge. Thus the feeling of peace and enlightenment that you get while viewing this building is but natural,” says Mr Hasan.

Leaving St Patrick's Cathedral doesn't sadden you. Nor does it make you mirthful. It turns you into an understanding human being. It makes you mindful of the fact that there was a time in our nook of the world when peace was not an individual goal or a Utopian ideal, but a collective aim.