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Steeped in spiritual aura

K. VENKATESHWARLU

St. Joseph's Cathedral, Gunfoundry, holds a special place for many a devotee


FROM DOWNING one til ka laddoo after another while flying kites during Sankranti to hogging "palam cake" in Christmas and gulping sheer khurma in Ramzan in between, blessed are cosmopolitan Hyderabadis to experience series of diverse festivals all round the year. It is much like the way the Hyderabad skyline is dominated not just by the minars and the `dwajasthambams', but the towers and the spires.

It is late December again and Christmas is round the corner. Weather is quite chilly but there is music in the air, with the soothing tunes of carol singing wafting across the neighbourhoods. There is this last moment rush for shopping, setting up of Christmas tree, hanging the colourful Christmas star at a vantage point, choosing the best turkey and baking a batch of buttered nuts.

A bonus for growing up in Hyderabad, a veritable melting pot of cultures and studying in a missionary school, is that not only would you develop a broader outlook and better appreciation of each other's faiths but participate wholeheartedly in the feasting that goes with these festivals. After all for a typical Hyderabadi gastronome who can only relate a festival to a particular dish, it is lots of roast turkey and plum cake. That festivals acquire universal appeal in Hyderabad may look a bit exaggerated but you just have to see the crowd near bakeries on the Christmas eve, the downtown Karachi included.

Festivities and feasts apart, Christmas is the time when churches look the best, especially those having a lot of heritage value, dating back to late 19th century British era, the splendid St. Joseph's Cathedral, known for its distinct Italian air and standing flanked by All Saints High School and Rosary Convent at Gunfoundry, being one of them. Located at an elevated spot, perhaps on a rocky outcrop, it has the most impressive facade among the churches in city, the two symmetrical towers almost kissing the sky and a long flight of steps (some of them added recently along with the adjoining new structure). Incidentally, this would be the first Christmas in the newly built cellar. As you climb the stairs onto the vast veranda you are swept away by the spiritual aura and stillness of the place.

Christmas eve has special significance to this cathedral, as it was on the same day that it was opened for divine worship, way back in 1875. Listed as grade three heritage building for its historical and architectural (European renaissance) value, the catholic cathedral has pointed and semi-circular arches with Corinthian pilasters. The nave and chancel look grand and much of the originality is maintained barring the gaudy colour scheme. The alcove holds an imitation of the Michelangelo's "Pieta". "I still remember the blood that oozed out looked so natural", said Amul, an active member of the cathedral committee. "If you take an aerial view the cathedral structure looks like a cross with the two towers akin to lighted candles", he explains.

It was Monsignor (Msgr) Dominic Barbero, Vicar Apostolic, who enjoyed the support of the First Minister of Nizam, Nawab Asman Jah, who was instrumental in initiating the church project. After getting the required permission on December 16, 1869, Fr. A Tagliabue bought an extensive plot of land near Kotha Basti now Gunfoundry, to build a School, Church and Convent. Msgr. Peter Caprotti, Vicar General, laid the foundation of the cathedral on March 19, 1870.

Fr. L. Malberti took charge in 1872 and with the aid of local Christians and his family and friends in Italy, completed the main building. In 1886 Hyderabad was made separate Diocese and Msgr. Caprotti was appointed its first Bishop. In the consistory held on March 17, 1887, Pope Leo XIII notified St. Joseph's Church to be the Cathedral of the Diocese. The then Parish boundary was extensive from the Krishna district in the East to Sholapur in the West, Trimulgherry in the North to Nellore in the South. Having given birth to many churches, the boundary is now restricted to a few areas in city.

It took 16 long years to complete the imposing towers and the façade of the Church in 1891, the main reason being funds crunch. The five huge bells shipped from Milan in Italy were installed in 1892. Ferrying and putting them on the top of the tower would have been a challenging task at a time when there was no crane. "These magnificent bells, among the best in the country, are tuned in such a fashion that on the Proclamation of the Dogma of the Assumption, the members of the cathedral choir, played many Marian hymns", recalls Amul. The ring of the bell could be heard for a long distance (old timers say, till Secunderabad Cantonment). All the statues, the beautiful mural carvings of the 14 Stations and various artefacts (some of them missing now) were imported from Italy.

It was Dr. Vigano, who invited and handed over the now famous Rosary Convent High School to the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary on December 11, 1903. Dr. Vismara invited the Franciscan Brothers to administer All Saint's School and they took charge on June 21, 1925. Three years later when they left for work in Bidar, he called upon the Brothers of St. Gabriel, to take charge of the School on June 2, 1932. From here it developed into St. Mark's Boys Town, Little Flower and St. Paul's. Over the years from 1924, the cathedral has given 23 vocations both to the Diocese and the Religious.

Entombed inside the cathedral are the three beloved souls priest and bishops who are remembered even today for their simple and virtuous life. First was Fr. Malbreti, the man with a mission and Rector of All Saints, who completed the task of cathedral construction, under extreme circumstances of a not so open regime. He loved the church so much that he chose to be consecrated here while most of his contemporaries preferred their native Rome or Milan. Then resident Bishop Msgr. Caprotti, died at Yercaud, but his mortal remains were brought back and buried here. Msgr Vismara, the longest serving Bishop and the most loved father of Hyderabad too was laid to rest here.

No surprise, the cathedral has special place for the devout like R. K. Swamy who had been coming here for over 80 years now. "I did not miss praying at the church a single day. If I do, I feel I have lost something." The present Parish priest, Fr. C. Charles, echoes similar feelings, "I feel privileged to serve here."

There are several notable features of the cathedral, apart from the towers, the arches and the bells. Fr. D Magri changed the old altar using marble of Yercaud. The seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan was a frequent visitor to the cathedral and even attended midnight services. The clock on the tower, the rare oil painting of the "Madonna and Child" by Murillo, all the chandeliers and some of the furniture were gifted by him on February 17, in 1953.

The cathedral had its first native Parish Priest in Fr. Alfred Fernandez, who was a vocation from the cathedral itself. After the Second Vatican Council, Msgr. Fernandez installed the altar facing the people. Fr. M Dhanaraju built the present altar in 1976.

For feedback: varlu@thehindu.co.in

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