Jan 10, 2010
“What is a church?” Let Truth and reason speak,
They would reply, “The faithful pure and meek,
From Christian folds, the one selected race,
Of all professions and in every place”.
- George Crabbe, English poet (1754-1832)
What is a church? – Our honest sexton tells,
“T’is a tall building, with a tower and bells”.
- George Crabbe.
Garbbe’s two visions of the church blend the structure and the people, the body and the soul and, in modern computer language, hardware and software. Both are essential for healthy, efficient growth. That has been the record of Milagres Church at Hampankatta, centre of Mangalore, which is set to celebrated its centenary landmark, starting January 10, 2010, with the inauguration kicking off with a concelebrated Mass presided over by Mangalore Bishop Aloysius P. D’Souza. After the Eucharist, the statue of Our Lady of Miracles will commence its pilgrimage from house to house in the parish. Also, there would be a blood donation camp of 100 donors in the Jubilee Hall. The year-long celebration will conclude on January 16, 2011 with the release of Souvenir, distribution of mementos to parishioners and a tableau on peace and harmony. This is the fifth avatar of the church building of Our Lady of Miracles.
In 1680, Bishop Thomas de Castro built a chapel on the site of the present cemetery. In 1756, a new church was built where the present church stands when Fr Antony Pinto was Vicar. This church was destroyed in 1784 by Tippu Sultan during his rule (1782-1799), together with 26 other churches in Canara. The third church was built, after the return of captives of Tippu Sultan, in 1800, by a certain Lawrence Bellow, said to be a baker for the British. It was a thatched chapel, at a cost of Rs. 400, on the site of the present church – with Fr. Mendes as Chaplain. The fourth church was built on a stronger foundation, in 1811, when Fr. Mendes was Vicar Vara and Fr Manuel Cajetan Gomes was Vicar. On the collapse of this structure, in 1910/11, the present church was constructed when Fr Frank Pereira was Vicar. This magnificent, breath-taking building, with arches, ornate pillars, loft, towers, pulpit (now removed) and canopy over Mother Mary’s statue has endured to celebrate its first centenary. The portico was added when Fr Albert D’Souza was Vicar (1954-1957)
Going back to the time when the first church was built, the 16th century saw a setback for the Catholic community of Canara as it faced a spiritual desolation for want of priests – as they were recalled to Goa. In 1658, a Carmalite missionary visited the Canara Catholics and reported their sorry plight to Rome which appointed Fr. Thomas de Castro as Vicar Apostolic of Canara and Malabar in 1674. On arriving in Mangalore three years later, he began work on the Milagres church and completed it in 1680. Some time later Queen Chennamal, from whom the church site was obtained in the first instance, and King Basappa, resumed the land. In around 1715, a Mangalorean priest, Fr. Pinto, re-secured the land from King Somashekar II. This priest’s nephew, Fr. A. Pinto, who succeeded the former, built a new church at the site of the present church in 1756.
In 1763, Canara fell under the suzereignty of Hyder Ali of Mysore and then, in 1782, his son, Tippu Sultan. Suspecting the loyalty of the Christians (vis-à-vis his enemy, the British), in February 1784, Tippu Sultan captured about 1,80,000 Catholics and herded them to his capital at Srirangapatnam. In the same year, he destroyed 27 churches, including Milagres Church. After the death of Tippu Sultan, the captivity of Christians ended. Among those who returned (only 16,000) to Canara from Srirangapatnam was Lawrence Bellow who built a chapel to replace the demolished church and at the same site. Fr. Mendez, the vicar, secured the necessary furniture, etc., raised funds and secured a contribution of Rs.600 from government and laid the foundation for a new spacious church in 1811. One hundred years later, the façade of the church collapsed. Fr. Frank Pereira, then parish priest, erected the present magnificent church structure, with Fr. Diamanti, S.J., who started Jeppu Workshop, as architect.
While the church building was demolished by Tippu Sultan, some vestiges of pre-Tippu days survive. One of them is the grave of Fr. Thomas de Castro who died on July 16, 1684. It is in the Milagres cemetery and can be identified by the bronze slab next to St. Monica Chapel. The cemetery, spruced up with well laid-out approach paths, ornamental plants and shady trees, has historical gravestones. They say that dead men tell no tales. But, these gravestones have much to say. The Monica Chapel itself is the oldest monument in the present church complex, which was spared when the church structure collapsed, as noted above, was completed in 1887, with the priceless painting of the Baptism of St. Augustine by the world-renowned painter, Guadagnini of Italy, the painter-celebrity of Bergamo Cathedral fame. While “S Monica” is noted above the altar painting, the year of its building and the Pope of the time are noted, in Latin, on the left and right shoulders, respectively.
The other place for discerning historian is the church office. It contains bulky registers recording baptisms in the church. Two volumes cover the period of 1810-1880. Volume I covers the period up to March 1854 and has 720 pages. The writing is in Portuguese and seems to have been transferred from another original document as it is stated, “Copied by order of Mr. Francis Mascarehnas. Pastoral visit 2nd October, 1883, Pagani, S.J.” (the bishop then ). Volume II starts in 1854. The first entry in the baptismal register is of Esparance in 1810 and the last is of Gaspar Maltheor Pereira in 1880. The II volume which ends with page 1605, also contains the baptismal record in alphabetical order, from pages 1327 to 1605 – starting from Alvares (page 1327) and ending with Wood Carlomin (page 1602). There is an index against these names indicating the page on which the name occurs in the detailed register. The writing is remarkably steady and neat, indicating that it had been copied by one single person.
It is interesting to note that the groundwork for the Cordel Church, opened in 1904, was laid much earlier by Fr. Alexander Dubois, a French missionary, who, as parish priest of Milagres had a special corner in his heart for his ministry at Cordel. In 1865, Fr. Alexander Dubois was the parish priest of Milagres Church. Born on March 19, 1809, Fr. Dubois, a hermit-saint, had learnt Konkani and Tulu and he traveled long distances to offer his priestly services. He used to travel barefoot, from his base at Milagres, covering areas like Vamanjoor, Bondel, Kelarai, Cordel and Angelore. Many of these places have now become independent parishes. The cross discretely worshipped in the Cordel forest by the Catholics who escaped captivity by Tippu Sultan was ceremoniously brought by Fr. Dubois to the Cordel plateau where the Cordel Church now stands. As the vision of Fr. Dubois to raise a grand church at Milagres, for which he had grandiose plans, design and lay-out, did not fructify, he shifted his plan of action to Cordel. He met the expenses of this work through 30,000 francs given to him by his family and another 30,000 francs given by his godfather – which otherwise would have been utilized for Milagres.
The cynosure of the congregation at the present Milagres church is the original high altar which has a history of its own. According to Denis Britto, of the Falnir Britto clan, writing in the Tricentenary Souenir (1680-1980), Fr Dubois appealed to his sister in France to present to his planned church at Milagres an artistic altar, bells and so forth. But, when the idea of the new church was broached to the Junta at Milagres, some influential parishioners opposed and restrained him on the question of having to cut just two cocanut trees in the vicinity of the present grotto. Now there are no cocanut trees; but the churc has since ceded, and now again ceding, its compound space for widening the road – presently shifting the outdoor stations of the cross southwards. Consequently, Fr. Dubois shifted his plan to Cordel and his sister’s gift was diverted there. With the resources of his patrimony, the walls at Cordel rose to the height of cornice when a sudden attack of cholera snuffed out his life within two days. (How his funeral took place and how his Samadhi at Cordel became a place of pilgrimage for favour-seekers, not only for Catholics, is another story for another time).
The responsibility of finding money for the building of Cordel church fell on Fr Deslogues. In this context, he disposed off the altar, statuary and bells for ready cash. But, as providence would have it, Denis Britto writes, the magnificent high altar – in monolithic Carrara marble, originally gifted by Madame Dubois for Milagres, now came home to the intended donee. Fired by righteous covetousness, this altar was purchased and donated by Denis Britto’s father, Nicholus Britto, whose name can now be seen on the marble tablet above the main notice board.
Legend says that the marble altar had won the first prize in a Paris exhibition for its originality and elegance. In the original piece, the four-legged supports converged on a set of cumulus clouds, surmounted by a cross embraced by two angels. The tabernacle was niched among the clouds. It is said the Jesuit priests took exception to the artist’s fancy of the tabernacle in the clouds as inappropriate symbolism. Thereupon, the recess meant for the tabernacle was plugged with other similar clouds and cherubs and the tabernacle placed on the altar – to signify that Christ dwells among men and not in the clouds. (The filled niche originally meant for the tabernacle can be visualised if one carefully observes the clouds and cherubs). At the same time four round pillars were added to the tester, and the clouds, cross and angels were hoisted aloft. This provides an impressive canopy for the statue of Our Lady of Miracles.
There is another account of the alter in fading oral history which is recounted here for the record. Instead of winning a prize at the Paris exhibition, it was a reject by those who commissioned it. An artist couple in France had no issue and they vowed to donate an altar to a church and commissioned the sculptor to make it according to the ketch the artists gave. On completion, the couple found it in variance from their conception of it. They advertised offering to donate it free, provided the donee bore the packing and forwarding charges. In this hazy account, the statue landed on Mangalore’s old Bunder and Nicholas Britto redeemed it by paying the packing and forwarding charges of about Rs. 4,000 and donated it to Milagres.
Today, all the pews in the central nave of the church have kneelers with soft cushions. But, there was a time when the pews were reserved for those who paid a one-time price or yearly subscription – which are now deployed in the side isles Elizabeth Britto recalls in the Tricentenary Souvenir that pews and kneelers were provided round 1920 when Fr. F. Pereira, the Vicar, himself went around booking seats and certain families booked an entire pew paying an annual subscription of Rs. 12. “I had two seats with labels”. It is some years since these labels have been yanked out; but you can still see the grooves which embedded the labels on the hand-rest of the old pews.
Centrally located, Milagres Church is a magnet for devotees, including visitors to the city – as it offers a choice of English and Konkani services. It has got a large school complex, and an impressive hall complex, the latter constructed with Neville D’Souza as architect. This cluster of halls makes Milagres Church the hub of community, religious and cultural life in Mangalore because of its easy access to public transport services and ample parking space, compared to other venues in the city. There is more to Milagres than what is noted here, as its impact is felt on the rest of Mangalore and even distant Bidar. But, that saga will have to wait for another occasion. Meanwhile, as we started with the church, it is apt to conclude with it. Daniel Defoe, English author
When God erects a house of prayer
The devil always builds a chapel there;
And ‘twill be found, upon examination,
The latter has the largest congregation.
The devil’s chapel is not a physical presence but its working on the mind. For instance, I am forever distracted by the flowery outpourings on the marble tombstones in the church. But, I am in good company. A woman was seen by the priest shedding tears during his sermon. After the Mass, he asked her as to what part of the sermon moved her to tears. “Your flowing beard reminded me of my best goat which was carried away by the tiger”!
John B. Monteiro, author and journalist, is the editor of his website www.welcometoreason.com (Interactive Cerebral Challenger).
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