KARACHI: It was among the dusty, narrow streets of Akhtar Colony, tucked away among haphazard residential flats, that architect Kausar Ali was commissioned to design the country’s biggest Catholic church.
The new, improved and much expanded Saint Peter’s Church opened its doors for services on November 9 and requests for wedding ceremonies and other services have flooded in. The brown-brick building sprawls over 21,000 square feet and can house 5,000 worshippers at a time. Overshooting St Patrick’s Cathedral’s capacity of 2,000 people, St Peter’s Church is now the largest Catholic church in Pakistan.
Its arched hall is divided into two floors. It has been meticulously carved into a stable structure even though the land it stands on is angled. It stretches up to 24 metres high and is fitted with stained glass windows and crystal symbols. At the far end, after a slight bend in the long hall, stands the sanctuary for priests and the altar marked by a full archway. The long pews are a fair distance from the altar. Below the crucifix is the customary sanctuary light that remains on at all times as an indication of the leftover Communion – the bread symbolising the body of Christ – from the Sunday mass in the tabernacle. Holy water spouts for visitors to bless themselves as they enter are fixed along the walls and there is a baptismal font at the foot of the grotto of Our Lady. The architect has paid particular attention to light and has used reflective, glittering white marble and cement on the floors and walls. But amid all of this its is the colourful paintings that bring the church to life.
Saint Peter’s namesake is decked with his effigy above the sanctuary arch and the dome of the sanctuary is adorned with a colossal painting depicting a number of scenes from St Peter’s life with Jesus.
The acoustics of the main hall have been designed specifically with the help of popular musician Louis J Pinto, commonly known as Gumby. They allow the choir to be heard across the hall without any added amplification.
Though it snowballed into a huge project, the idea for the re-construction of St Peter’s Church did not start out that way. “Due to our limited resources we had not imagined that we were embarking on a service as big as this,” explained Father Mario Rodrigues, the church’s assistant parish priest. Already busy making arrangements for the fourth wedding on the fifth day after the church opened, the priest told The Express Tribune that the ground-breaking ceremony was held on November 22 back in 2009. Workers began demolishing the original 26-year-old church on January 2010.
Once construction began, a lot of international and national societies got together to expand the church. They include the Missio, Pontifical Mission Societies, the Italian Bishop’s Conference and the Rothenberg diocese in Germany. However, what Fr Rodrigues described as the most heartening contributions, were those from the community that made up almost 25% of the total cost – Rs5 million. He reminisced about one of the initial donations of Rs50,000. When the Fathers decided to go to the family’s house to thank them personally, they were shocked to see that the donors lived in a two-room house. “We were so touched that we decided we could not accept it from them but they insisted, saying that they had been saving the money especially for the church over the course of several years.”
The Perpetual Adoration chapel is among the most exclusive services offered at the church. The room with glass walls will remain open around the clock. It is the first time such a service has been made available for 24 hours at any church in the city, said Fr. Rodrigues.
All through the 11-month period of noisy construction, everyone in the neighbourhood coorperated, said Rehan, a Christian worker at the church. The audio and video CD shop owner always stops his loud promotional music during ceremonies and the entire commercial lane shut down for security on the day of the inauguration.
The church will cater to Akhtar Colony, Mehmoodabad, Kashmir Colony and Manzoor Colony’s Catholic community – an estimated 3,800 families with an average of six members each. It falls under St Paul’s Parish Priest Father Saleh Diego.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 16th, 2011.