The parish priest of the St Mary of Immaculate Conception Church, Kutchery Road, has threatened to go on a hunger strike if the city district government does not hand over the administration of the church to the Roman Catholic Church Archdiocese of Lahore.
“We have been fighting for St Francis High School at the church for years… illegal attempts to take over land will not be ignored,” Father Andrew Nisari said on Monday.
Nisari alleged that a land mafia and some “elements in the government” wanted to illegally take over some of the land in the church compound.
“The government is delaying the matter despite court orders to resolve it in three months.” Nisari said, “We have had our church, our community and our school here for 170 years…we just cannot let this land be taken away.”
According to the Archdiocese of Lahore, the issue dates back to 1984 when the church sought to regain administrative control of St Francis School following the nationalisation of missionary schools in 1972.
“The compound houses a church, established in 1861. It is one of the oldest churches in the city,” said Sebastian Francis Shaw, the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Lahore.
The school was one of the 17 Catholic schools in Lahore, he said. “Following the 2004 denationalisation, 16 of these schools have been handed over to the Archdiocese of Lahore… except the St Francis High School.”
He said this was because the church was unable to prove ownership of the school land in terms of relevant paperwork.
In 2005, Shaw said an application was filed in the Lahore High Court by for control of school facilities.
“In May 2013, the LHC ordered the DCO to resolve the issue within three months but there has been no progress… In December, the CDGL started cutting trees and earthmoving, and demolished the boundary wall of St Francis School… we filed a contempt petition on December 12.”
On December 12 and December 19 the church administration organised protest demonstrations accusing the CDGL of illegal construction in the church compound.
They also alleged that the government had demolished the western wall of the compound.
Executive District Officer (Education) Pervaiz Akhtar told The Express Tribune that the planned construction was meant to provide five additional classrooms at the school.
“The work stopped following allegations of encroachment by the church administration,” he said.
Akhtar said there was a perception in the Christian community that the construction was a ruse to take control of the land.
“The real issue is the administrative control of the school.”
He said the school was still under government control, denationalisation of several missionary schools in 2004 notwithstanding.
Tariq Zaman, principal staff officer to the DCO, told The Express Tribune that the matter would be taken up after Christmas.
“We are committed to bringing everyone to the table,” Zaman said.
Faculty and alumni
Siddique Masih Sahotra, who matriculated from St Francis School in 1973, says the school was one of the leading Urdu medium schools. A teacher himself, Sahotra is upset by uncertainty about the school’s fate.
George William, a sports teacher, too talks of “good old years.” “Look at what it has turned into… It is in ruins…a complete mess.” he says.
According to Father Andrew Nisari, the school, established in 1842, was initially meant to educate only girls.
Built over 39 kanals, the two old buildings that originally housed the school were abandoned several years ago. The classrooms have been locked and furniture discarded.
Classes were shifted to an adjacent building, previously used as a hostel, and another building located across the main building. The Urdu medium school still provides education till the tenth grade. The school that in 1972 had more than 3,000 students now has only 200 to 300 students.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 24th, 2013.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Sebastian Francis Shaw is an administrator of the church instead of the archbishop. The error is regretted.