St Joseph’s basks in political limelight 150 years on
By Mao Chapman
LAHORE: Celebrations and speeches will today mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of St Joseph’s Church, one of the oldest Catholic churches in Lahore. At a time of fervent religious debate, frequent talks between the government and the religious political parties of the MMA, and a perceived need to improve Pakistan’s image in the West, the small church on the edge of Lahore’s Cantt is about to receive more political attention than at any time during its long history. The church plans to use the opportunity to ask the government to do more for minorities.
Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali, the speaker of the National Assembly Chaudhry Amir Hussain, Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi and other government heavyweights have all chosen to address the anniversary celebrations which take place today (Friday).
According to Archbishop Dr Lawrence John Suldanaha, the most senior representative of the Catholic Church in the Punjab, the appearance of so many legislative luminaries is an event of “great luck”, the Archbishop suggesting that the church may now be “ripe” for politicians to make some mileage. The event is a lucky one, he says, because it allows him to make a well-publicised call for the government to create an independent Minorities Commission with judicial powers. Under present circumstances there is no forum for minority grievances to be addressed, he said, gently deriding the effectiveness of the current minorities minister.
The church and parish of St Jospeh’s have a very different character today to the one they enjoyed when it was founded in 1853 under British rule. As Archbishop Suldanaha explained to Daily Times on Thursday the church at first “had a maintaining purpose”. The idea, he said, “was just to maintain the faith of people who were Catholics already”. The church’s chaplain ranked as a military officer and would receive the usual VIP treatment afforded to British of rank. “At train stations he would be saluted, and shown to first class, and given all those privileges” Archbishop Suldanaha said.
St Joseph’s was founded in 1853 to cater to predominantly Irish and Belgian Catholic soldiers who were stationed in Lahore as part of the imperial British forces. Approximately 50 percent of the soldiers were Catholic, so a salaried chaplain had been stationed in Lahore to tend to the Catholic soldiers’ spiritual needs. The church itself was built in 1853, as demand for a permanent Catholic Church presence in Lahore increased.
Over time, more and more local Christians came to the church, and today the parish of 5,000 families (approximately 25,000 people) consists mostly of local Christians. With this change, says Archbishop Suldanaha, came a drop in status for the church in keeping with the status of the “much maligned” Christian community in Pakistan. But St Joseph’s has built a strong camaraderie amongst its parishioners. “There is a wonderful community fellowship of believers,” said Archbishop Suldanaha, adding that collective celebration of the Christian religious festivals such as Christmas and Easter have become a very important part of that community life.
This “wonderful community” owes much of its strength to the focus that St Joseph’s, and the Catholic Church in Pakistan generally, has on providing education and housing to poor Christians. According to information provided by the archbishop, there are currently 552 Catholic schools in Pakistan providing education in Urdu, English and Sindhi to 150,000 Christian and Muslim students. Schools in St Joseph’s parish currently educate 3,500 in an effort to reduce the estimated 30-40 percent of parish children who receive no schooling at all. Both Archbishop Suldanaha and Father Nasir Gulfam, the parish priest at St Joseph’s, described education as the primary focus for the Catholic Church in Pakistan. At the moment, said Fr Gulfam, “priests have to do so much. People need help with injustices, with contacting politicians and officials, so many things”. But education, “slowly-slowly” will change things and give Christians the voice and support they need.
Today’s celebrations are to involve a reception at which the prime minister, Archbishop Suldanaha, Fr Gulfam and other guests will speak, followed by a cultural programme performed by members of the church community.