Joy for devoted flock over Pope Francis' visit to Bahrain's 'Mother Church'

Three of the oldest Catholic residents tell of a time when the Gulf’s first church was built 83 years ago

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Inside a Bahraini villa, on an altar filled with paintings and statues of Christ, is a hand-carved wooden crucifix that belonged to the man who built the region’s first Roman Catholic church.

The homes of the Gulf’s first Catholic families are rich with such keepsakes precious to the faithful who have lived in the country for decades.

Every day Najla Uchi prays before her colourful altar packed with rosary beads and candles.

As she bows her head, she remembers how her father Salman Uchi, a contractor from Baghdad who had lived in Bahrain for some years, was given the responsibility to build the Sacred Heart Church in 1939.

More than 80 years on, this historic place of worship will welcome Pope Francis as part of his landmark tour of Bahrain in November.

Quote
I love my church not because my father built it but because of the priests, nuns and the people who come to pray
Najla Uchi, daughter of a Bahraini citizen who built the first church in the Gulf

“My father came to Bahrain as a young man from Baghdad, and we have lived here all our life,” the 78-year-old grandmother told The National.

“Everyone lived near each other and walked to the church. We were all like one family.

“After Baba [her father] built the church everything was celebrated there ― christenings, holy communion, anniversaries.

“Not many people are left now from those days.”

Ms Uchi remembers stories her mother told her of how, before the church was built, they prayed at a neighbour’s home that was also the space for catechism classes for children.

She proudly displays a gold medal given by the church for her father’s service and faded black-and-white photographs of the family dressed in their Sunday best.

Mr Uchi and his family were later granted Bahraini citizenship.

The serene stone and wood church with high rafters, teak-panelled walls and arched stained glass windows was called the Mother Church because it was the first to be built in the Gulf.

Church bells would then ring daily to let the faithful know that Mass would soon begin.

The land was donated by the ruler of Bahrain at the time, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who ruled from 1932 until his death in 1942.

In the 1930s there were about 400 Catholics from India, Iraq and the UK in Bahrain, according to church archives.

The congregation has expanded to more than 80,000 with a bigger church built near the original Manama church and a larger Lady of Arabia cathedral in Awali, a town south of the capital.

There is a rising sense of anticipation across the tiny island of Bahrain about the four-day visit by Pope Francis in November.

Golden crowns to give thanks

Older parishioners search for memorabilia from newspaper clippings to books on the first Catholic residents to show the historical ties between the church with the region.

The community is tight knit with priests visiting older parishioners and supporting them through tough times.

Prayer is integral to Ms Uchi’s life. The rooms of her villa echo with Arabic hymns played from the television.

Najla Uchi's prayer altar at her home in Manama, Bahrain. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

The altar is decorated with miniature gold crowns she has carefully placed on marble statues of Mary and on paintings of Jesus.

These are part of a thanksgiving tradition followed by generations of Catholics in the region for prayers that have been answered.

“I ask for good health when people fall ill. And when we get what we ask for, I put a crown on the head of Jesus,” she said.

“I call priests and sisters [nuns] to my house every year for Christmas. My children are always there for me but when my husband died, the priests and nuns also became my family.

“I love my church not because my father built it but because of the priests, the nuns and the people who come to pray.

“The pope coming is so special. He comes bringing peace but I also want him to come and see what Bahrain is."

Sound of church bells

Alex Simoes, among Bahrain’s oldest Catholic residents, remembers sprinting up the stairs of the belfry to ring the church bells as a young boy.

The bells have been silent for some years but work is in full swing to spruce up the church.

The pope will address priests and parish workers at the church on November 6, the final day before he returns to Rome.

Mr Simoes points out his eldest sister being cradled by his mother in a photograph taken the year the church was built.

Alex Simoes, one of Bahraini's oldest Catholic residents, holds a photograph with his sister – then a baby in his mother's arms – in 1939, the year the first church in the Gulf was built in Manama, Bahrain. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

“My sister was the first to be baptised in the church in 1939,” said the 79-year-old, whose family is from India.

“I would walk to the church, light the candles before Mass and run up the bell tower to ring the bells.

“People would come to church in the morning before work. Mass was said in Latin then.

“Now we are the oldest parishioners; others have died or migrated.”

Mr Simoes returned to church after school to light candles for the evening prayers when he would be joined by his three sisters.

“It meant a lot to my family to come to church every day,” he said.

“And it means a lot for us that the pope is coming to Bahrain.”

Prayers are held in several languages including English, Spanish, Arabic and the Indian languages of Konkani, Tamil, Malaylam and Hindi to serve a congregation that spills into the church grounds on weekends.

Sanctuary of peace

Florine Mathias moved to Bahrain as a teenage bride from India in 1960.

Her bond with the church is strong because she assists underprivileged sections of society who need support.

It is also the centre for milestone silver and golden wedding anniversary celebrations.

Florine Mathias at her home in Manama, Bahrain. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

“The Mother Church is a peaceful monument ― whoever walks in there never goes out crying ― that is my experience.

“This parish has helped me grow spiritually.

“I remember the days when the church bells would ring five minutes before Mass and I would run there to pray.

“When somebody died there was a certain bell so we knew to pray for them.

“There were so few families then, now the grounds are full with thousands of people”

It will take sheer willpower for the 76-year-old to be at the Papal Mass next month because she is recovering from surgery for a hip fracture she suffered on a recent trip to Florida.

She is determined to be at the Bahrain National Stadium on November 5 along with 28,000 people to hear the pontiff speak.

The majority of the crowd will be from Bahrain, with quotas for 2,000 worshippers from Saudi Arabia and 500 people each from Qatar, Oman and the UAE.

Residents view Pope Francis’s visit as a testimony to the strength of the small but vibrant Catholic community in Bahrain.

“I don’t know if I will be able to stand for long but I will manage. The pope coming to us is extraordinary,” she said.

“From my heart I know, this is my home, I have lived here because it is a friendly and kind country.

“The pope is visiting our home to spread peace, healing and happiness.

“It is a blessed time for us all. Our prayers are being answered."

Updated: November 03, 2022, 7:58 AM
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