Inside the real global village, Dubai's sprawling multilingual Catholic church

The vast and unique congregation is made up of some 80 nationalities

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Tucked away down a quiet side street in Dubai, St Mary’s Catholic Church may not be able to boast the towering domes of St Peter’s Basilica or the gothic archways of Seville Cathedral.

But what this less than imposing place of worship lacks in architecture, it is safe to say it more than makes up for by way of congregation.

During Christmas or Easter, close to 300,000 people from some 80 countries make their way from all corners of the city to attend its packed, sometimes hourly services.

And with the highly anticipated arrival of Pope Francis in the UAE this Saturday, it is no overstatement to suggest every single parishioner is now on tenterhooks.

“This is truly where the world meets,” said Father Lennie Connully, the cheerful parish priest.

“We call it our 'global village' in Dubai and it’s a unique experience. It’s so crowded on a Friday or Saturday that we have to keep a half-hour gap between services so there’s enough time for people to leave.”

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - A Filipino mass being held at St. Mary's Catholic Church to celebrate the feast of Sto. Nino.  Leslie Pableo for The National

In many ways St Mary’s Church - one of nine Catholic parishes in the UAE - perfectly captures the increasingly rich spiritual diversity of the Emirates.

The diocese welcomes worshipers from all over the Philippines, India, and South America, and even holds services in Arabic.

Built in 1967, its congregation expanded so rapidly that a new, more spacious structure was required.

And in 1988, a much larger church was constructed, complete with elaborately etched windows and more than 100 long wooden pews.

“Sometimes people attend a Mass in a language they may not speak simply because so many different cultures meet here,” said Father Connully.

“We have Mass in lots of major languages including Arabic services and several Indian dialects as well.”

This week, each and every St Mary’s parishioner is now counting down the hours until the Pope’s visit on February 3.

On Sunday, some 10,000 people queued late into the night for their chance to collect one of 43,000 tickets allocated to the parish for the Pope’s public Mass.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES -People got their tickets at St. Mary's Catholic Church, Oud Mehta.  Leslie Pableo for The National for Patrick Ryan's story

The pontiff is expected to deliver his address from Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi at 10.30am on the 5th.

More than 130,000 people will attend the Mass, with the event also being live-streamed around the country for others.

“We never thought it would be possible for us to see the Pope here in a Muslim country,” said Renalyne Felicelda, a Filipino who described how her husband and three-year-old old daughter had both suffered from serious illnesses in recent years.

“It’s a big thing for us. My whole family is going to Abu Dhabi to hear the Pope speak because we have been through so much. I just want to ask for his blessings for good health.”

Renalyne Felicelda with her daughter Denise who was born prematurely and needed multiple operations. 

Siby John, from southern India and a regular at the church for 30 years, described the deep sense of excitement surrounding the Pope’s visit.

He told how St Mary’s acted as a hub to a vast community, all of whom saw the papal visit as a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“We are just so happy our Papa is coming,” he said. “Everyone wants to hear him speak. It’s also our opportunity to give thanks for our family and our jobs.”

Last week at the church, thousands of Filipino worshippers celebrated the feast of Santo Niño, in remembrance of Christ’s childhood.

The compound outside was packed with people dancing in elaborate dresses and singing in Tagalog, one of two national languages spoken in the Philippines.

People from more than 80 countries worship at the church each the week

Inside the church, however, the scene was very different, with a priest leading a service in Malayalam, a language predominately spoken in the Indian state of Kerala.

It is exactly this type of multi-cultural make-up, explained Father Connully, that the faithful thrive on.

“Pope Francis is a man of peace and a man of the people who will bring a message of tolerance to us all,” he said.

“Two major religions come together here in the UAE and the Pope is like a bridge builder, making sure people meet, exchange views and continue to live in harmony.”