Standing room only as new church opens its doors

St Mary's Catholic Church, near Oasis Hospital, officially accommodates 1,550 worshippers.

December 8, 2009-St. Mary's Catholic church Al Ain 
the ceremony for the blessing of  the new church building with 2,000 parishioners attending.
Essam Al Ghalib/ The National *** Local Caption ***  IMG_0554_3.jpg
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AL AIN // A new church built to accommodate an increasing number of parishioners opened its doors for the first time this week. St Mary's Catholic Church, near Oasis Hospital, officially accommodates 1,550 worshippers. But on Tuesday, 2,500 of the 4,000 congregation squeezed into the Dh15 million (US$4m) church to celebrate its inaugural Mass.

The capacity of the original church, built 40 years ago, was 250. It was demolished last year to make way for the new building. Tuesday's service, at which the new church was consecrated, was held by Bishop Paul Hinder, the Vicar Apostolic of Arabia. Before the Mass, St Mary's parish priest, Father Anthony Puthenpurakkal, 39, recalled the limitations of the old church. "For many years, worshippers had to gather outside when the building couldn't accommodate the number of parishioners attending the services. The original building was just too small," he said.

The deeds were first signed over to the Catholic community by Sheikh Zayed, the late President of the UAE, in 1969. St Mary's was constructed in the same year under the guidance of the then parish priest, Father Barnabas Madii. On Monday, the new church was officially opened by Sheikh Hazza bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, the under-secretary of the Royal Court and the Ruler's Representative for the Eastern Region. The ceremony was attended by Bishop Hinder, Father Anthony, St Mary's parish councillors and other church and government dignitaries.

"Sheikh Hazza was gracious to come," said the parish councillor Matthew Keenan, 54, an American who lectures at UAE University. "His coming and sitting next to the Bishop was a symbol of tolerance and understanding." Contributions from Catholic communities within the GCC and local parishioners, plus a bank loan, paid for the new church. Construction began in October last year. "That the church was completed in the given time frame of just over a year was nothing short of a miracle," Father Anthony said.

"There was tremendous support from the Government and the Catholics in the [region]," Bishop Hinder said. "Otherwise, I don't think the community in Al Ain would have been able to do it by themselves. But that is what is wonderful in our church - that the solidarity all over the country is always playing a key role." The new church was designed and built by the local civil engineering company Nael General Contracting.

It features floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows. The ground floor seats 750 worshippers and the basement holds 600. There is seating for a further 200 on the first-floor balcony. There is also a choir room, facilities for mothers and babies, and two confessionals. A lack of funds meant the planned vicarage has been put on hold. Santush Matthias, 28, a banker in Dubai who comes from Bangalore, India, attended the ceremony on Tuesday night.

"The old building was too congested but people dealt with it," he said. "This new building looks very good. I love the stained glass windows. I had never seen that before." The church holds two daily services during the week. On Saturdays and Sundays, four services are held each day, two in Arabic, one in English and one in Urdu.