Sunday story: St. Philomena’s where faith glows

Prayer halls and places of worship were venerated from time immemorial with the ancients considering them ideal to unlock the distress in their minds and seek peace and solace from the pain and suffering in their lives. Churches, temples and mosques, their imposing exteriors and the peaceful and serene atmosphere within, have always acted as a cushion for the human mind battling a thousand fears and baffling questions about life, death and immortality. This could be the reason why emperors and kings of yore considered it their sacred duty to build iconic structures  where people could pray, meditate and free their minds from troubling thoughts which would have otherwise wrecked their inner peace. One such magnificent structure is right here in the heart of Mysuru— the  St. Philomena’s Cathedral, which was crying for attention for many years and is now being restored by the  department of archaeology, museums and heritage. M.B. Girish delves into the history of the cathedral which has withstood the vagaries of time for almost a century and should be ready with a new look by Christmas.

There are several heritage buildings dotting Mysuru city such as Mysuru Palace, Lalith Mahal and Jaganmohan Palaces which has earned it the tag, ‘Heritage City’ and made it a popular tourist destination in the South. Built in the Neo-Gothic style of architecture, St Philomena’s Cathedral, considered Asia’s second largest church, is a replica of the Cologne Cathedral in Germany and St. Patricks Cathedral in New York.  The twin spires of the church are 180 feet (55 m) tall, making it the tallest structure in Mysuru with a striking resemblance to the Cologne Cathedral and St. Patrick's Church.

A tourist coming from Bengaluru to visit Mysuru and passing via Lakshar Mohalla, cannot fail to catch a  glimpse of the cathedral before proceeding to the heart of the city for a view of the magnificent Mysuru Palace. Like the Taj  in Agra which is fast losing its lustre due to pollution, St. Philomena’s had lost much of its charm due to accumulated dust, growth of vegetation all around and lack of maintenance. The outer structure had turned black and grey because of air pollution.

And how did this structure spring up in the land of the Wodeyars? Due to an increase in the Catholic population  in the city in the 1930s which the little church dedicated to Joseph found too much to handle,  the need was felt for a large church in Mysuru. It was Priest Fr. Rene Feuga who did the groundwork in 1931, the year he took over the parish.

Years of dust accumulation, fungal growth on St. Philomena's Church had turned the structure black.Years of dust accumulation, fungal growth on St. Philomena's Church had turned the structure black.

The foundation stone was finally laid for the new church dedicated to St. Philomena on October 20, 1933 in the premises of St. Joseph's Church. Rt. Rev. Maurice Despatures, the Bishop of the Mysore Diocese, blessed the  stone and it was laid by then Maharaja Sri Krishnaraja Wodeyar Bahadur IV.

This is no ordinary church, the main hall  can seat up to 800 people and has stained glass windows depicting scenes from the birth of Christ, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Ascension of Christ. But the wear and tear of a century had left the church structure fragile with parts of its minars even starting to shake forcing the department of archaeology, museums and heritage to take up restoration. The task was entrusted to Savani Heritage Conservation Private Limited, Mumbai, a firm with a reputation of  successfully restoring palaces, city gates, temples and churches. The massive effort began  in March, 2016 at an estimated cost of Rs 2.7 crore with this being the first major restoration work on the church since its inauguration in 1936.

Years of dust accumulation, fungal growth on St. Philomena's Church had turned the structure black.Years of dust accumulation, fungal growth on St. Philomena's Church had turned the structure black.

When restoration began, the minars were so delicate that they would shake if one touched them. The church was built using stones on the sides of the twin towers and bricks and concrete at other places. The skilled workers started off painstakingly removing the plaster on the walls and removing the decayed granite stones and stone masonry.  

The intricately carved wooden doors had become virtually invisible owing to dust deposits and had also developed cracks and they were cleaned up to make the designs visible. The  doors now wear a neat look with a fresh coat of painting making them sparkle.

When the church was built, lime mortar was used for interiors, now, archaeology officials are restoring them adopting the Aaraish technique developed in Rajasthan centuries ago and used during the rule of Maharaja Pratap Singh (1779-1803), the erstwhile ruler of Amber and Jaipur in present day Rajasthan. This technique comes in handy to make the wall surface shine even reflecting the face of the viewer and can also ensure a glossy and crack-free surface.

This technique has been applied on a wide range of surfaces and has withstood extreme climatic conditions in arid and semi-arid regions for centuries. “The restoration of the interiors has been completed and by using the Aaraish technique, any stain or dirt on the interior walls can be easily washed away,” says Pramod Raghuvaran, Project Manager of Savani Heritage Conservation Private Limited. The workers are also taking precautionary measures to ensure the idol of Lord Jesus Christ in the main hall is intact.  

To keep the restoration work going, Savani Heritage Conservation has set-up a plant to prepare lime mortar in the church premises where skilled labourers from West Bengal and Bihar prepare the material to plaster the church walls. using lime slurry, fine sand, raw jaggery, methi (menthya),  urad dal, eggs and soap nuts. Jaggery syrup mixed with lime mortar acts as an additive to make the plaster stronger.

So the next time you decide to unwind with a visit to the Heritage City, the first stop maybe, could be St. Philomena’s Cathedral instead of the Mysuru Palace. A little prayer helps in difficult times and what better place to let your thoughts settle than the sacred precincts of a church where generations have come and prayed for succour, where the walls speak a  thousand tales of love and hope?

B06

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