Joy for a Devoted Flock as Pope Francis Visits Bahrain’s “Mother Church”

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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 once belonged to the man who built the first A Roman Catholic Church.

The homes of the first Catholic families in the Gulf are full of these precious memories for the faithful who have lived in the country for decades.

Every day, Najla Uchi prays in front of her colorful altar filled with rosaries and candles.

As she bows her head, she recalls how her father Salman Uchi, a contractor from Baghdad who had lived in Bahrain for a few years, was given the responsibility of building the Church of the Sacred Heart in 1939.

More than 80 years later, this historic place of worship will host Pope Francis as part of his historic tour to Bahrain in November.

I love my church not because my father built it but because of the priests, nuns and 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 lives,” the 78-year-old grandmother said. The National.

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

“After Baba [her father] built the church, everything was celebrated there ― baptisms, Holy Communion, birthdays.

“There aren’t many people left from that time.”

Ms. Uchi remembers stories her mother told her of how before the church was built, they prayed at a neighbor’s house which also served as a catechism place for the children.

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

Mr. Uchi and his family subsequently obtained Bahraini nationality.

The serene stone and timber church with high rafters, teak paneled 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 worshipers know that mass was about to 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 United Kingdom in Bahrain, according to church records.

The congregation grew to over 80,000 with a larger church built near the original church in Manama and a larger Lady of Arabia cathedral of Awali, a city located south of the capital.

There is a growing sense of anticipation in the tiny island of Bahrain over Pope Francis’ four-day visit in November.

Golden wreaths to give thanks

Older parishioners seek memorabilia ranging from newspaper clippings to books about early Catholic residents to show the historical ties between the church and the region.

The community is united with priests who visit older parishioners and support them in difficult times.

Prayer is an integral part of Mrs. Uchi’s life. The rooms of his villa resonate with Arab hymns broadcast on television.

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

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

“I ask for good health when people get sick. And when we get what we ask for, I put a crown on Jesus’ head,” she said.

“I call the priests and the sisters [nuns] home 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, nuns and people who come to pray.

“The Pope’s visit is so special. He comes to bring peace but I also want him to come and see what Bahrain is.”

Sound of church bells

Alex Simoes, one of Bahrain’s oldest Catholic residents, remembers running up the belfry stairs to ring the church bells when he was young.

The bells have been silent for a few years but work is in full swing to beautify the church.

The pope will address priests and parishioners at the church on November 6 the last day before returning to Rome.

Mr Simoes points out that his older sister is cradled by her mother in a photograph taken the year the church was built.

Alex Simoes, one of Bahrain's oldest Catholic residents, holds a photo 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 baptized into 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 to the bell tower to ring the bells.

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

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

Mr Simoes returned to the church after school to light candles for evening prayers where 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 to us that the Pope is coming to Bahrain.”

Prayers are held in multiple languages ​​including English, Spanish, Arabic and the Indian languages ​​of Konkani, Tamil, Malay and Hindi to serve a congregation that is spreading throughout the compound of the church on weekends.

sanctuary of peace

Florine Mathias moved to Bahrain as an Indian bride in 1960.

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

It is also the center of the landmark celebrations of silver and gold weddings.

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

“The Mother Church is a peaceful monument – he who enters it never leaves crying – this is my experience.

“This parish helped me grow spiritually.

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

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

“There were so few families then, now the pitch is full of thousands of people”

It will take willpower for the 76-year-old to attend papal mass next month as she recovers from surgery for a broken hip she suffered on a recent trip to Florida.

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

The majority of the crowd will be from Bahrain, with quotas for 2,000 worshipers from Saudi Arabia and 500 people from Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

Residents see Pope Francis’ visit as a testament to the strength of Bahrain’s small but vibrant Catholic community.

“I don’t know if I can last long but I’ll get through it. The pope who comes 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 visits our house to spread peace, healing and happiness.

“This is a blessed moment for all of us. Our prayers are answered.”

Updated: October 26, 2022, 7:27 a.m.

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