THE BEGINNINGS - HISTORY OF THE SHRINE
The Shrine of Don Bosco's Madonna at Matunga has today become a must- visit-at-any-cost spot for all Marian devotees who come to Bombay. Yet its history spans barely forty years.
Permission to build the Shrine was granted by the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1955, but the foundation stone had already been blessed and laid the previous year, by Valerian Cardinal Gracias on December 7,1954.
Thereafter, within a span of two years, the colossal monument was ready thanks to the hard and dedicated work put in by everyone involved.
Hence, on August 5, 1957, auxiliary bishop Longinus Pereira blessed the Shrine and declared it open for public veneration.
But only seven years later, on November 28, 1964, was the Shrine formally consecrated by archbishop Hubert D'Rosario along with seven other bishops, to mark the beginning of the 39th International Eucharistic Congress. Barely a week later, on December 4, 1964, no less a personage than Pope Paul VI paid a visit to the Shrine and blessed the statue of Mary Help of Christians the statue that is still used during the annual feast day procession.
Designed by two local architects, Patkil and Dadarkar, the Shrine of Mary Help of Christians is nevertheless Western in style (no one ever spoke of inculturation in those days). The plan of the church is in the form of a traditional Latin Cross. The main dome over the sanctuary, and the two smaller domes over the entrance are typical of Roman church architecture. The facade, in the style of ancient Ro- man churches, is marked by an arched doorway, imposed upon by a huge mosaic depicting Don Bosco with the Madonna. This mosaic is flanked on either side by two bell-towers with electric chimes.
The entire Shrine has an exterior of Malad granite, golden-brown in colour. But what really catches the eye at once is the 12-foot-high gold-plated statue of Mary Help of Christians that stands majestically atop the main dome. Getting it up there in 1957 was itself a laudable engineering feat. Cast in Turin, the statue can be seen from miles around, and even today, with so many high-rise buildings mushrooming in the city, this statue is still a prominent landmark on the Matunga-Wadala skyline. The interior of the Church is totally clad with imported Italian marble of different hues, with amazingly symmetrical striations (a delight to the eyes, no doubt, but alas, a big hindrance to acoustic clarity). The natural art in the symmetry of the marble is regularly punctuated with the created art in the form of rectangular panels depicting the 14 stations of the cross. Intricately done, with attention to minute details, these panels are a sub- lime work of art.
Even more arresting, however, are the 15 mysteries of the rosary and the five scenes from Don Bosco's life, captured in stained glass, that are situated above the rectangular mosaic panels. Most imposing of all are the three stained glass panels that stand atop the main altar, with Marian motifs. Created by the renowned Italian painter Peter Flavio of Turin, all these 23 stained-glass panels were tempered by master craftsmen in special kilns, to endure brilliance. They were then shipped in segments to India and reassembled, after the manner of a jigsaw puzzle.
This is how an art lover described his impressions in the Indian Express dated January 30, 1966: The sunlight filtering in blonde shafts through the windows makes these scenes haunting... a symphony of colours that range from pale ochre and pigeon-doves to searing reds, deep saffron yellows and peacock-blues that are almost overpowering in their intensity. Veiled and unveiled in altering cycles of sunlight and shadow, these panels are projected in sharp relief for the greater part of the day. Floating to the surface, they imperceptibly anchor the "Stations" to the shadows with their deeper hues.
However, when dusk's furtive footfalls steal over the grounds, and chandeliers and candelabras join fluorescent tube- lights to bathe the interior in silver, it is the mosaic panels that surface; it is the turn of the stained glasses to dissolve and reappear outside as lofty cases of brilliant colour, at which spectators raise their eyes -- and eyebrows in wonder.
The mosaic panels depicting the "Stations" involved an even more laborious process of reassembly, as literally lakhs of tiny coloured fragments were pieced together to create fourteen unforgettable scenes which culminate in Christ's final agonies at Calvary and which faith has held in sacred trust ever since.
If the interior of the main church can evoke such poetic exuberance the crypt would have another story to tell. No pilgrim to the Shrine ever misses a visit. The school boys often gather in hushed silence to peek through the air-vents, at this little underground wonderland, whenever they find the lights on. Most of the time, however, the place is enveloped in semidarkness that only adds to the aura of mystery surrounding the crypt.
In the crypt, encased in little gilded crucibles are hundreds of relies of ancient and modern saints. These adorn the walls! And then, there are the five arched mosaic panels depicting various scenes from the life of Christ and Don Bosco.
Its calm, prayerful atmosphere makes it a favourite spot for many bridal couples who look for a quiet place to tie the nuptial knot. Having an area of 2756 square feet (besides 552 square feet of lobby area in the rear), the crypt can comfort- ably accommodate about a two hundred persons.
Of course, bigger functions such as ordinations and religious professions are held in the main church. The pews can Fr. Maschio with his dedicated and hard working staff at the Shrine Office - an early photograph. accommodate a crowd of 800 seated devotees. Considering the extra space (6461 sq. ft. of nave area, 840 sq. ft. of choir-loft, and 1944 sq. ft. around the sanctuary area) approximately 300 more can be accommodated standing.
To many a Bombay Catholic, the Shrine is a symbol of the good "old-time religion"- with pulpit, communion rails, stately organ music, holy water fonts, statues and private confessional boxes - - "You've kept alive for us a priceless heritage," many say.
But the walls of granite and marble, the majesty of the stained glass and mosaic, the grandeur of the dome and the high altar - all these are no match for the greatest treasure of the Shrine: the faith of the countless devotees who have entered its portals over the past forty years. Young and old, rich and poor, Christians and others... they have been coming to ask for a favour, to fulfill a vow, to make an offering... or simply to be silent, away from the bustle of busy Bombay. And perhaps, the two wooden confessional boxes are the best witnesses today, of the number of sinners who have returned to God, thanks to the maternal care of Mary Help of Christians