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from issue no. 05 - 2008

The church of so many humble people

A personal testimony about thirty years of Christian life in Qatar

by Loredana Zanon Casiraghi

The facade of the church built on land donated by the Emir al-Thani

The facade of the church built on land donated by the Emir al-Thani

If there is a country that deserves to be described today as an example of rapid and intelligent development, it is Qatar. The Emirate that I saw on my arrival in the mid-seventies was very different: few inhabitants, few cars; the placid and calm atmosphere, typical of hot places, no one hurried. The Christian community – seen through the eyes of a small Italian Catholic family, ours: father, mother, two children and a grandmother – was quiet. Of course, there was no freedom to profess one’s faith in public and places of worship were lacking, but nobody challenged us openly and we could carry the symbol of the cross around our necks without any problem.
Indeed there was even a small Shell shed which was used as a hall for religious services, and Fridays we all squeezed inside in the heat but happy to be able to pray together. There was an Italian priest, Father Adriano, who knew how to keep hold of the faithful of many different nationalities with his Latin bonhomie and, at times, with a good plate of tagliatelle in Bolognese sauce (then a rarity for Qatar).
We Italians were very few, the Indian community, however, was very large and it can be said that the real parish group came out of it. Numerically the Arab Christian community was probably the second largest, the French, American and Filipino were very small, the Italian non-existent. The holy mass and other functions already by then had an Indian flavor and the liturgy very colorful, not only for the eye-catching colors of the sari on feastdays, but also for rituals, songs and novenas that reflected the various ethnic groups of the Asian subcontinent.
Everything continued quietly until about 1978, when the advent of Khomeini in Iran shook the Gulf region. Suddenly the Shell hut was razed to the ground and the priests were no longer given entry visas. We felt lost, but the Holy Spirit continued His work. And then, as always, in time of need man is the mother of invention, and many people made available their houses to use as church every Friday. In agreement with the priest it was decided to celebrate four masses, in turn, in the homes of the faithful who were willing; many joined in, but given the particularly difficult situation gatherings of more than a hundred people were banned, so it was necessary to limit the number of participants at the function.
During the ceremony children were seated on the ground in front ofthe altar if there was room, or held in the arms of their parents so they could see. Our children were in charge of collecting the offerings, which they undertook with great zeal, especially Matthew, the smallest who, unfazed by anyone, invited even the most “distracted” to put something in the bag with obvious persuasive gestures.
The festive mass continued despite everything: the problem emerged during the “heavy” periods, when the influx of people was literally multiplied by a hundred. There were celebrations in languages other than English (Arabic, Malayali, Hindu, Urdu, etc.) housed in other smaller dwellings, or in the residence of the priest “on duty”.
“On duty”, because the presence of a priest was never stable. He had to have an English passport, so as to be able to enter without a visa, but in any case he often had to be absent, and many times we were left for several months without a guide. When that happened there were deacons who celebrated and distributed the already consecrated hosts. Among the priests I remember particularly Father Dunn, a true ascetic, of simple and pure soul: goodness personified. He often celebrated the last mass in our house and then stayed to dinner, with the children, to watch football on television, because he didn’t have one. Everything that was given him, he gave in turn to less well-off parishioners, and he did without everything.
When Father John arrived we felt ourselves a real parish. He was of U.S. nationality, was hired by the American school and, as a teacher, had a permanent residence visa. For Fridays he rented the entry hall and two adjacent corridors of the school, which at the time was small, so that only a few hundred people at a time could attend mass. Subsequently, the American school moved into a modern and very large building, having to adapt to the growth of the community after the establishment in Qatar of a new U.S. military base. Father John was then able to rent a larger gym and in that very spacious room a thousand and even more at a time could attend mass. Every Friday four or five masses were celebrated.
Meanwhile, the parish community had grown. From around the ten-fifteen thousand faithful at the start we had become fifty thousand, but the priest was always just the one, Father John! Who had to fulfill all tasks: liturgies, baptisms, funerals, first communions. He really couldn’t have managed confessions had our parish not had advantage of a special papal dispensation for communal confession. With Father John masses began to be said in French and Italian also and then yes, it seemed that we were indeed at home...
Finally, in 1995, the new Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, granted freedom of worship, and other priests could enter the country and assist the parish priest. Priests such as Father Tomasito, a young Filipino resident in Doha where he looks after the community, today the most numerous.
Meanwhile – since the old house of Father John, which served among other things as the chapel, had to be demolished to make room for the Olympic village – we managed to rent a large villa as the residence of our priests, who had in the meantime become three. The villa had so much land around it, useful both for parking and large enough to construct a building for about four hundred people. Finally we had a true and proper church! We called it “the chapel”, both because of its small size and because we had not yet received permission to build a real one. A portacabin, and thus some offices and classrooms for catechism, were later added to the chapel and, finally, the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Cardinal Ivan Dias and Monsignor Giovanni Bernardo Gremoli

Cardinal Ivan Dias and Monsignor Giovanni Bernardo Gremoli

At the beginning of the new century Father Lester Mendonza took over as parish priest and on the land adjacent to the chapel added further classrooms for catechism and a basketball court for the boys and girls: the oratory was complete. With more priests there was the possibility of having more masses, preparatory and updating courses for catechists and events were organized that were like a magnet, not only for the parishioners of the same nationality, but especially among the different ethnic groups. The nationalities at the time were already really numerous. Today we count about sixty. The current pastor, Father Tomasito Veneracion, led the parish to the final much sought after goal, the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary in Doha.
But there is one person who in all these years has worked unremittingly, more than all of us, and who with much patience, passion and self-abnegation and especially charity, has managed to ensure that we were all able to rejoice: the Capuchin Father Bernardo Gremoli, until a few years ago our apostolic vicar. Appointed Bishop of Abu Dhabi by Pope Paul VI in 1975, Father Bernardo has built eleven churches in his diocese – which is the largest in the world, because it goes from the United Arab Emirates to Oman, from Yemen to Saudi Arabia, from Bahrain to Qatar. The church in Doha is his twelfth, though he entrusted the h the courage and patience of those who worked to obtain the permits, who stood in waiting-rooms so as to reach and convince governmental officials. But most of all it was built with the money of many humble people who have always provided and continue to provide for “His Church”.

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