Over 40,000 people of different backgrounds visit St Mary’s Church every Friday Image Credit: GN Archives

Dubai: When the landmark St Mary’s Catholic Church on Dubai’s Oud Metha Road celebrated this year’s Palm Sunday feast ahead of Easter, it ran out of the 150,000 palms in its store in no time. “Even assuming some took two palms each, at least 75,000-80,000 people would have visited the church on that day,” said Fr Lennie J.A. Connully, OFM Cap and parish priest.

A rough estimate of the massive crowds that throng the church, the figures swell to well over 100,000 during Christmas. On a regular Friday too, around 40,000 people of various nationalities attend the dozen-plus multi-lingual mass services held throughout the day.

Acts of mercy

As the church marks its golden jubilee on April 27 and 28, the sense of community and camaraderie it has managed to nurture is perhaps its biggest achievement over the last 50 years.

“The church is a place where people come to pray. During worship, they are inspired to take up acts of mercy and reach out to others,” said Fr Connully, outlining the church’s vast network of outreach programmes. He said the church, which has journeyed far since 1967 (see below), streamlined its outreach functions under a Samaritan Ministry around eight years ago.

“Under this ministry, we have 500 volunteers working in three broad areas – legal aid, prison ministry and outreach for the financially poor.”

He said free legal aid is extended to people in need, with the church even providing guarantees based on its moral authority in some genuine cases. “We help only law-abiding residents,” said Fr Connully. Similarly, volunteers of the Prison Ministry, who visit Dubai’s jails every Tuesday and Saturday, speak to prisoners and understand their cases.

“The prisons are referred to as correctional centres here. That inspires us to extend whatever help we can to reform prisoners. We also keep in touch with their dependents and families,” said Fr Connully.

The outreach programme for the financially poor covers a wide variety of cases, including those who have been rendered jobless or those who can’t afford to pay for their medical treatment. Fr Connully said runaway housemaid cases also come to the church where volunteers try to negotiate with sponsors, contact concerned embassies, provide air tickets and help repatriate them to their home countries.

He said the church even has a band of volunteers dedicated to handling the weekend traffic around the church. “Around 40 of our volunteers have been specially trained by Dubai Police to manage the Friday traffic so the general public is not inconvenienced. Space crunch is a major constraint we are facing and we need a bigger place to accommodate the rush.”

The parish priest said the church has a Camp Ministry whose volunteers organise an annual sports day for workers in association with some Government departments.

“In the Year of Giving this year, we also held a walkathon called Mercithon in association with Dubai Municipality and Emirates Red Crescent to raise over Dh500,000 for six cancer patients of different nationalities. More events will be chalked out in the days to come.”

Coinciding with the golden jubilee celebrations on April 28 will also be this year’s Agape, the church’s annual “loved meal” fest, which showcases cuisines from various cultures. Residents of many nationalities prepare their native dishes and put up stalls at the church so others too can get a taste of them. It’s yet another display of the spirit of community that the church has helped forge over the decades.

Origins of the church:

St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Dubai, was founded by Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, then Ruler of Dubai, in 1966 when he donated land for its construction. Rev Fr Eusebius Daveri and Fr Eugene Mattioli spearheaded the project. Shaikh Rashid inaugurated the church in April 1967.