Cantonment's oasis of calm

Cantonment's oasis of calm


Bangalore Cantonment conjures up images of defence establishments, railway lines, diverse communities, minarets and one cannot ignore, towering steeples! It is to this last category that the beautiful blue and grey domes and spires of St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral belong.

The cathedral, which saw its platinum jubilee in 2007, is located near Coles Park in Cleveland Town. This place of worship is dedicated to Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552), believed to be one of the original seven Jesuits. These men included St. Ignatius of Loyola and were apparently the co-founders of the Society of Jesus in 1534 in a chapel on Montmartre (a hill in present-day Paris). 

The traffic junction close to Bangalore’s St Francis Xavier’s cathedral is called Father Servanton circle, after the French parish priest of this church. He was primarily responsible for revamping the building and expanding its outreach. It is believed that he served this Catholic institution for 50 years without resting even for a day.

“This is the only photograph that you would find of the great Father Servanton,” revealed the friendly Msgr. T S Amrutha Raj, the current parish priest of St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral. He said this as he pointed to a framed black and white picture of a calm yet intense faced man, that was hung on one of the walls of his office.

In the beginning...
St. Francis Xavier’s church dates back to around 165 years ago. On June 19, 1845, Father I A Chevalier and Father I I Aulagne of the Foreign Mission Society of Paris bought a piece of land that measured 550 square feet from Ms Zulime Watkins. This is the place where St. Francis Xavier’s cathedral stands at present. (A French Catholic, the lady was the widow of an English commander named Captain Watkins of the Seventh cavalry). 
After St. Francis Xavier’s parish was founded in 1846, Father Chevalier undertook charge of the construction of the church in 1851 which was inaugurated in 1854. He became the first parish priest of St. Francis Xavier’s church. But it was after the appointment of Father J B Servanton as the parish priest in 1898 that the size of the congregation grew from a mere thousand members to 15,000. This number rose to around 21,000 around four decades ago.   

Due to the bubonic plague that had occurred in 1898, Father Servanton had a chapel erected in 1909 in honour of St. Rock, the patron of the plague stricken with a prayer to the latter to care for the parish. The priest also had the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes erected in the church apart from starting two primary schools, namely St. Rock’s and St. Anthony’s, chapels, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (a charitable organisation that works for the welfare of destitute women and financially backward families) and the Catholic Workers’ Association. All these institutions have their headquarters within the campus of St. Francis Xavier’s cathedral now.
Church now a cathedral
As the size of the population grew, the old building of St. Francis Xavier’s church was unable to accommodate too many people. Further, in 1905 when the cross from the old tower of the church fell, it was interpreted as a sign to create a new premises. For this, Father Servanton began to raise funds actively from individuals and through fund raising concerts and plays.

This resulted in the laying of the foundation stone in 1911 and the opening of the new edifice on May 26, 1932. When Bangalore was declared a separated diocese in 1940, St. Francis Xavier’s church was designated as a cathedral through an Apostolic letter (from the Pope or Vatican) dated February 13 of the same year. Later, on January 24, 1948, Rev. Dr. Thomas Pothacamury, the first Indian Bishop of Bangalore consecrated it. The cost of remaking the cathedral was about Rs one lakh at that time.

The structure of St. Francis Xavier’s cathedral is made of granite stones and has an arch shaped concrete roof covered with Mangalore tiles. Inside, it has massive pillars with carvings and exquisitely done stained glass windows that depict mysteries of the Rosary and general themes from the Holy Bible. This space also contains beautiful paintings and statues of the patron saint Francis Xavier, Joseph (father of Jesus), St. Philomena and Blessed Mother Teresa (who visited this cathedral on October 24, 1995) apart from those of Mother Mary and Jesus Christ. The capacity of the church is around 5000 persons as of now. 

Other additions
The parish priests who followed Father Servanton contributed to the enhancement of the edifice, presbytery, youth services and facilities within and surrounding the cathedral such as the public address system, seating area, electrical and water supply, solar lighting, gardens, asphalted roads, rainwater harvesting, vehicle parking space, et al.

While some of these men improved the condition of the schools attached to the parish, others introduced the practice of donation of books, medical assistance, clothes and Christmas gifts to low-income children and families in the congregation. A few of the priests initiated the observation of the feast of St. Francis and procession of Corpus Christi outside the cathedral compound. Celebration of Mass in languages like Kannada and Tamil was also begun.

On May 13, 2009, Reverend Father John Solomon, the previous parish priest of St. Francis Xavier’s cathedral had obtained a sacred relic from the skin of saint Francis Xavier whose body lies in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa. The holy item was installed in the altar of the Bangalore cathedral in the same month. Also, it was during the tenure of Father Solomon that the long-pending activity of the raising of the domes on the belfry (the bell tower) was completed after much effort.
If you are on St. John’s Church Road or its vicinity next time, you might want to consider stepping into one of the magnificent churches there for a few moments of peace and some glimpses of history.