The first stone was laid in 1993, followed by the inauguration two years later. In 2007 it became a full parish. "“The Church has always worked to meet the immediate needs of the community,” said a former parish priest. Today the church has a congregation of some 750 families, offering services to the sick, the disabled and students, “open to all, without distinction of class or religion".
Dhaka (AsiaNews) – Fr Quirico Martinelli, PIME missionary in Bangladesh, spoke to AsiaNews about the celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the parish church of Mary Queen of the Apostles in Dhaka, of which he is currently the parish priest.
He described the event as a big party to "give thanks for the many blessings received over the years. We had songs, dances, music and shows. We experienced the joy of making the journey together. And now we are ready to entrust this community to the local Church."
“The Church has always worked to meet the immediate needs of the community,” said Fr Livio Prete, the former parish priest. "We have served the people for 25 years. Everything we did was done from a Christian perspective to meet the needs of the moment: from caring for the sick and disabled, to schooling for children, to spiritual accompaniment and catechesis for the faithful."
On 4 May, the church held a big celebration. Card Patrick D'Rozario, archbishop of Dhaka, was also present.
"Together with the 750 families of the parish we paid tribute to the work of many missionaries, nuns and lay people who in recent years have sowed and tilled a hard and difficult soil, but also nourished and educated the hearts of many children of God, cared for the sick and marginalised as well as the many families of immigrants living in the area," Fr Quirico said.
Located in the district of Mirpur-2, the church was founded in 1993 by the missionary institute. Where once was empty land, marshes, rice fields and slums, Fr Gianantonio Baio, PIME, decided to buy land and build a church to bring the message of Christ.
"At the time there was nothing,” Fr Quirico said. “Now there is a neighbourhood full of shops, houses, hospitals and schools. At that time the district was on the outskirts of Dhaka inhabited by families that had emigrated to the capital in search of work."
On May 29 1993, Fr Gianbattista Zanchi, former regional superior, laid the foundation stone (picture); two years later, on 2 June 1995, the church was inaugurated by the then archbishop Mgr Michael Rozario. It eventually became a subcentre for the parish of St-Christine.
"The first to roll up his sleeves in the new place was Fr Gian Paolo Gualzetti,” said Fr Livio. “He did a commendable work. He used to go around all day looking for Christians and give them the comfort of the Gospel."
Fr Gualzetti was helped a lot in his missionary work by a Bangladeshi nun, Sr Golapi Toppo (pictured), the first local nun of the Missionaries of the Immaculate (the female congregation associated with PIME).
Sr Anna Maria Panza, provincial councillor in Bangladesh, remembers her with affection. "She was a tireless woman. She came from a northern village and used to visit Christians in their homes.”
"It is this same zeal that also led him to visit the neighbourhood looking for Christians or tribal people who wanted to approach the faith. As soon as she received the news that a new family had moved into the neighbourhood, she was the first to visit it."
"The trait of the church is direct contact with people,” Fr Gian Paolo said about his work in Mirpur. “Many migrants live there, with different life experiences. The most stimulating aspect was finding a way to keep them together. This is why it was important to have good liturgy, to support them from a spiritual point of view."
Gradually the Catholic place became the reference point for the whole district. Various services were introduced for the residents, "always with a careful eye towards their needs," Fr Gualzetti added.
Under his supervision, and with the help of the coadjutor, Fr Paolo Ballan, the nearby school of St Teresa was created, from grades 1 through 8. Most pupils are Muslims. This was followed by a ‘sick centre’, which hosts special sick people from all over the country who come to the capital for delicate operations. Every afternoon, disabled people meet in the school with dedicated tutors and teachers. Sewing courses are offered. Help for alcoholics was also provided. There is also a hostel for young workers and would-be PIME seminarians.
For Fr Prete, the example of Mirpur "is an exception in a city like Dhaka, which is a 'monster', full of smog, noise and light pollution. People never stop; there is traffic everywhere and extreme poverty; a city that manages to hide people's suffering well."
Yet, what transpires from this place is anything but suffering. "Here children find one of the few green spaces in the neighbourhood where they can play," explained Fr Quirico, "surrounded as we are by tall buildings and high rises. The door is always open to everyone, children of all ages and religions. We welcome everyone, not just the students of our school, St Teresa (across the street)".
In 2007 the church was raised to status of parish. Fr Gualzetti, who was getting ready to return to Italy and had followed its development from the beginning, was rewarded by the then Archbishop Paulinus Costa and appointed "parish priest for a day".
From 2007 to 2009, Fr Prete took charge of the church, followed by Fr Ballan until 2013. The current parish priest is Fr Martinelli. Today the parish has 750 Catholic families, 700 living in rented apartments. In 2017 there were 42 baptisms, 30 first communions, 32 confirmations and 12 marriages.
Such high numbers in Muslim majority country can be explained in only one way: "The spiritual care of the faithful’” said Fr Ballan “This has always been at the top of our apostolate, in step with the tendency not to forget to also look outside the community. The ‘Jesus Worker Centre in Girani for young workers stems from this spirit,” Fr Girani said.
During the celebrations on 4 May, all the faithful were present. The ceremony was enlivened by songs and dances. Some couples renewed their marriage vows, whilst the parish offered lunch to 750 people. Finally, Fr Quirico showed off his juggling skills amid great enthusiasm and amazement of the children (see video).
"This time there was also a small accident,” said the priest. “One of the sparrows that came out of the cylinder fell badly. It was a sorry sight when we brought him back to the store, but he got a double ration of seeds!"
At the end of this year the church will be handed over to the local clergy. Fr Sr Anna Maria Panza, “this will be a critical step, which will cause us a lot of sadness because we sisters have worked in the parish from the beginning. We feel real affection for the priests and we share the same missionary charism. Still, it will certainly be a challenge for us too to renew our missionary impulse with new creativity."
For his part, Fr Paolo Ballan, who is now in Italy, notes that "The parish is mature and the community is established. The time is right. We must take ourselves to other places where we are needed the most."