A hymn in stone
‘Doesn’t the beautiful structure speak of man’s age-old desire to create a perfect house of God?’ This citadel of faith, a significant landmark of the city of Mahishmati, Goddess Durga, from whom the city takes its name — Mysore, speaks of God’s majesty and India’s secular vision, says Usha Bande
"WHEN you go to Mysore, just don’t miss St. Philomena’s Church," our host in Bangalore suggested. "It’s sheer poetry in stone, a feat to the eyes." Poetry, indeed it is! A symphony in stone, to be sure!
As you enter Mysore
city from the Srirangapatnam side, the first spot you stop at is the
magnificent Gothic-style church that immediately catches the eye.
Situated on the crossing of Hyder Ali and Govt. House roads St.
Philomena’s Church presents an imposing sight. It is simple in its
architectural design but intense in its appeal. The grandeur of its
facade leaves you breathless as you enter the perfectly developed
portals set within the arched depth of the entrance. The breath-taking
boldness on design, the slim sky-kissing twin spires and the deep
stone recesses rising and falling like the rhythms of music are
overwhelming. The soaring structure, with the architectural pattern
pointing towards the sky gives a feeling of serenity and strength
St. Philomena, lovingly called "dear little martyr" met her death boldly when only 13. The daughter of the ruler of a small state in Greece, she had dedicated her life of Christ. As the story goes, the childless ruler and his wife had sought God’s blessings and after their daughter’s birth, they adopted Christianity to fulfil their vow. From early childhood, Philomena gave signs of exceptional piety and even before she was 13, she pledged herself to Christ without her parents’ knowledge. When she turned 13, her parents took her to Rome at the court of Emperor Diocletian, to obtain his blessings.
The Emperor, however, was so struck by the beauty of the girl that he promised to bestow favours on the parents on the condition that they gave their daughter to him in marriage. The parents were glad at the proposal but Philomena refused King’s offer. She told her parents that she had already bequeathed her life to God. Her refusal infuriated the Emperor. Nothing could move young Philomena to accept the offer — neither Diocletian’s rage, nor her parents’ appeals. The Emperor ordered that she should be consigned to the dungeons, hoping to compel her to change her mind under unendurable and fearful conditions. For 37 days she was in the dungeon, then followed a period of inhuman torture. Nevertheless, Divine Grace saved her every time. In desperation, the Emperor, feeling defeated and angry and also afraid that her miracles would draw the masses to Christianity, condemned her to death. Young Philomena died for Christ and soon came to be recognised for her miraculous powers. She was called the saint who "brings joy to the sorrowful".
In 1802, a group of priests, physicians and excavators went to the catacomb of St. Priscilla in Rome to open the tomb of the little martyr. Her relics were then carried to Roman Custodia and from there to Mugnano amid a number of miracles. A church was built to the Virgin Saint in Mugnano.
In India, the appearance of St. Philomena dates back to the early decades of the twentieth century. The records at the Church show that in 1926, Humboo Chetty, secretary to the then Maharaja of Mysore obtained the relics from Rev. Peter Pisani which were handed over to Rev. Father Cochet who not only spread the word about the powers of St. Philomena and her wonder-works, but also approached the Maharaja for his help. The Maharaja was generous and tolerant towards other religions and faiths. True to the secular tradition of the Mysore kingdom, he gave land and consented to lay the foundation stone of a church dedicated to St. Philomena. On October 28, 1993. The ceremony was held amid great solemnity. On the occasion, the Maharaja observed, "the new church will be strongly and securely built upon a double foundation — Divine compassion and the eager gratitude of men."
The church was built with light, fawn-coloured stone. It has the slimness of the Gothic style with accent of height and vertical vaults. There is a small green patch with a tiny garden in the front courtyard but the adjoining area with open spaces is dusty and dry. There is a school in the vicinity run by the order of St. Philomena and under a huge and shady tree there nestles a tiny spot with figures of Christ and some other Christian symbols. A rectory and a curio-shop complete the complex.
Inside, the main building, one is overwhelmed by the impact of space that opens up. The structure shows an upward movement. The gaunt verticals leap up from the ground and force a visitor to look upward till the eyes meet the vaulting above. There are pointed arches and tinted windows. The atmosphere is one of cool serenity, heightened with the radiance of the stained glass.
After enjoying the beauty of the interior, you are directed to the underground catacomb, lit with candles in front of the relics of the martyr. You bow your head in reverence and come out feeling elated.
As you depart, fending yourself from
the dozens of vendors of candles and sandalwood aggarbattis, you
throw a last glance on the church standing as a hymn in His praise
wrought in stone, and think ‘doesn’t the beautiful structure speak
of man’s age-old desire to create a perfect house of God?’ This
citadel of faith, a significant landmark of the city of Mahishmati,
Goddess Durga, from whom the city takes its name — Mysore,
speaks of God’s majesty and India’s secular vision.