For elderly Christians from Mariam Colony in Lahore, Thursday, not Sunday, is their favorite time to visit their local church.
Crowds of senior citizens, many aiding elderly spouses and friends, head toward St. Mary’s Catholic Church as midday approaches. Inside the compound, rice cauldrons are already bubbling for the visitors.
One of the church’s visitors, Younas Masih, 60, said his wife is partially paralyzed. “She cannot walk on her own. We have no kids and all our siblings left us soon after the marriage. But prayer have always supported us,” Masih, a retired sanitation worker, told ucanews.com.
“We like to meet everybody here; this is very important for us. Not only the poor get to eat but we come to discuss and share our feelings,” said Masih. “Times have changed and parents often don’t prioritise time for their children to talk to oldies. Meeting all your friends and neighbors under one roof is a rare opportunity.”
A team of church volunteers, clad in blue aprons, greet them with smiles and glasses of water. The hall soon echoes with laughter and gossip. They share common concerns: the hardships they faced in building their houses and indifference from their children or in-laws to name a few.
The church, located in a narrow street has became a favorite meeting place in this Christian neighborhood ever since Archbishop Sebastian Francis Shaw of Lahore inaugurated and blessed Padre Pio Development Center last month. Capuchin Father Morris Jalal oversaw the transformation into the present facility which offers a weekly dastarkhwaan (soup kitchen) for the elderly as well as daily sewing and computer classes.
“This is the first Catholic soup kitchen in the country,” said Father Jalal. “Bringing home the popular tradition of Capuchin Soup Kitchens worldwide has been exciting. More than 100 elderly visit us every week and a family has committed to sponsor the food for the entire year and several individuals have offered to bear the expenses in 2018,” said the priest.
The three-hour weekly gathering starts with rosary recitation after which Father Jalal offers Holy Communion and blessings. His team of 25 volunteers, including teachers and altar boys, then take charge serving food, washing dishes and setting up for the later Bible class.
Sehrish Shaukat registered as a volunteer right after her grade 10 exams. The young woman’s first priority is to find an empty chair for the guests. “By the time they reach here most of them are tired. We feel blessed with their prayers. Several of my friends were already here and so we had ample time to prepare,” she said.
Founded in 1960s, Mariam Colony is home to about 2,000 Christian families, 1,300 of them Catholic. Most of them are poor and their children often do not finish school.
Many of them have jumped at the chance to join the center’s sewing course. The yearlong course, offered at a monthly fee of 200 rupees (US$1.91), include sessions on crochet, ribbon work, hand embroidery and other trades.
Similarly, 15 students have enrolled in a yearlong course on video and photo editing while 20 are being trained as singers and musicians. Father Jalal plans to starts English language courses in the future. “Sewing machines will soon be replaced by faster models too,” he said.
“The vision is to turn this place into an industry. We are training them for careers that are in high demand. Both music teachers and graphic designers earn well and this could be a future Caritas Pakistan project,” he said.
Archbishop Shaw appreciated his efforts. “It is all very practical and can provide a better future to our youth,” he said.