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||1460: St Mary's, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Mystery Worshipper: The Emirati Auntie.
The church: St
Mary's, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
The building: Set on the Oud Metha road, St Mary's is a large white
concrete church, seating over 1,700, overlooking a courtyard and surrounded
by a 10 foot white concrete wall. In 1966 the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed
Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE, donated the
land on which the church stands. The present building replaces the original
1967 church. It is a tall single storey, equivalent to two or three storeys.
The church: As with many churches here, the demographic is very wide.
At the service I attended, I estimate the congregation was 60 percent Indian,
35 percent Filipino and five percent other nationalities. The church offers
up to 28 masses each week in English, Arabic, French, and about a half dozen
other more exotic languages. St Mary's is the longest established Christian
church in Dubai, having been founded one year earlier than the nearby Anglican
church. St Mary's school is immediately adjacent to the church and to my
knowledge is the only Christian faith school in the Emirate.
The neighbourhood: The Oud Metha road runs through a mixed residential
and commercial area, with social clubs close by catering to a variety of
ethnic groups. Holy Trinity, the Anglican church, is a short walk away and
makes its rooms available to a variety of Christian ministries.
The cast: The Revd Fredrick Peter D'souza OFM Cap., assistant
parish priest, presided at mass.
The date & time: Friday, 22 June 2007, 4.30pm.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
Standing room only! The church officially seats about 1,700 and there were
easily another 300 worshippers standing at the ends of rows, across the
back and in any other pockets of space. Children are expected to sit on
parents' knees. I would guess that all in all there were more than 2,500
souls at the mass.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Nope, nada, La. We were stared at, as white women in the Emirates still
commonly are, even when dressed conservatively. But since my friend (who
is Lebanese) and I were the only non-Asian or Filipino persons present at
this mass, the stares may have been prompted by incredulity rather than
Was your pew comfortable?
The beech coloured wooden pews, with attached wooden kneelers of a rougher
finish, were designed to seat eight but were forced to accommodate ten or
more, plus children on laps. They were comparatively deep and would probably
have been quite comfortable were it not for the squash factor.
How would you describe the pre-service
Despite the crowd, completely reverent, with very little noise from people
entering the church. It was actually very restful. We arrived about a half
hour before the mass was scheduled to start, and the church was already
about half full. By 4.30 it was 147 percent full, but even then the atmosphere
was hushed and large numbers of people were at prayer. Just before the service
started, an image captioned "You are the Christ of God" was projected,
showing someone in water reaching out to a figure in the foreground. I was
sure I recognised the reference but would have appreciated an explanation
What were the exact opening words of the
A warbling voice began a song unfamiliar to me, and seemingly to many others
in the congregation. Then the priest said, "Good evening, brothers and sisters."
What books did the congregation use during the
All the songs, readings, prayers and responses were projected onto the front
walls, either side of the altar. When words were not projected, a live video
of the action at the altar was shown instead, so everyone could see.
What musical instruments were played?
There was a piano but I could neither see nor hear any other instrument.
Did anything distract you?
There might have been lots of things to distract me... if I could get over
the one thing that I had been aware of since first entering the church:
the overriding smell of stale perspiration! Anyone who has lived or taken
holiday in this region knows that you sniff the inside of a taxi before
you tell the driver where to go, so you can pick a nearer destination if
you don't think you can hold out until the end. Unfortunately, that isn't
so easy with church and fellow worshippers! After a while, the real stench
lost its impact and a mix of spices and cheap soap took over, but it was
definitely an obstacle to worship.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
"Strained and rushed" would be the best description. I got the
impression lots of people wanted to worship, but few felt as though they
could, for whatever reason. All the rote prayers and responses were hurtled
through. Even I, who know the language, needed time to absorb the meaning
of what was said, so I was concerned for those that knew the words only
phonetically. Only a small minority seemed to know any of the songs. The
peace was given "Indian style," with folded hands and a slight
bow to everyone around you and simply "Peace."
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
2 Sorry, Father Fred, I just didn't get it.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
Basically he just paraphrased the Gospel reading, asking us to examine the
depth of our relationship in Christ and reminding us that our response needs
to be personal, not second or third hand.
Which part of the service was like being in
Erm... leaving the church to return to the brilliant Dubai sunshine and
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Sorry to be so repetitive... the smell. And at one point the "You are
the Christ of God" picture was overlaid with a pop-up reminder to renew
the Norton Antivirus subscription.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Well, I stood around looking lost as a stream of (smelly) bodies shuffled
by looking to leave. Just when the last few passed, the tide shifted and
another stream flowed in for the next service.
How would you describe the after-service
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 Just another place to meet with God and fellow believers, so it
doesn't deserve a 1 but nothing more than that either.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
The mass made me really glad that I have had the opportunity to explore
(and question) my faith and come into a meaningful relationship with Christ;
whereas I suspect many of these people come along with only a partial knowledge
of their faith. Sorry to judge!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
"Bells and smells" – the former having been provided by
Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum and the latter by hordes of the great
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