Tuesday, 26 June 2018

The people’s cathedral

Fr. Thomas is dean of the cathedral.

The people’s cathedral

Thousands have passed through its door, dead or alive


VERY few places in Lusaka have such a unifying force as the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Cross, and perhaps none comes close to its architectural magnificence.
Many times, I have come here for the sad reasons – a funeral service.
I have seen so many tears in this place. I have seen many caskets carried into the cathedral and carried out for the final journey to the other side. I have heard numerous poignant eulogies by heart-broken relatives and friends.
I have heard many fervent prayers in this place, many beautiful sermons and boring ones too.
I have heard singing like the singing of angels and awful singing too.
Sometimes, I worry at the rate I have to return here for a funeral service for a government official or other prominent people.
Last week, I was here for Minster of Gender Victoria Kalima’s memorial, and last month, it was the Lusaka Mayor Wilson Kalumba’s.
In the past two years, I have come here to see off three of my workmates, including an officemate.
But each time I have come here, my eyes have always wandered around at the magnificence of this cathedral and its symbolisms.
My eyes have always gazed at its high concrete ceiling, 18 metres above the floor, and wondered why they had to build the roof so high.
“The heights of cathedrals are partly acoustic, of course, it is a statement, an imposing one, but it is also internally acoustic because many cathedrals have the priority of music,” says Father Charley Thomas, who is the dean of the cathedral.
“The height was meant so that the music and the singing and the chanting is heard,” he adds.
The stained glass of varying bright colours high up in the building forms a giant mosaic.
A spiral staircase at the back of the cathedral leads to a balcony where sits an organ as big as a small house. It is a complex and strange looking piece of instrument - like a time machine, if I ever saw one.
The organ is 120 years old and was shipped from England in pieces and assembled inside the cathedral. It comes alive every Sunday.
Everything within and outside is symmetrical, right down to the paving blocks outside, which are arranged like the squares in the ceiling.
The building is made in such a way that its beauty can be seen from every angle.
From the skies, the angels don’t see a concrete building on a hill, they see a giant copper cross.
This is because the cathedral is shaped like the cross and its concrete roof is overlaid with copper plates.
But despite its elaborate design, this cathedral still lacks one structure. It is supposed to have a cross protruding through its roof, but the plan to build the structure was halted because the building lies in the flight path of planes landing at the Old City Airport, about two kilometres away.
Nevertheless, the cathedral has three beautiful crosses. One is placed right at its entrance, the other above the altar.
Outside the cathedral stands a big wooden cross which is illuminated in the night. But this one was only recently installed.
The original cross made out of teak wood which was concreted in 1956, now lies broken a few metres from where it once stood, like the Old Rugged Cross the song writer George Bennard sung about.
The magnificent design of the cathedral was the work of Ian Reeler, Hope, Reeler and Morris.
The engineering company for the project was Ove Arup and Partners. It is the same company that was involved in the construction of Australia’s iconic structure – the Sydney Opera House.
The design was commissioned in 1956 and the foundation stone laid in 1957.
Construction began in July 1960 by a local company called HK Mitchell Ltd and took about two years.
Yet when this cathedral was being built in the 1960s, there was no heavy-lift crane, workers had only a simple electric pulley and bamboo scaffolding.
Before the cathedral was built here, this place is said to have accommodated a filling station and a cinema.
The cathedral sits on a 10-acre plot on Cathedral Hill, which extends up to the Hotel InterContinental Lusaka.
Like any cathedral in Britain or elsewhere, this building was built not just to serve its purpose as a place of worship, but also as an imposing statement both politically and otherwise.
It was also built to fulfill a legal requirement; Lusaka needed a cathedral for it to be granted city status and so the colonial administration approached the Catholic Church and Anglican Church to meet the need.
The Anglicans jumped on the offer and took up the land given by the government.
One of the first donations to build the cathedral came from the royal family in Britain, about £500 at the time. The bishop then is said to have had some connection to the royal family.
Many local companies and individuals also donated towards the building.
The mining companies made huge donations.
The huge wooden doors at the front were donated by Sir Evelyn Hone, who was the last governor of Northern Rhodesia.
The cement came from Chilanga Cement, some of it as a donation.
In 1964, the cathedral hosted the first independence service, and the national flag that was used in that service is still hung on a pole inside the cathedral.
Since then, thousands of people have passed through its doors that are five metres high. Some have walked in here others were borne in expensive caskets.
On one of the cathedral walls is a black-and-white picture of the Emperor Haile Selassie, on another is Queen Elizabeth with President Kenneth Kaunda.
Oliver Tambo was once a member of the church when he lived in Zambia during the apartheid regime in South Africa.
This cathedral has served its purpose as a people’s cathedral.
“Cathedrals are a place where anybody should be able to come, irrespective of denomination,” says Fr. Thomas. “Cathedrals are a place where you come when you want to cry, when you want to laugh, or when you want to celebrate or when you want to simply pray. It is supposed to be a unifying place.”
“Sometimes I personally – when there is a function – stand at the door and receive people, and it is because I want them to belong, to know that they are not coming to an Anglican church they are coming the cathedral,” he says.
The cathedral has also become a political shrine for the nation. Here, even the most avowed political enemies have met and shaken hands.
“Sometimes I do it deliberately, sometimes it just happens, where you create an environment for people to meet, so that if there is any animosity, any tension, you release it,” explains Fr. Thomas. “And I think one of my jobs as dean is to create that environment whenever possible.”
But he has also been misunderstood by some people.
“Sometimes people don’t understand why I do it, why I allow various political parties to meet here at the cathedral, to have functions, funerals and some have wondered whether I’m being political or not. But my understand is that if there is a tension in the country and I give space – space that will not be abused – to any group of people to come and pray, I’m reducing the tension in the country,” says Fr Thomas, who has been dean here for 16 years.
But any building that opens its doors so wide to the public as the cathedral does cannot escape abuse.
“Some funerals have really being challenging,” says Fr. Thomas.
He recounts one particular state funeral which brought a horde of political cadres into a scuffle right at the porch of the cathedral.
The dean stood his ground, telling the youths they had to go through him in order to enter the cathedral and beat up their political enemies. The youths backed off.
The priest is unmoved by political pressure, much less that incident.
“That incident only increased my resolve to make sure that this place is available for such functions,” he says.
“We believe when people come in here, as they walk through that door, there is a transformation that will take place, and they will attend a church service in humility and walk out. And we pray that the transformation will continue outside the door, but sometimes as soon as they go out they become themselves,” he says.
But having a building of this magnitude has its own challenges, such as high maintenance costs.
Fr Thomas says about K3.5 million is needed for running the cathedral yearly, with about K150,000 on maintenance of the building.
The funds come from church members here, numbering about a thousand, as well as donations from well-wishers and rentals it charges for funerals, weddings and other meetings.
The government pays K5,000 for state functions.
“But many times, you find they pay K5,000 and we pay half of that replacing things that are broken because of the crowd, the cars driving on the lawns breaking the sprinklers,” says Fr. Thomas.
However, the building also poses a challenge when it comes to maintenance. Some parts are just hard to reach.
A few years ago, the cathedral administration had to hire a fire truck to clean sections of its outside walls.
Currently, the cathedral administration is trying to replace some of the broken windows, but many companies are unable to do the job because they lack special equipment to do the job.
And although it is steeped in history and Anglican tradition, this cathedral has still embraced modernity.
The cathedral has nine high-tech curved screen TV sets mounted on its pillars that project what is happening in front. Although I must say they look rather incongruous to the building itself.
But they still serve their purpose.
Fr Thomas says there have been numerous suggestions on ways to modify the building, such as building balconies inside the building in order to increase its capacity, or building commercial buildings on the vast open space within the cathedral grounds.
The dean is, however, careful with making any changes to the building, not wanting to distort the appearance or obstruct its beauty.
“I’m torn between modernity and tradition,” he says.
“Of course if you ask me will you build a cathedral like this today, I won’t. I think there are better ways of spending money,” he adds.
He says he would rather build something that is cost-efficient.
The Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Cross has a special place in many people’s hearts and keeps countless memories for countless individuals, some sad, some joyous, and others simply historical.
For me, the cathedral keeps a romantic memory. It was here 10 years ago one wintry night during an all-night prayer meeting that I wrote a small note to my girlfriend asking her to marry me, and she scribbled the word “yes” and handed it back to me.

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