Our Lady of Graces

It was no idle boast the Begum made to Pope Gregory XVI, when she wrote, in her letter to him, dated 21 Jan 1834. "I am proud to say it (the Church) is acknowledged to be the finest, without exception, in India".

It cost four lakhs, a sum that is not so impressive today. But at that time it was a huge amount. The figure becomes really staggering when we realise that labour and material was about a hundred times cheaper than what it is today. Top masons were paid the equivalent of 25 p. a day, and the labourers in shells. Two huge lakes near the church are the result of the mud that was removed to supply the building material for the church.

The construction of the church was in the hands of Anthony Reghelini, an Italian architect from Vicenza, Italy.

Two dates are often given for the beginning of the church, Mr. K. M. Munshi, the noted historian, gives the date as 1809. Many are inclined to follow this date because a Latin inscription over the main door of the church puts its dedication in 1822. Obviously such an edifice needed about eleven years to complete. The other date, given by Fr. Keegan in his study of the Begum, is 1820. Now Fr. Keegan, who was in Sardhana only five years after the death of the Begum, was in a position to know. Besides there is an inscription in Arabic that gives the date of the building of the church as 1820. This inscription, according to the others, refers to the building in construction and not its beginning. Though it can be asked what kind of inscription is that marks neither the beginning nor end of a building.

If then the date is 1820, how then could only two years have elapsed before its dedication ? The point is how complete was the church when it was dedicated ? We have proof that the church was not completed till many years afterwards.

Besides what kind of a ceremony was this dedication since there is a letter from Msgr. Pezzoni, the Prefect Apostolic of the Agra Prefecture, which says that he solemnly blessed the church only on 29th December, 1829, Or was the beautiful inscription, of metal letters set in relief on white marble over the main door of the church, prepared in anticipation of an event that never took place in 1822 as expected, but only some years later ? It is also known for certain that the church was not finished before 1825. In the Archives of Propaganda Fide in Rome, there is a letter from the architect of the church, Anthony Reghelini, to Fr. Antonio da Lodi stating that ``the church will be completed in a year.'' The letter is dated 17th January 1825.

The view of the church from the gate is a side one, and therefore, not as impressive as it could have been. The reason for this is that custom of Catholic worship took preference over a possibly more beautiful approach to the church from the font. The altars in Catholic churches were usually built so that the priest and people faced east, the direction of the rising sun, the symbol of the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. As a result the church was built with its facade facing west. But an impressive entrance could not be made in front of the church, because of the nearness of the town. Hence the present entrance from the north side.

The drive to the church is more than a hundred years long. A large hedge runs on either side of it, as it divides a vast, silent mango grove. You get the impression that you are entering something cut off from the rest of the world. To commemorate Jesus Christ's Jubilee 2000, 14 Stations of the Cross depicting Jesus Christ's journey with the Cross to the place of his crucifixion, were erected along the avenue on 11th November 2000.

In 2006, on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of the Installation of the sacred Image of Our Lady of Graces, the 20 plaques depicting Mysteries of the Holy Rosary were installed and blessed by the Apostolic Nuncio—Pedro Lopez Quintana

They were put up by donations from institutions in the Diocese.

The avenue brings you to the side of the church where there is a statue of Jesus with arms outstretched in love and forgiveness, erected in 1967. You have to go around to the front to get a proper view. As you stand back you are struck by the blend of many styles of architecture.

Eighteen imposing Doric pillars line the verandah that runs round the church up to the wings. The Roman domes, a large one over the sanctuary and two smaller ones surmounting the side chapels, are similar to the three domes of St. Peter's Basilica, Rome. At the back of them all, rise two lofty spires, that are so massive that they do not seem as high as they actually are. The steeple on the left has two large bells. The one on the right contained a clock. But when its machinery wore out, it was removed and never replaced. The octagonal lantern above the central dome is made up of finely chiselled and perforated slates and capped with a black and white marble small onion like dome. Here we obviously have a touch of Muslim architecture. On the top of the three domes and two spires there are metal balls, surmounted with metal crosses, so heavily gilded that the years have failed to diminish their lustre.

The roof of the church is not all one level. The main aisle and the wings have a roof higher than the rest of the church. This gives the church a special beauty of its own, which is further enhanced by the railing that runs around both levels of the roof.

As you climb the steps onto the verandah you see above you a marble slab with an inscription in Arabic, the English version of which is the following, ``By the assistance of God and the grace of Christ, in accordance with the wishes of Zeb-ulnisa, this magnificent church was built in the year 1820.

Having climbed the steps onto the verandah, you see above the central door another and larger marble slab, with plated metal letters in relief. The inscription is in Latin.

D.O.M

SUIS CURIS ET IMPENSIS

A FUNDAMENTIS EXCITAVIT

ET SUB NOMINE, ET PROTECTIONE

DEIPARAE VIRG : MARIAE

JUXTA ROM : CATHOLICU:

RITUM DICAVIT EXLMA

DMA JOANNA SOMBROU

PRINCEPS SARDHANAE

AN : DMI MDCCCXXII

The English translation is as follows :

``To God most good and great, the most illustrious Lady Joanna, ruler of Sardhana, raised (this church) from its foundations at her own expense, and dedicated it according to the Roman Catholic rite, under the title and patronage of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, in the year of the Lord 1822''.

Though from the outside the church looks square, an impression created by the verandah that rounds round the church up to the wings, inside it is a perfect Latin cross. As you enter, the first thing that holds your attention is the main Altar, as every main alter should. Behind it, towers a huge marble tabernacle with a niche, on which is enshrined a statue of Our Lady of Graces. This statue is not from the time of the Begum. Instead there was first a beautifully painted picture of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, that now adorns the Seminary chapel at St. John's. It was removed when a statue of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart was brought out from France specially for the church, in the middle of the last century, by the first nuns of Jesus and Mary. But this statue being too big for the niche never suited it. It was replaced early in this century by another statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, and then by the present statue about 30 years ago. The first statue is now the treasured possession of the Convent of Jesus and Mary, where it stands enshrined in a garden, at the back of the church.

The Altar is of white marble brought from Jaipur. It is tastefully inlaid with a floral design of semi-precious steons, such as cornelians, jaspers and malachites. When the light plays on them, they make an inspiring sight. In its floral design this work resembles very much the Florentine mosaic of the Taj Mahal at Agra. The white marble of the altar steps and platform is delicately inlaid with black and brown marble. The sanctuary floor, too, is of black and white marble, and the altar rails of a marble so white and pure, that they seem almost transparent. Above the niche that holds the statue of Our Lady of Graces, there are the letters MRA. They are the first, middle and last letters of the name of Maria, to whom the church has been dedicated. Above the sanctuary rests the large dome on an octagonal drum with eight windows. Through these windows the sanctuary is flooded with light.

The whole centre aisle, from the door to the altar rails is marble. The vaulted ceiling and the main arches are covered with various designs of plaster work, in oriental and Roman styles. As you walk up the aisle, you see to your left a side chapel, whose floor and altar is marble. In this chapel is enshrined the famous Sacred Image of Our Lady of Graces. But we shall come back to this later. On your right is the marble chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is an inspiring sight, for while the body of this small chapel is dark, the statue and altar are set into prominence by a flood of light through the small dome overhead. If we approach this altar and look up towards the dome, we can get a good idea of the architectural beauty of the whole church. At the entrances of both these side chapels, stand two imposing dark brown gates. They look metal and only by touching them can you find out that they are of wood.

On either side of the Sanctuary, there are two long wings. In the one on the left, stands the famous monument over the tomb of the Begum, to which we shall come back.

At the back of the altar is the sacristy. Here are kept the relics of the Holy Cross, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Thomas and St. Francis Xavier, presented to the Begum by Pope Gregory XVI. The Church is also in possession of the chalice, a masterpiece of craftmanship, that the Begum presented to the church when it was solemnly blessed by Bishop Pezzoni of Agra in 1829. This formal presentation has been recorded on one of the bas-reliefs of the monument over the tomb of the Begum.

The rooms behind the sacristy and attached to the church were once the residence of the bishop and priests of Sardhana. Today they form part of the convent of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary.

In the rooms at the side entrance of the church there are Mass vestments presented to the church by the Begum, a painting to the church by the Begum, a painting of the Begum, and a painting of Fr. Gregory, the priest who baptised the Begum, and copies of paintings of persons connected with the Begum.

Few people are aware that this church was once known as a Cathedral. The reason why was because there was a time when Sardhana had its own Bishop.

The beauty and fame of this church was greatly enhanced when the Sacred Image of Our Lady of Graces was enshrined in 1957.

The church was further honoured, when in December 1961 Pope John XXIII deigned to raise it to the dignity of a Minor Basilica, a dignity that is bestowed rarely and only on churches that are both historically famous and beautiful.

When an earth quake slightly damaged the church which was widely reported in the national press, the Human Resource Minister decided that the church would be repaired.

In 2006, the Archeological Department did a great work of cleaning and restoring the two steeples.

Contact Info

Basilica of Our Lady of Graces

Sardhana P.O. Meerut District 250 342 Uttar Pradesh, India

Tel: 0123-723-6127
Mob: +91 7409991161

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