On a recent Sunday morning, the crowd at Mass at the Church of St George and St Thomas on Cathal Brugha Street chorused loudly and harmoniously.
They sang in Malayalam, a language spoken in the Indian state of Kerala. A golden cross stood in the church’s aisle. On one side, women wearing colourful shawls and scarves filled the benches, while men sat on the other side.
Latecomers who couldn’t get a seat huddled near the door as it swung open from time to time, and more people squeezed in.
After the service, a preacher congratulated a family on the birth of a new baby and made Christmas announcements, switching between English and Malayalam.
A tasty aroma filled the building, and church workers brought in massive pots and pieces of bread, and teas and pastries too. Chattering worshippers queued up to eat.
Some took their food outside, and families began socialising in the church’s backyard. Two small boys played hide-and-seek while some older kids talked among themselves in a corner.
The St Thomas Indian Orthodox Church has 120 registered families, said Rev. Fr. Abraham Koshy Kunnumpurathu, after breaking his fast. But the church building itself, which until 23 April 2017 hosted an Anglican parish, faces an uncertain future.
Some members of the Church of Ireland are campaigning to reclaim the building. Meanwhile, in April 2022, various news outlets reported that the Church of Ireland plans to turn it into a “cultural centre for Ukrainian refugees”.
Facing possible displacement, Fr Kunnumpurathu’s church is working to raise funds to build its own permanent home.
Memories of Masses Past
On a recent Wednesday, Marie Vedwing-Luc, one of the Church of Ireland’s former parishioners campaigning to win back access to the church, who’d just picked up her son and daughter from school on her way back from work, ambled down Francis Street.
She said the kids were thirsty and strolled toward the Hyatt Centric hotel at the bottom of the street. In its lobby, her kids sat at a table doing homework, drinking Coke and munching on snacks.
Vedwing-Luc’s face lights up, recalling past Sundays at the church. “I had my kids’ baptism there; I attended friends’ weddings there,” she says, smiling.
Many migrant families, like hers, attended the church’s Anglican service, says Vedwing-Luc. “If there’s a church in Ireland that feels like home, that’s the one,” she says.
After Mass, they’d get together sometimes and bond over diverse foods and notions, Vedwing-Luc says. “Everybody would bring different cooking from their different community because the diversity was amazing.”
She’s been to other churches since, Vedwing-Luc says. But “I don’t get that community and family from any of them.”
Before they lost access to the church on Cathal Brugha Street, Vedwing-Luc says, the Anglican parish used to share it with Indian Orthodox parishioners.
That went on for years, said Fr Kunnumpurathu, the Indian Orthodox priest, who says they have been holding Mass there for the past 15 years. “The Church of Ireland worship was in the morning; we were at 1pm.”
A sign near the church’s entrance says, “St Thomas Indian Orthodox Church 1:30pm”, although the Indian Orthodox service is in the mornings these days.
It’s been more than five years since Vedwing-Luc and other Anglican worshippers held their last service at the church.
A spokesperson for the Church of Ireland’s United Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough said the parish of St George and St Thomas had “faced difficulty”, so the dioceses had stepped in to supervise the church’s necessary repairs and renewal works.
They didn’t explain what difficulty means. They didn’t say that the repair works played any part in ending the Anglican parish’s worship there either, though.
But the Church of Ireland has been losing members and getting smaller anyway. In 2016, it had a little less than 126,500 members, a 2 percent dip compared to 2011, according to census figures.
The spokesperson for the Church of Ireland’s United Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough said that the dioceses are actively considering this church’s long-term future at the moment.
“Proposals for continuing Anglican ministry with St George and St Thomas are currently under review,” they said.
Meanwhile the idea of a hub for people from Ukraine was envisaged as a short-term measure, they said. (They didn’t say whether they still plan to do that or not.)
The Indian Orthodox worshippers, the spokesperson said, continue to use the church “through an ecumenical letting agreement”. They didn’t say how far into the future this letting arrangement extends.
Vedwing-Luc says they would be more than happy to welcome Ukrainians at the church if that’s an issue, if they were allowed back to have their services on Sundays.
“I don’t know what the idea is, but if it’s about welcoming communities, that’s what we’ve been doing in the past in that church,” she says. “I mean, that was in the DNA of the church to start with.”
In Search of Community
Abraham Abraham, a tall man hanging out in the church’s backyard after finishing his after-Mass grub, said that the Indian Orthodox parish also lives on borrowed time on Cathal Brugha Street.
They are currently fundraising to move elsewhere, he says. “It’s a really popular church with all the new immigrants from India coming here to work,” he says.
Fr Kunnumpurathu, the priest, says something similar: they plan on building a church elsewhere. But starting from scratch is expensive, he says.
Fr Kunnumpurathu says the Church of Ireland diocese, which takes care of the Church of St George and St Thomas, doesn’t write to them. “We just know that we’re permitted by the Church of Ireland for now, but there is no communication,” he said.
For Vedwing-Luc, being left in the dark means growing more homesick for a sense of camaraderie that she’s been searching for since they lost the church.
She says the former parishioners were under the impression that they would be allowed to return.
But a spokesperson for the Church of Ireland’s United Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough said: “We are not aware of any such promises being made.”
Says Vedwing-Luc: “We just want our church back.”