by Karen Laurie
MUMBAI, DEC 10, 2015: When the faithful enter the Shrine of Don Bosco's Madonna this Christmas, they will witness their shrine - seemingly robed to welcome Jesus in the manger. Gone are the cracks in the dome that resembled a dangerous mosaic, gone is the scaffolding that signified a work-in-progress.
Renovation to restore the shrine's distinctive dome, 80-feet above the main altar, to its past glory ended a week-into Advent. It's the first-ever renovation since it was built in 1957, by Father Aurelius Maschio; similar to the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians in Turin- built by Don Bosco himself.
Patkil and Dadarkar, two Indian architects, designed the iconic structure in the form of a traditional Latin cross. The main dome - over the sanctuary - and the two-minor domes - over the entrance - are typical of Roman church architecture of the time.
Fifty-eight years of braving the elements, however, took its toll on the main dome. Huge cracks developed and it soon became apparent - to Father Edwin D'Souza, Rector of the Shrine – that repair was needed, urgently.
"I was sitting at a funeral and when I looked up I saw the ribs of the dome cracked. I called for the architect who said,'if you can see the crack from 80-feet below, imagine the damage up there'. There was no way to reach the dome, except by erecting a three-storey high scaffolding to inspect it," Father D'Souza said.
Ever-escalating costs, a tight event schedule, mother nature and unusual physics were among a host of challenges the shrine management and architects were up against. "The cost of infrastructure required to reach the dome was more than cost of the actual work carried out," Father D'souza said.
Given the delicate Italian marble interiors, conventional scaffolding was not an option. Special stand-alone 'cuplock' scaffolding was used, to ensure that the beams did not need support from the sidewall. To ensure it stood securely to a height of 80-feet, a plywood platform had to be constructed- for support- at a height of 60 feet. It also served as a base for workers, helped store raw material and barred debris from damaging the floor beneath.
Scaffolding and plywood boxing was used to seal and protect the main altar and its statues. To ensure services were not disrupted throughout the tenure of the repairs- from August to December- the scaffolding on the altar was cordoned off by special gypsum boards, to block out the dust and noise. They not just saved the church from looking like a construction site, but also kept the crowd at bay, as a safety measure.
Gypsum boards were also used to prevent any damage to the Marian stain-glass paintings, created by the famous Italian painter Peter Flavio of Turin, over the main altar. Holes were drilled in the boards to stop hot air from being trapped between the board and the stain glass, and resulting in an explosion by the pent-up pressure.
Architect Bharat Dalal- who has restored domes for other structures in the city- said, "For this assignment, I had to put all my school physics to use, rather than what I learnt in the school of architecture. The Shrine is one of the finest pieces of craftsmanship and one of the best-maintained churches. We had to carry on the work while preserving this rich heritage."
The true extent of the damage became apparent only when workers scaled to the summit. "It was a miracle that the dome didn't collapse. Given the size, height, gravity, the damage would have been terrible. Don Bosco wanted someone to look at it," Dalal said.
Due to corrosion with age and climate, gaps between the stone, allowed water to percolate and damage not just the dome, but the structure around it too. The false ceiling above the main altar camouflaged the great distress the roof was in. Dalal added, "Remedial measures were undertaken, which included chemical treatment to all the Reinforced Cement and Concrete (RCC) members done in a very surgical manner." To counter the problem of rainwater leakage, roofing has now been built at the end of the dome, where rainwater would normally collect, to flow straight out of the main terrace.
The repairs cost over one crore rupees. "We made appeals and are very grateful that people were so generous; but we are no-where close to our target," said Father D'souza. Is it now the biggest cause for concern? "No," smiles Father D'souza, "It is our Blessed Mother's shrine. Like She protected it, She will also provide the money for it."
Around 5000 devotees visit the shrine on Sundays alone. Yvonne Nazareth, who has been regular for four decades says, "Don Bosco's shrine has kept all the old traditions alive, big wooden confessional boxes, communion rails, beautiful mosaics and stain glass paintings,artistically carved statues and holy water fonts, the domes, the arched doorways. I thought because of the repairs, we will miss the shrine's big and customary Christmas crib this year. But I'm glad that is not the case."
Three months after the first plans were chalked out, the iconic twelve-foot high, gold-plated statue of the Madonna, synonymous with the Matunga skyline, now stands more securely that ever before, on a Shrine that so many faithful call their own- the Shrine of Don Bosco's Madonna.