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Sunday March 30, 2008 PART 1 - Siparee Mai Devotions
Holy Thursday and Good Friday
by Fr Martin Sirju, Parish priest, La Divina Pastora, Siparia

This year was my baptism by fire. I had long wondered what Holy Thursday/Good Friday would look like in my new parish.

I approached it with some anxiety when I heard all the stories about these two days. Was it going to be as they said?

My mother told me when we were children we would come together as a family and give charity to the poor scattered throughout the yard. But I had no recollection of that.

Once, while at the seminary, we (seminarians) visited La Divina Pastora Church for the feast day in April. Again, my memory of that has faded except the spectacle of a drunk vagrant singing to us as we passed him by in the bus, “As long I is a vagrant ah happy!” – his own adaptation of a well know soca tune at the time.

Well my baptism was indeed revealing. I did not hear any voice from heaven saying how “beloved” I was but it was a theophany of some kind. Holy Thursday and Good Friday at La Divina Pastora are events unique to this parish; I doubt if there is anything like it in any other part of the world.

A brief history of devotion to La Divina Pastora can be found in La Divina Pastora – Novena Prayers by Fr Thomas Harricharan and A Short History of La Divina Pastora Parish, Siparia by Theresa Noel.

Both make mention of the decisive event of the introduction of the railway (1912) from north to south. My goodly barber, Claude, who used to work for the railway company told me there will be several trainloads of East Indians coming from north to south for the “Sopari Mai Ki Mela” (Noel, p 17). A mela is a big festival so the preceding quotation can be translated “The Grand Festival of Mother Sopari”.

Holy Thursday and Good Friday at La Divina Pastora therefore bear the imprint of Hindu devotional religion or bhakti. For Catholics the centre of these two days is Christ; for Hindus it is Siparee Mai. The two devotions have been taking place side by side for over one hundred years.

I will now briefly describe the devotions as they are today. Many changes have taken place in these devotions over the years. This in itself is good for it shows that devotion is for people and not people for devotion.

At one time La Divin was housed in the church and dual devotion would take place, Catholics doing their thing on one side and Hindus doing theirs on the other.

To avoid the inevitable disruptions, La Divin is now placed in the Conference Room for most of Holy Thursday and part of Good Friday i.e. two rooms away from the church. This seems the ideal solution so far.

Long line of pilgrims waiting to see "the Mother"
Long line of pilgrims waiting to see "the Mother"
Agricultural stalls part of the colourful market
Agricultural stalls part of the colourful market

Pilgrims enter through the Boys’ RC School compound which is adjacent to the church. Pilgrims are mainly Hindus but there is a fair amount of Spiritual Baptists and Orisha as well. Some parishioners say Muslims too, as well as Pentecostals who allegedly come incognito.

The crowd is usually thick during the day but this Holy Thursday it was not. The crowd, however, thickens at night, especially midnight, and this year was no exception. Sometimes there are singers and dancers who usher in the early morn but there was no such colourful activity this year. I hope next year.

The Hindu pilgrims worship with eyes closed, hands joined and lips moving in prayer. Sometimes they cry. They offer rice, flowers, money and, to a lesser extent, jewellery.

The jewellery is nothing like the past; most are costume jewellery and what is genuine gold is usually quite small in size. Beras (thicks gold bracelets) and gold coins are icons of the past. The pilgrims come with candles and olive oil, both of which have become increasingly expensive.

A 250 ml bottle of Regal olive oil is $22.50. Half the oil is given to the church and they keep the other half. Children play an important part in these devotions. Babies are offered up to “the Mother” and those that are a little older help put the offerings on La Divin.

The Hindu practice of cutting the first locks continues but I saw only one barber this year. In Hindu devotion the first locks are offered to the goddess of the sea (Ganga) but in this case it is offered to La Divin. After offerings are given now comes the charity part. They give money to the poor huddled in the school compound and also in the churchyard.

Some people also bring boxed meals for the poor. Here the parishioners of Siparia are very generous. Sr Columba and the altar servers serve soup while others bring lunches, sandwiches, tea, coffee and soft drinks.

We are also very grateful to the volunteers who monitor all devotional activities during the day and especially night; there are those to look after La Divin and the offerings, as well as those who keep watch at the two doorways.

Then there is another team managing the financial part of the day’s activity. And we cannot forget the team picking up garbage and the altar servers who keep an eye on what’s taking place in the church. Nor can we forget the Regional Corporation which works hand in hand with us providing water, Parc Disposals and cleaning up when the days’ activities are over.

When the pilgrims are finished they venture out onto the streets. The perimeter of the church and school are packed with stalls which are set up from Wednesday afternoon. A mela also implies market, and so it is.

There are all sorts of stalls: agricultural, clothing, footwear, plants, pottery, bags and watches, Indian delicacies, other eats and drinks but definitely no alcohol.

That is sold in the town, away from the stalls. I even saw one stall specifically devoted to Hindu religious pictures and another selling ceramics and mixed religious pictures.

As far as I can see, the pilgrims present no major problems to us or our Holy Triduum liturgies. In fact, parishioners are rather excited. By lunchtime Good Friday the crowd has petered out. We are now ready to conduct our own service in reverence and quiet.

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