Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Adventure in a Crumbling Cathedral

There is a beautiful old church on the marginal in Quelimane. It was built by the Portuguese in the late 1700’s and is one of the oldest buildings in Zambezia. It has two bell towers, a tiny garden, and crumbling wooden front doors. It is truly in the midst of a slow collapse to the ground. There are large cracks in the walls where vines have slithered in and silently carpeted the floor. Parts of the ceiling are missing and the rubble lines the old aisles. I explored the inside of this place on an afternoon walk. The silence and coolness of the inside were so remarkable; I brought Kevin back another afternoon.

We walked up and entered an opening on the side of the church where a door once was. We were awed into a whisper by the combination of beauty, antiquity, and creepiness the place had. There was a marble basin by the door that once held holy water. We wandered further in and I looked up at the ceiling. At that moment I felt Kev’s hand pressing my back and heard his urgent mutter, “We should go. Now. Quickly.” I wheeled around and saw what he saw. My heart leapt into my throat. A small, shoeless man was standing in the doorway we had just entered, scowling, holding a machete upright in the air and looking at us.

Now, it is a personal rule of mine to run from men with machetes in this country and in fact, in any country. I don’t ask questions. I just go. Kevin shares this philosophy. I was not happy about being in a secluded, enclosed space with a man with a machete. So without further discussion, we began to make our way across the sanctuary to the only other exit, at a very high rate of speed.

The man started after us. We had cleared the doorway and were leaping down the steps that circled the outside of the church when we finally heard him. “Wait! Wait! It’s okay! I’m the gardner!” We stopped, confused, and turned around. The man very deliberately laid his machete down outside the door and trotted up to us. “Hi! My name is Artuli. I take care of the garden of the church.” He grinned up at us. We shook hands, feeling a little sheepish. “Do you want to see the inside?”

He led us back inside (leaving the machete where it was) and took us over to a marble plaque on the back wall. It was engraved with names and dates of people involved with the building of the church (commissioned by the high lord so and so, completed by so and so the 5th district governor or whatever). It was amazing to know that people began construction on this place before the American Revolution. Artuli showed us marble slabs that marked where people were interred around the altar of the church. One was a woman from Portugal who was married at 13, brought to Mozambique and died at 16. Another interment, placed in the wall of the church, was of a three year old boy who had died in Zambezia. Artuli next took us up a stone spiral staircase to the bell tower. You could see the whole marginal and the Bons Sinais River from the top. The two bell towers connected with a wooden loft area at the back of the church. Artuli warned us not to step on anything wooden. “It’s dangerous, you could fall.”

When we finished the tour of the church we went outside to see his little gardens. He kept the grass and tiny bushes around paths trimmed with his machete. We praised his work. It was a small place, but not a weed in sight. I thought it was sad he took such care with the small grounds while the church was left to fall apart. Artuli didn’t know who was responsible for the church or why it wasn’t renovated. He said “a padre” arranged for him to care for the garden. We suspected that responsibility for the church had slipped into some kind of bureaucratic no man’s land between the Portuguese and Mozambican government and the Catholic church during the war or maybe even earlier. We thanked our new friend for the tour, slipped him a few coins, and headed on our way.