Vol. 5 Num 520 Sun. November 13, 2005  
Star City

Save timeworn St. Gregory's school

Old buildings of St Gregory's High School and the adjacent bell tower of the Holy Cross Church are under threat of collapse, but the diocese of Dhaka cannot raise sufficient funds to save the historical nineteenth century architectures.

Robi Purification, headmaster of the high school, has a dream and a nightmare, which are merely separated by a playground.

On the one side of the playground stand four new school buildings. Two of them are currently under construction. As soon as they are finished, the new buildings will offer 2,100 students and 80 teachers the most modern high school in Old Dhaka.

There will be 40 classrooms, a library, a spacious teacher's room, a large IT room and an extensive assembly hall. This is a dream coming true early next year.

On the other side of the playground stands the old school building with the attached Holy Cross Church. The buildings were constructed by Belgian missionaries in 1882. Surviving the 1897 earthquake they are among the oldest buildings of the city.

Both buildings, however, are in urgent need of maintenance or else they will crumble away to nothing. This is Purification's nightmare, sadly, also threatening to come true.

"There's very little me and the priest Edmond Cruze can do," said Purification, an ancestor of Portuguese missionaries, which explains his name. "We have had to use all our funds to construct the new school buildings. And even they aren't enough."

The new buildings cost Tk 5 crore -- Tk 1 crore is coming from a private fund of ex- students, 1 crore loan was taken from the community and 3 crore come from student fees. "I cannot even make an estimate how much a renovation would cost," said Purification. "I just know it will be very, very costly."

The old school was renovated once in 1984, when a new roof and iron beams were installed, but the church has not been touched since 1882. "When it rains, the church's roof leaks profusely," said Fr. Edmond Cruze, "but the real problem is the bell tower."

Cruze is concerned about a crack in the tower. He fears it could topple over and in a worst-case scenario crush churchgoers.

Shasmin Hussein, secretary of the Gregorian Association, a body of ex-students of the school, said: "Our association does not get involved in the school's monetary issues. If members do, they do it privately. What's more -- even if we did set up a fund, we couldn't be sure that the church would use it to renovate the buildings."

Paulinus Costa, secretary to the Archbishop of Bangladesh, said: "Yes, we know we must act. But shall we do? We need money to really make a difference." He claims that he is currently looking for money abroad and has contacted the Vatican on the issue.

For Headmaster Purification this is the wrong approach. "My predecessor Marcel Duchesne looked for funds in France. But to no avail," he said. Purification believes that one should be asking people that are attached to the school.

The government could also lend a helping hand. However, there is a hurdle to such an involvement. Shafiqul Alam, director of the Department of Archaeology, said: "The church authorities must make an official request. Otherwise we cannot help them."

Alam makes clear that his department would respect the school building's religious status but will not get too involved.

It is ironic that such a renowned school, that produced scholars like Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel Laureate for economics, cannot mobilise enough funds to save its original buildings.

The church's belfry housing the 19th century Italian bell has a crack virtually from top to bottom. The lime stone roof above the arched windows leaks heavily during rains(left). PHOTO: STAR