With a litany of festivities to offer, a little old shop becomes a Xmas carol in Karachi
St Paul's Communication Centre is a testament to the harmonious coexistence in the neighbourhood and festive celebrations for all
Updated Monday Dec 25 2023
Stationed in the heart of Karachi's bustling Saddar neighbourhood, a quaint store serves as a serene haven for its customers, especially around Christmas. What makes this store’s presence unassuming is the fact that it is nestled in the midst of a chaotic but vibrant Mansfield Street, now known as Syedna Burhanuddin Road.
The store, named St Paul's Communication Centre, sits inside a roughly 60-year-old building and was established in 1965 by a religious congregation of dedicated nuns referred to as the Daughters of St Paul, a Roman Catholic order for women founded by Italian priest James Alberione in 1915 in Alba, Italy, and is spread across 52 countries around the world.
The first store, also referred to as the mother branch, was set up in Karachi, while others were later opened in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Multan and Faisalabad. At present, the Karachi store has a staff of around seven people including four sisters who all manage the store together.
December is especially busy for the staffers of the Karachi store who are seen receiving their customers with a smile with the outlet offering them a unique blend of festive cheer and spiritual comfort. It also remains a testament to the harmonious coexistence in the neighbourhood and festive celebrations for all.
As visitors enter the store, a mild symphony of wind chimes greets them with a warm welcome. A curated assortment of Christmas décor, religious paraphernalia and a treasure trove of holy books awaits them. Join Geo.tv on this enchanting exploration of this old store where faith and festive joy merge amid a bustling street.
Jerome John, a 34-year-old servile salesman, has been working at the store for the last 18 years. He joined the store during his teens, soon after completing his matriculation and briefly worked with Sister Elizabeth, one of the four nuns of the St. Lawrence's Parish who founded the store. She sadly passed away two years ago.
“This is a very nice and calm place. We are working for the religion and also serving different people. We don’t only sell religious books and items to our customers, but also preach through our character,” he said, speaking about serving the Christian community with pride.
Jerome, who lives in Karachi’s Akhtar Colony neighbourhood, said the store is crowded on the days approaching Christmas as festivities kick-start across the Christian community. “This time of the year is when work is at its peak in the store. A lot of people come to shop for books, decorative items, cribs and other religious paraphernalia.”
Inflation, however, has also hit the store like all other businesses in the country, Jerome told Geo.tv. “In previous years, our business has seen a 50% impact this year due to inflation. People prefer getting food first and then thinking about decorating their home.”
The store boasts a variety of items including humungous Christmas trees, Christmas cribs, statues of Jesus Christ and Mother Mary, decorative lights, buntings, ornaments, rosaries, baubles and globes, among numerous other items.
The store sells both local and imported cribs and statues. The imported ones arrive from Italy and are much more expensive than those made locally. Two Italian cribs of different sizes, Jerome said, were worth Rs50,000 and Rs70,000. But their quality, he said, was unmatchable.
Also dealing with customers at the store was Astel Vishal, a 24-year-old salesperson, who has been working at the store for four years now. Astel went to and fro helping them find ornaments and would then move towards the till to quickly make their bills. This year, he said, there weren’t many customers; perhaps, he added, it was the inflation that left people cash-strapped. But for him, working at the store is more than just the business.
“I like working at the store. It is nice to work for the religion and serve people.”
From Italy to Pakistan
Both Astel and Jerome attended to customers, joined by the observant presence of an elderly Italian nun, Sister Agnes Grones, who calmly walked through the store, tidying up the aisles and vigilantly watching those entering and exiting it.
The 82-year-old told Geo.tv that she has been living in Pakistan for the last 40 years, but regularly visits her homeland. “I go to Italy every two years. In Pakistan, I first served in Lahore for 20 years, then came to Karachi for another 20. I oversee different activities here.”
She also spoke about serving the community not only in the two major cities but across Pakistan. “From Lahore, we went all over Pakistan, especially the northern region.”
The elderly nun doesn’t come to the store every day, as she also visits schools as part of her duties. Sister Agnes is a woman of few words, but her kind demeanour and welcoming smile add to the little store’s charm.
Sister Agnes and three other Pakistani nuns — Superior Sister Nazia, Sister Ghazia and Sister Rukhsana Salamat — have been diligently managing the store for years. Sister Rukhsana entered the congregation 13 years ago and has been serving the store since 2010.
“Our mission is to disseminate the Bible’s message and introduce people to Jesus through means of communication. We try to reach our community through books, religious items and posters, among other things,” she said, speaking with Geo.tv.
In the days leading up to Christmas, Sister Ruskhsana said the store remains festive and beams with lights. “People trust the store for selling authentic, valuable and good quality items, as they know those involved in the operations are religious. They respect and give us more importance because of that.”
People flock to the store during festive times including Easter and other major holidays, she added. “People know that they will find everything with regards to religious items here if they are unable to find them elsewhere.”
'One-stop shop for all things Christmas'
As I wandered around the store to take photographs, a customer was busy scouring a bookshelf. He was specifically looking for a book titled ‘Mariam’.
Lateef Masih, a 59-year-old customer from St James Parish Korangi, preferred books over expensive decorative items. He often comes to the store during festive occasions to buy books and has been visiting it for the last 16 years.
“I come to the store during festive occasions to buy books according to the event,” he said, adding that he easily finds all religious books.
Nighat Asad, also a regular, arrived at the store on a Friday morning to have cakes and gifts wrapped for her office colleagues as well as make some purchases. Soon after entering the shop, she walked through the aisles to find festive wrapping papers to adorn the cake boxes and presents she bought.
“I get the cakes and gifts wrapped at this store and distribute them at my workplace ahead of Christmas to spread joy. I also have to get some cards and the tree as well,” said the 40-year-old marketing executive who said the store is her one-stop shop for all things Christmas. The store always has something unique to offer, I enjoy coming here, she added.
Nighat, in conversation with Geo.tv, said Christmas is a time of joy and a time when all broken relationships are mended. “This time of the year takes us towards brightness because Jesus also brought light to the world. The main purpose of the festivities is to celebrate with everyone. I’m always keen on celebrating with not just Christians but also with my Muslim friends,” she said, adding that she also had a Christmas tree set up at her workplace.
For Nighat and her community, Christmas is a very special day following the birth of Jesus Christ. “This last month of the year refreshes our soul and we enter a new life.”
Rabia Mushtaq is a staffer at Geo.tv. She posts on X @rabiamush