Mumbaiwale: Cross them off your list
Skip the city’s bigger, more crowded churches for these historical and unusual ones.
In Mumbai, unlike most Indian cities, you’re never too far from a church. Christian communities were already thriving in India when European seafarers arrived in the 15th century. Portuguese Franciscan priests had set up churches in Bassein (now Vasai), Salsette (today’s suburbs up to Thane and Mira-Bhayander) and the island city.
“The Portuguese influence extended along the coast from Daman in the north to Chaul, near Alibaug,” says archaeologist Kurush Dala who has been extensively studying the region. “But unlike the English, there was a lot more inter-marrying between locals and the Portuguese.”
So communities grew. Many historians believe that Dadar’s Our Lady of Salvation is the city’s oldest church, which may have existed as early as 1512. You’ve probably passed by or dropped in to other well-known ones: St Michael’s in Mahim, Mount Mary’s Basilica in Bandra, Holy Cross in Kurla or St Thomas Cathedral in Fort.
Here are some smaller ones, with no less exciting stories:
The one that opens only once a year: St John The Baptist Church, SEEPZ
Yes SEEPZ. The church inside the industrial zone opens only once a year, on the second Sunday of May, so mark your calendar. It was built in 1579, when about 500 residents of Marol converted to Christianity. But in 1840, after a devastating epidemic – we don’t know of which disease – a new church was built in Marol, moving the parish, the altars, the statues and the baptismal font, to a safer location.
The old church stayed open until 1973, when the area (including a lake, graveyard and church), was acquired by the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation. At the annual mass next Sunday, take in the ruins and the baobab, some of which are 500 years old.
The one by the beach: St Bonaventure’s Church, Madh Island
Tear yourself away from Erangal’s beach to visit the church that’s been standing since 1575. Named for a 13th century Italian theologian saint, the church is a simple single-room high-ceilinged structure with a domed altar. The annual Erangal Feast is held on second Sunday of January, when thousands of devotees gather for a beachside process, mass and a fair along the sands.
The one that may be on shaky ground: St Teresa’s Church Girgaum
Lonely Planet guides do St Teresa’s Church a disservice. They list it merely as a landmark for tourists to locate the village of Khotachiwadi. But the church, honouring the saint from Avila, Spain, has been around since 1773, starting off as a private chapel dedicated to saints Joseph and Teresa. It was rebuilt in 1912 and turned into a full-fledged parish (dropping St Joseph along the way) in 1941.
Today, a beautiful wooden altar houses the image of the saint and masses are regularly held. But local Catholics fear that work for the Metro, which will pass underneath the church, may damage the structure. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation has identified 85 structures above the Metro path that might be vulnerable to developing cracks, and the church isn’t one of them. Parishioners are still worried.
The one with a bell older than the church: St Francis Xavier Church, Dabul
By 1739, the Portuguese had lost most of their northern territories to the Marathas. “General Chimaji Appa attacked until the Portuguese had nothing left but Daman,” says Dalal. “When they breached the walls of Vasai Fort, local churches were torn down.”
The Marathas however, took with them some unusual, enduring war trophies. The heavy bells that rang out for mass and celebrations were refitted across temples in Maharashtra, where many still stand today.
One of them, made its way to a church. A bell from the St Joseph Church inside the fort was given to the British by the Portuguese in exchange for gunpowder during the Maratha siege. The bell was fixed at St Thomas Cathedral (near today’s Horniman Circle) where it pealed until 1869. It was then handed over to the British military depot and was ultimately returned to the Portuguese as a gift to the Dabul church. “Other bells are spread across the Konkan and even though they hang in temples, they still bear corsses and other Christian insignia,” says Dalal.