Witness how lost glory of 435-yr-old Thane church was restored

After undergoing an 18-month restoration phase, the church was finally reopened in 2015

mumbai Updated: Jun 23, 2018 00:29 IST
Ankita G Menon
Ankita G Menon
Hindustan Times
Thane,church,Witness
Bishop Allwyn D'silva, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archidocese of Bombay (extreme right), Dr Fleur D'Souza (centre) and Fr Gerry, parish priest, show the coffee table book. (Praful Gangurde/HT)

Overlooking Masunda lake is the renowned bell tower of St John the Baptist Church, one of the oldest churches in Thane and Mumbai. Once you step inside the church, built on an old graveyard, you witness Portuguese-styled wooden altar with Baroque architecture that includes gold enamel.

In the early 2000, this 435-year-old heritage structure started falling apart. This is when talks of restoration started doing rounds and soon conservation architect Vikas Dilawari was roped in. After undergoing an 18-month restoration phase, the church was finally reopened in 2015. In addition, a coffee table book — Witness — was compiled to document the restoration work. The book will up for sale from Sunday. Available in two versions, the hardbound copy can be purchased for ₹1,000 and paperbound copy is available for ₹500.

“We tried our best to maintain the [church’s] original beauty and restored it according to the old photos and testimonies. Dilawari ensured that every process is documented for future reference. I have grown up here and have many memories of the church. The Baroque-style altar was amazing. Some of the oldest residents of Thane shared fond memories of the church and these anecdotes are mentioned in the book,” said Dr Fleur D’Souza, a Thane resident, and a retired history professor. D’souza played a crucial role in editing the book.

The modern altar was replaced with an intricately carved old wooden altar that was kept in a corner. (Praful Gangurde/ht)

Even the Pulpit, earlier used by priests for delivering sermons, was restored. Similarly, the modern altar was replaced with an intricately carved wooden altar that was kept in a corner. The new altar has made the grave stones underneath visible.

“There was a small door that was revealed and some old stones with sculpting have been kept at different locations so that parishioners can see them. We also tried to restore its original beauty. Using old photographs, we tried to recreate the main door. Also, we restored a wooden structure at the entrance,” D’souza said.

Bishop Allwyn D’silva, Auxiliary Bishop of Archdiocese of Bombay, said Christianity has a long history in Thane and first documentation of Christianity dates back to 1321.

“Not everyone is aware of this and it is essential for the younger generations to know the significance of the church and the community in Thane. The aim of the book is to keep the legacy alive. The last few pages include timeline of the important dates that mark the evolution of the church and the community,” he added.

After the restoration was completed, fans that consume 30% less energy were installed to cater to 1,000 devotees who visit on Sundays. Brainchild of D’silva, the fan is a part of the numerous eco-friendly initiatives ranging from installation of solar panels, rainwater harvesting, recycling organic waste to using LED lights at church grounds. D’Souza organises awareness initiatives to make the parish eco-friendly. He is known as the Green Bishop.

The history

The church was built in 1582 and was then known as St Anthony Friary. Among those visiting the church included the Franciscans, the Jesuits, the Augustinians and the Dominicans. After Marathas captured Thane in 1737, all churches, except this one, were destroyed. Though severely damaged, Marathas allowed the church to function under local priests. Some of the bells from the church can still be found in temples across Nashik and Solapur. Items that survived the damage were the main wooden altar, sides of the altar, and the roof of the sanctuary.

First Published: Jun 23, 2018 00:29 IST