A tree canopy replaced the church roof, gnarled roots held the walls, and centuries-old boulders replaced the church pews on Sunday. It was the feast of the church’s patron saint St John the Baptist, and a Mass was held at the ruins of the 436-year-old Portuguese church at SEEPZ.
Nearly 3,000 Catholics, mostly East Indians, surrounded the altar on Sunday morning, keeping a tradition alive. Opened to the public only once a year, this church in Andheri is the only roofless ‘church’ in the city where mass is still held.
Nestled inside the Santacruz Electronic Export Processing Zone (SEEPZ) complex, the original church at Condita was built by Jesuit priest Manuel Gomes in 1579 and opened to the public during the feast of St John the Baptist the same year. “Centuries ago, our ancestors stood at this very spot to kept the Catholic faith alive and burning. May we also strive to do the same,” a parishioner read out during the mass.
To mark the feast, parishioners carry the statue of St John the Baptist placed in their current church (St John the Evangelist) in Marol to the ruins.
gThat the roots hold the church walls is in itself a miracle,” adds Nicolas Almeida, president of the St John the Baptist Church Save Committee. The signboard put up by SEEPZ authorities around the ruins, stating ‘Please stay away from dangerous structures’, however, hopes parishioners will use their discretion and not entirely rely on miracles.
Parishioners have written to the Chief Minister’s Office demanding that the church ruins be handed over to the Archdiocese of Bombay.
“We demand that as per the recommendations made by a 15-member MLA committee in June 2014 to the state government, the church be handed over to the Archdiocese of Bombay, and also the church, which has been categorised as heritage, be restored at the cost of the government,” reads the letter. For the first time, SEEPZ security officials have shot a video of the event for “security reasons”.
For Denzil Coelho, who was attending the mass at the ruins after 40 years, carrying the statue is an honour. “While carrying the statue, I suddenly remembered the time I visited the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria. There is a Christian shrine in the mosque — the tomb of the head of St John the Baptist. And here I am, carrying his statue in my home parish. It’s a special feeling,” says Coelho, who now lives in Lyon, France.
For Coelho and many others, these ruins were their picnic spot before the SEEPZ came up. “We plucked nuts from the lotuses in the Devool Talav here (a water body 20 metres away). They were good for health…we used to collect them and spent many wonderful afternoons at this place,” he recalls.
Another parishioner Godfrey Pimenta points to the Choari Chinch fruits (a type of tamarind). “As kids, we used to compete on who steals the most number of seeds,” he says.
The large Baobab trees bear witness to the church’s Portuguese roots, says Pimenta, as these trees were planted here by the Portuguese priests. The ‘IHS’ Christian emblem (a monogram which represents the name of Jesus consisting of the three letters: IHS. During the Middle Ages, the Name of Jesus was written as IHESUS) is still visible over the arch on the left flank of the church, and the limestone walls with three arches are now supported by the roots of the medicinal Manila tamarind trees. According to the locals, the tiled roof was blown away during a severe cyclone in 1949, but a few tiles continue to hang precariously near the main entrance.
It took the parishioners eight days to transform the ruins into a church. “We removed all the dried leaves, washed the altar area, painted the cross, cemented and levelled the altar so the older priests may find it easier to stand and placed the Mother Mary’s statue…,” says Julie Shinde, 42, one of the volunteers. Only SEEPZ employees have access to these ruins, while the area is thrown open to the public only on the feast day till 3 pm, according to MIDC police officials.
The mass ended with the spraying of holy water around the ruins, a common practice after a Sunday mass.
A story that dates back to 1579
♦ Jesuit priest Manuel Gomes built the original Portuguese church at Condita in 1579. A mass conversion in 1588 turned the whole village of Marol into Catholics. In 1840, after the outbreak of a devastating epidemic, the Condita church was abandoned and a new church was built at Marol. The statues, baptismal font, altars and a few pillars from the original church were transferred there.
♦ Till 1973, Mass was celebrated annually in May at the ruins. The practice was discontinued when MIDC acquired the area around the church for SEEPZ and it was declared a high-security zone.
♦ For the next 30-odd years, the church lay in a state of neglect, almost hidden behind the wild vegetation. The annual feast was then started again.