(Written by Sharon Thomas)
AT THE centre of a fast-growing city, in the old mill town of Girgaum, stands a Victorian Gothic style church that’s over a century old, founded by Dr John Wilson, the Scottish missionary and educator who founded the present-day University of Mumbai. The congregation that began with 11 members has now grown to 75 families, almost all Maharashtrians, who are set to celebrate the 150th year of their church this year.
Ambroli Church is named after Ambroli House, the chapel that stood at the site on Dr Wilson Street, before the church was constructed in 1832.
Members of the congregation believe the name of the church is derived from a place in Gujarat from where there was migration to Mumbai. Twenty of these families live in Ambroli Apartment, an extension of the church building. “Our lives are closely knit to the church; our generations have grown up on its footsteps and that makes us stronger as a community,” says Dipak Satpute (68), secretary of the Church Council.
“Ambroli Church, the manse (priest’s residence) and the apartment were important landmarks in the late 1800s but today to reach the church, a Grade III heritage site, Wilson High School or CP Tank should be mentioned (in the address),” said Satpute, referring to the church’s well-preserved archives.
Ambroli House is the present Girgaum Post Office. Back in the day, it was not just a centre of prayer meetings, but John Wilson’s vision to establish Wilson High School and Wilson College began here. Most members of the church are associated as students and teachers in these institutes. “In the hours after teaching at the school, Wilson used to walk in the neighbourhood, mingling with the locals. People loved his company and joined him in prayers at Ambroli House, later becoming the first members of the church,” Satpute says, reading out from the Church’s Centenary souvenir.
The first service of the church, on February 20, 1832, was in three languages — Hindustani, Marathi and English. “The only thing we accepted here was faith, keeping intact our culture, language, lifestyle and also not adopting Anglicised names,” says Rev Shekhar Jadhav, the Vicar of the parish that organises services on Sundays in Marathi.
A concept new to the Christian community in India which must have appeased earlier members was women’s liberty to be preachers. “In our community, both men and women can be pastors unlike few other churches,” says Satpute.
The Women’s Guild Service, a social service group begun by a Mrs Nikumbe in 1840s, involved the participation of women members to engage in fundraising activities to uplift the poor — a spirit that still lingers in the community by bringing women to the forefront of both spiritual and welfare activities.
Jalan Rane (72), the caretaker of Wilson’s relics and registers, has this to say about the church’s unusual name.
“Through the years, the church has become a home. Several discussions to change the church’s name to Wilson’s have failed, for who changes the family name?”