A 223-YEAR-OLD Armenian Church, known as the St Peter’s Church, stands amid the busy Kala Ghoda area in South Mumbai.
Originally built for the Armenians who arrived in Mumbai over 200 years ago, this one-of-its-kind shrine has opened its doors to the Indian Orthodox Church, also known as Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, to conduct its Sunday service.
Armenian cloth traders from Surat and the Malabar, the West Coast of India, formed a colony in the city over 200 years ago. Those who came later were from Julfa, a suburb at Isfahan in Iran, Istanbul and Beirut as they feared persecution in their homeland.
As traders and craftspeople, they were engaged in the business of jewellery, seals and spices, and also diamonds. In 1796, Jacob Peter, a wealthy Armenian merchant and a native of Hamandan in Persia, built this church.
Today, the number of Armenians in Mumbai has diminished to only one woman, 71-year-old Zabel Joshi, who divides her time between Mumbai and Canada, at her elder daughter’s, or Beirut at her sister’s.
Zabel came to Mumbai in 1972 after marrying a Gujarati trader, Kishore Joshi. “The Armenians here blended well with local residents and were happy,” she recalls. When Zabel found out about the church, she too went there. “There were only 15 people. So, we got together and met every Sunday. Now, most people have died and others have migrated abroad,” she says.
Member of the Indian Orthodox Church, Thomas Varughese, has been taking care of the church for the past 10 years. “It gives me immense pleasure as well as pride in looking after the church and I have been doing so voluntarily. Though it doesn’t belong to us, this church inspires me spiritually,” he says. Nearly six years ago, the structure was renovated.
“The Armenian Church and the Indian Orthodox Church are sister churches. We conduct many social activities such as schools for slum children, where we provide free education,” says Father Abraham Joseph. Though it is open only on Sundays, Christians who speak Malayalam gather every Sunday with a lot of enthusiasm to attend mass.