On Christmas Eve, catch the old city charm

Anjali Lukose gives you an off-the-beaten-track itinerary for X’mas mass at some of Mumbai’s oldest churches, laden with history and festive cheer.

Written by Anjali Lukose | Mumbai | Updated: December 24, 2014 3:50:47 am
After gorging on rum cakes and marzipan, having played Santa Claus for friends and loved ones, it’s time to go traditional. (Source: AP photo) After gorging on rum cakes and marzipan, having played Santa Claus for friends and loved ones, it’s time to go traditional. (Source: AP photo)

St Andrew’s, Bandra

with its white façade, St Andrew’s Church in Bandra, sits pretty at the edge of Chimbai village abutting the Arabian Sea. Bright lights over the bell towers, red and green buntings along the walls and stars over the main aisle brighten the 400-year-old church. On Christmas day, masses at 7 am, 8 am and 9.30 am will be celebrated at the church, while on Christmas Eve, carol singing followed by mass at 10 pm will be celebrated on St Andrew School ground to accommodate the large crowd.

chrch1Back in 1580, Bandra had only 2,000 Catholics baptized by Portuguese Jesuit Brother Manuel Gomes. By 1603, almost everyone in Bandra was a Catholic. Having lost its roof in a cyclone in 1618 and having shut down between 1740 and 1749 during the Maratha invasion, the church today is home to 7,500 parishioners.

Besides the Portuguese style 16th century side altars, the beautifully carved pulpit catches your eye. The original pulpit has seven petals that have carvings representing prophets from the Old Testament. The church compound is strewn with ancient history with gravestones from the 16th and 17th century, and the oldest cross in Bandra carved from a single stone standing in the south corner. Portuguese astronomy is also on display at this church through the small hole in the church façade that allows the rising sun’s rays to illuminate the church exactly at 7 am on the two equinoxes.

In keeping with Jesus saying ‘whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do unto me’, this year’s Christmas theme at St Andrew’s is ‘Jesus identifies himself with the last, the least and the lowest’, says parish priest Fr Caesar D’Mello.

St John The Evangelist, Marol

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The simple external façade of St John The Evangelist at Marol provides the perfect cover for the church that houses one of the finest Portuguese ‘rococo’ style altars along the west coast.  While the large Christmas tree and crib remind you of Christmas night, the near life-size statues of St John the Evangelist, St Anthony and Mother Mary steal your attention. One can gaze at the several statues of saints done in rococo style while attending the 7 am, 8 am or 9 am mass on Christmas day or enjoy carol singing and ‘midnight’ mass in the church ground on Christmas Eve from 9 pm.

Unlike most churches built over the original one, at Marol, ruins of the original Condita church can be found just few hundred metres northwest of the church with three arches and parts of the walls still standing. Jesuit priest Manuel Gomes built the original Portuguese Church at Condita (in SEEPZ) in 1579. A mass conversion in 1588 turned the whole village of Marol into Catholics. But the Condita church was abandoned due to the outbreak of a devastating epidemic and a new church was built at Marol in 1840, and the original statues were transferred.

The original wooden panels that hung along the upper walls of the Condita church now adorn each of the seven sides of the pulpit, depicting different saints and Mother Mary in various forms.

Mass will be celebrated for the 8,000-odd parishioners. It will focus on ‘Life in the Eucharist’, which means that when we receive the Eucharist (host) every day, Jesus’ power flows through us, says Bernice Martin, member of the liturgy committee.

Holy Trinity Church, Powai

Up a hillock overlooking the IIT-B campus, the Holy Trinity Church at Powai, stays hidden from public view. A no-frills Christmas décor reflects the church’s humble beginnings as one for the ‘model Christian agricultural settlement’. The Jesuits founded the Holy Trinity Church in the Valley of Vihar in 1550, but the valley was so malarious that they moved to the hillock in 1557.  This hilltop church was operational right up to 1737, until the Maratha conquest damaged it severely.

Attend the Christmas Day mass at this church at 8.30 am, and you can see the remnants of the original hilltop church right behind the current one. Thick gnarly roots now spread over the walls with window arches and a few ancient stone blocks still standing.

After mass, some old-timers may also let you in on the curious stories that surround the church.  Legend has it that the original Church of the Most Holy Trinity today lies submerged under Vihar Lake, where the top is sometimes visible when the water level goes down. Locals also believe that a statue of Mother Mary with Infant Jesus and a cross was found in the Vihar lake bed and it now rests inside the Condita church in Marol.

Christmas Eve mass at the church begins at 10.30 pm and this year’s theme is ‘Born anew, what is your choice?’, says parish priest Clarence Fonseca.

Church of Immaculate Conception, Borivali

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Christmas fever sets in even before you step inside IC church with shops around the church entrance selling bright and colourful decorations and mouth-watering sweets. One of the oldest churches in the city, first erected in 1547, the parish now has more than 24,000 people.

Christmas celebrations continue long after the midnight mass at the church grounds. Carols begin at 9.30 pm and the service is telecast live for the sick and homebound of the area. On Christmas Day, you can choose to attend Marathi mass at 6 am, Konkani mass at 7 am or English masses at 8 am, 9 am, 10 am and 11am at the church. The church is surrounded by heritage structures with the Mandapeshwar caves right behind, something that once served as a crypt of the church and chapel for parishioners.

A Franciscan missionary, Fr Antonio do Porto, founded this church in 1547. Within a year, Fr Antonio and his companion Joao de Goa had baptised a number of people and founded a ‘devout hermitage’ at Mount Poinsur. During the Maratha invasion of 1739, Mount Poinsar was captured, the Franciscans dispersed, and the Church was pillaged and left in ruins. The beautiful ruins of the original church still stand above the church and Mandapeshwar caves, just a climb above the church’s cemetery or a trek away around the caves.

This year, Christmas Eve mass will have the theme ‘The Eucharist and the family: Christ has been born into our family’. “No one can dispense a family. If Jesus is not born into our family, family would not have meaning and significance as Jesus brings joy and happiness,” says parish priest Fr Barthol Barretto.

For best Christmas decor, head to these most frequented churches

Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount, Bandra

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She rises over the hillock overlooking the Arabian sea bathed in changing colours with lights and lamps leading to her entrance. “It’s like Bandra fair shrunk into one night,” says Priya Gurava, 19-year-old candle stall attendant, describing the crowd on Christmas Eve.

Crowds gather around the eve up to 2 am, until police try to disperse the revelers from the hillock. The statue of Our Lady of Navigators, believed to be found in the sea by fishermen, is kept at the Mount. But the fiberglass murals on the walls, relic containing a drop of blood of St. Pope John Paul II, the marble plaque above the mian altar representing the Last Supper are equally impressive.

Soak in the Christmas spirit as the northern tower bell, with an engraved cross and the inscription — AVE MARIA, NOSSA SENHORA de MONTE, BANDORA 1852 — chimes melodiously on Christmas night. “The Mount continues to be a ‘place of aashirwad’ for Catholics and non-Christians alike. This year’s theme will be peace,” said Fr Aniceto Pereira, the vice-rector.

Shrine of Don Bosco’s Madonna, Matunga

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One of the few churches that will have an evening mass on Christmas day at 6.30 pm, the shrine is putting up 5,000 chairs for the event, with carols beginning at 9.30 pm. “We want to be of service to people on night duty who miss out on Christmas masses by holding a service in the evening. ‘God came near’ is the theme this year,” says Fr Edwin D’Souza, rector of the shrine. The stained glass, the crypt with hundreds of relies of ancient and modern saints encased in gilded crucibles, and walls of imported granite and marble make this shrine an impressive place to celebrate Christmas.

St Peter’s, Bandra

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Home to around 3,500 parishioners, St Peter’s Church doesn’t need Christmas to look beautiful. But on Christmas, with the massive tree at the entrance and lights leading to the church, she looks resplendent. Inside, the snowflake cuttings and lamps add sparkle to the 20 stained glass windows. The exquisite main altar is Carrara marble, the façade of which has the Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci carved in relief.  The theme for the crib is ‘Leave your cares at the manger of the Lord’, says Fr Errol Fernandes, parish priest.

Here’s where to follow the music

Choir of Cathedral of the Holy Name, Colaba

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English, Konkani and Latin carols will resound through the vaulted ceiling of the Gothic structure of the ‘Mother Church’ of the Bombay Archdiocese on Christmas Eve. Forty senior and 20 junior choir members and nine orchestra members will bring alive traditional carols such as ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘Come all ye faithful’.

This year, the male singers of the famous choir will replicate the sound of a drum a capella for the ‘Drummer Boy’, done so far only in concerts. The choir loft situated in the tower below the belfry and houses the massive pipe organ, which is still in use today.  “Christmas is the time to go for traditional carols. What sets us apart is that people settled abroad and working on ships come home for Christmas and join the choir,” says Mario Nazareth, the conductor. Catch them at 9.30 pm on December 24.

St Joseph’s choral Society, Our Lady of Salvation church, Dadar

With just a church keyboard for accompaniment, the St Joseph’s choral society has made its name as one of the best carol singing church group in the city. This year is special for the group as it completes 100 years of singing together. “Very few groups manage to stay together for 100 years. We have a mix of young as well as seniors singing in the choir,” says Dylan D’Souza, the conductor. Catch them at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Dadar on Christmas Eve at 11 pm.

Around 30 singers will sing 15 sacred carols as well as ones involving Santa Claus. For the first time, the group will be singing a gospel song ‘Jesus, what a wonderful child’, which takes its tune from ‘Oh, what a wonderful child’.  “Anyone who can hold a tune and volunteers for practice is part of the choir,” said D’Souza, who will conduct ‘Adeste Fideles’ — ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ in Latin — this Christmas Eve.

Choir of Our Lady Of Victoria Church, Mahim

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A tableau by children on the birth of Christ with a modern twist followed by carols is what Victoria Church has in store on Christmas Eve. Besides traditional carols such as ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ and ‘Silent Night’ in English and Konkani, the choir will do a Calypso Carol with a Latin American feel “to jazz things up”. “We try to do something different each year and compose our own carols. We are very versatile in our repertoire — some carols in Jazz and some in rap, not during mass but during carol concerts for Christmas,” says Karen Vaswani, the conductor. The choir even has a half Gujarati-half Parsi singer, Ruta Vyas, married to a Catholic. You can catch this choir at Victoria Church at 11.45 pm on December 24.

anjali.lukose@expressindia.com

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