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Know Your City: How a friendly invite to a missionary led to the first Methodist Church in Pune

Pune’s oldest Methodist church, Oldham Memorial Methodist Church, will mark its 150th year on September 28 this year.

This year, on September 28, the missionary’s church, the Oldham Memorial Methodist Church -- the oldest Methodist church in the city – will mark its 150th year. (Express/Arul Horizon)

In the late 1800s, when Pune was a strong military base for the British troops, a “casual remark” inviting an American missionary to “take a little needed rest” to the city resulted in the introduction of the Methodist Church of America to Poona, as the city was known then. This year, on September 28, the missionary’s church, the Oldham Memorial Methodist Church — the oldest Methodist church in the city – will mark its 150th year.

An invite to Poona

“I said to some friends at Major Raitt’s, ‘Suppose I go to Poona a few weeks during these heavy rains?’ It was quite a casual remark. I had no serious thought of going soon, for I knew of no friends there to visit…Brother Henry Bailey, Inspector of the E Division of Bombay Police, came in and said, ‘I am going to get two months’ leave of absence and take my family to Poona,’— and invited me to go there and stay with them and take a little needed rest. I considered the matter prayerfully, and on the 16th of July went second class (119 miles) to Poona,” writes Bishop William Taylor in his book Four Years Campaign In India, 1875.

As per Reverend S Retnamony, the present pastor of the church, Bishop William Taylor, an American missionary, had come to Mumbai for his mission work and had started a Methodist Church there. “He came to Pune on an invite to rest and during his stays here, decided to start gospel meetings in people’s houses. Soon, he started the Methodist church here in Poona,” he said.

Oldham Memorial Methodist Church in Pune

On the evening of September 28 in 1872, with 37 members, Taylor started the church as ‘The Methodist Episcopal Church’ with Reverend D O Fox as the first pastor-in-charge.

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For two years, the congregation continued meeting at various locations in old Poona and then subsequently in 1875 moved to an old church hall on East Street. On June 19, 1886, the old hall was purchased for Rs 5,716 when Reverend John Blackstone was the patron-in-charge.

The growth of the Oldham Memorial Methodist Church

Over the course of time, as the congregation grew, there was need for a bigger space. In the early 1900s, the first plans to renovate the church building and parsonage were put in place. After the death of William Fitzjames Oldham, the missionary bishop for South Asia in 1937, the church was renamed Oldham Methodist Church, in his memory in 1951.

The same year, a unique tradition started at the church to mark Easter. “It has been a long-going tradition to hold the Dawn Prayer meeting and the Easter service on Baker’s Hill. We carry a cross, which is about a little over five feet. The congregation gathers at the hill before dawn breaks and the service begins. As the sun rises, the service is concluded,” said associate pastor Reverend Jesu A Karunakaran.

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“The memory of Easter morning is still etched deeply in my memory. Mornings were cold, everyone would carry their mats to sit on and arrive at the hill. The service would begin as we sang the Christ the Lord is risen today, we would see the dawn break right behind the cross…It was such a sight, that members of other churches or in fact, anyone who just wished to be part of the beautiful service, were there,” said Faith Penumaka, a senior patron and member of the church.

On the evening of September 28 in 1872, with 37 members, Taylor started the church as ‘The Methodist Episcopal Church’ with Reverend D O Fox as the first pastor-in-charge.

On the church’s 80th anniversary in 1952, a new building fund was inaugurated. Under Reverend M Garrison, the plans took shape, while in Reverend T Johnson’s tenure, the blueprints were drawn. But in 1961, when Pune was hit by floods, the church provided financial assistance and six years later, also helped in the relief work of those affected by the Koyna earthquake. “We cannot be so sure, but for some time, the plans of renovations and a bigger space for the growing congregation did not happen,” said Reverend Retnamony.

In 1969, the then Reverend S E Downes transferred to the Oldham Methodist Church and took it upon himself to translate the blueprints into the present church building at East Street. “My father, along with all of us, arrived in Poona from the United States…He always wished to be back to the place he called home. At the time, the old church was brought down by the previous Reverend Johnson but due to his transfer, he could not see to the completion of the building. My father spearheaded the church, a church financed by its people,” said Lorraine Phoebe David. David further said that every single aspect of the church was minutely looked into by her father and mother, Phyllis Downes.

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The church has a white exterior, with a cross on top and a door with the Jerusalem cross design. Inside, it is a pillarless hall with an overlooking balcony, a cross on the wall with the ancient Greek symbols of Christianity—the Alpha and the Omega— carved on the pulpit, stained glass adorning the walls, and chandeliers. The most distinctive are the grills depicting various apostles of Christ. “It was an idea that my parents sat down and came up with,” said David. “Each triplet of grills has Christ in the middle with Christ’s disciples depicted in the others. For example, Peter, who then had to die, had asked to be crucified on an upside-down cross and Peter is depicted thus so…Every minute detail in the church was carefully thought over by my parents. Even the chandeliers, each with seven lights, to symbolise the seven spirits,” David added.

The church choir organised a musical concert in March 1970 to boost the funds for the church building. As the church was built, due to past associations with Hutchings School, the prayers were held in their halls. “Hutchings and Oldham Memorial Methodist Church go way back. Several of its members, including myself, have been part of the church. In fact, Emily Hutchings, or how we fondly called her Mama Hutchings, too was a member of the church,” said Faith Penumaka.

A year later, on June 27, 1971, the new building was dedicated and renamed Oldham Memorial Methodist Church. In the evening, a choir conducted by Daniel Manoharan presented the Judas Maccabaeus.

“The concert had people coming all the way from Bombay and Panchgani. The NDA band at the time was also invited. Several days were put [went] into practice. Unlike today’s practice of singing at the same pitch, the singers were trained and choreographed as the soprano, alto tenor, and bass. I played the trombone and was also a bass singer…The concert which lasted two hours with about 75 choir singers and the orchestra, received a crescendo of applause and was highly appreciated,” said Leslie Penumaka, who later also conducted the church’s choir.

A century and a half later

Under Reverend Downes, the social initiative of the Seva Yojna clinic was held in the camp area. “Until 1975, the initiative ran at a small space in present-day Pulgate. “It was a clinic for the poor and the destitute who lived in the neighbourhood. The doctors were often members of the church and offered consultations,” said David.

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Sunday Bible School in progress at old church building

The women of the church also frequented the Eventide Home for the elderly and continuing their vision of mission work, the church also started Dew Drops Nursery on the church premises in 1992, under Reverend M A Daniel. “The nursery came up as an initiative to provide affordable kindergarten,” said Faith Penumaka.

First published on: 10-09-2022 at 01:43:23 pm
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