The Church in Mumbai: The Fifth Pilgrim Stays Webinar
Streamed live Saturday, 5 September 2020 on Facebook and You Tube
The video can be viewed here:
This is the slideshow presented at the event:
Dr Fleur D’Souza, a well known historian and media personality was kind enough to present the 5th Pilgrim Stays Webinar. Dr D’Souza retired as Head, Department of History at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, after an illustrious career spanning decades. She is on the Heritage Cell of the Archdiocese of Mumbai, where she is one of the prime-movers of the highly esteemed Heritage Museum set up by the Archdiocese at Goregaon. She served as member of the first Academic Council of the Maritime History Society of the Indian Navy (2016-2019), and is an executive council member of the Oral History Association of India.
This was the fifth webinar in the series- you can check the previous ones here. Continuing in the vein of our previous events, the Church in Mumbai was the focus of the evening. Considering that Dr Fleur D’Souza received her Doctorate for her study on “Thana under the Portuguese 1534-1737”, there could be none more eminently suited to deliver the address.
Opening with the earliest Christian era, Dr Fleur spoke of Christianity in Bombay especially before the arrival of the Portuguese. There is a tradition especially in the Konkan, according to which the Apostle Bartholomew evangelised in the region, leading to the establishment of one of the first early Christian communities at Kalyan, near Thane. This, Dr Fleur was of the opinion, lay in the realm of faith and was not backed by adequate historical proof, at least at this point of time.
She did however speak about the writings of Cosmas Indicopleustes (meaning Cosmas who sailed to India), a 6th century Greek merchant turned monk hailing from Alexandria in Egypt. Best known for his seminal work Christian Topography, Cosmas has written about the existence of a flourishing Christian community at Kalyan.
Moving to the year 1321, she said that the existence of Christianity in Kalyan was based on much firmer ground where this period is concerned. For it was in April that year four Franciscans were martyred at Thana, a period when the Delhi Sultanate ruled over the region. The 700th Anniversary of the martyrdom will be commemorated at the Cathedral of San Catervo, Tolentino in Italy. This is the hometown of one of the Friars who was martyred- the Blessed Thomas of Tolentino.
His remains were removed by the Franciscan Friar Odoric of Pordenone, who passed through the region a few years later, en route to China. Eventually only the skull was carried back to Tolentino, where it is venerated as a relic. A small part of the relic was shipped to India and is preserved at the church of St John the Baptist, Thane. The Archbishop of Bombay, His Eminence Oswald Cardinal Gracias is expected to lead a delegation from India to the event.
The arrival of the Portuguese substantially altered the relative status of Christianity in the region. Equipped with fire power which at that time was unprecedented, the Portuguese quickly set about bringing large swathes of the Konkan coast under their flag. A series of battles with the Portuguese, along with the fear of growing power of the Mughals in Delhi, compelled Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat, into signing the Treaty of Bassein in 1534. The following year on 25 October 1535, Bassein and the seven islands of Bombay were ceded to the Portuguese. This was followed by the formal takeover of Diu in 1539 and of Daman two decades later in 1559.
Thus were laid the foundations of the Portuguese Província do Norte or Northern Province, a territory which extended 220 kms from Daman in the north to Chaul in the south, and in width between 25 to 50 kms inland. It was administered from Bassein, now renamed Vasai, which soon became a city fabled for its large manorial houses belonging to the fidalgos (noblemen) of the Portuguese aristocracy. Its opulence soon led to it being viewed as the jewel in the crown of the Portuguese Empire in India, or Estado da India.
The quantum of revenue generated by the Northern Province was sizeable enough to fuel the growth of Goa, the capital of Portuguese India. Much of it was spent in building Cathedrals and churches on a lavish scale. The strategic location of Bassein gave the Portuguese monopoly control over the sea trade, an advantage guarded zealously by a heavily armed garrison and fleet. The Portuguese built five convents, thirteen churches and one orphanage in the city of Bassein. Seven of these churches were built within the fort which had an extensive are of 110 acres.
All the four main missionary orders of Portugal established a presence in the province. The Augustinians, the Dominicans, the Franciscans and the Jesuits founded many churches, monasteries, colleges and libraries in Salsette Island. The impact of their presence, was to influence much of the regions development, and continued to do so for many years after their departure. Of the many churches built in that era, only a few survive. The Church in Mumbai has done a great deal in preserving and maintaining its illustrious heritage.
Notable among these is the church of Our Lady of Bethlehem at Dongri, Dharavi Island located in the Northwest (not to be confused for the slum of Dharavi in central Mumbai). Built in 1613, it is perhaps the only church in Bombay that has remained unaltered ever since it was built. The Jesuit monastery of St Anna, built on the spot where Bandra’s main bus terminus stands today, was a fortified structure complete with several cannons and even had a militia comprising about a hundred gunmen. It was to be later demolished by the British in 1739, when the Marathas takeover of the Bombay was imminent.
Meanwhile, the politics of Europe had its reverberations in India. Both Portugal and England were scouting for allies- the former to contain the aggressive and growing Dutch East India Company, the latter to emerge from the clutches of Spain which now effectively ruled it. From this convergence of interests was born the union between Charles II of England and Catherine of Braganza, daughter of King John IV of Portugal. One of the terms of the marriage treaty signed on 23 June 1661, provided for the transfer of the seven islands of Bombay to the British Empire, in return for British naval assistance against Spain.
The once powerful Portuguese were weakened by a series of events both within and without, which led to the Northern Province falling to the Marathas in 1739. The immediate repercussions in this shift of political power brought tumultuous upheaval to the Catholics living in these territories. A sharp decline in their well being both material and spiritual, saw the Catholics undergo numerous hardships. Once well maintained and attended churches were looted for their wealth, and lay abandoned and desolate.
In 1774, there was once again a reversal of fortunes, as the British retook the city from the Marathas. Though impoverished and woebegone, the community was able to overcome its setbacks and set about rebuilding their lives. British rule however did present its own set of difficulties, as the new rulers viewed Catholics of the erstwhile Northern Province with suspicion. Being under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Goa led to doubts in the minds of the British as to where the loyalties of the Catholics lay. In addition, the fact that many affluent families still spoke Portuguese did not help matters.
The Padroado-Propaganda Schism is a well known ecclesiastical conflict between the Portuguese Crown and the Holy See. Its tremors were felt all over the Portuguese Empire as well as in areas where they had ruled previously and continued to exercise influence. Bombay was no exception and the friction played out for well over two centuries until the era of Double Jurisdiction came to an end in 1928. This resulted in the appointment of a Portuguese Archbishop followed by a British one in keeping the spirit of the agreement.
Political Independence was fast approaching and the Archdiocese of Bombay prepared for this transition by inducting its first Indian Archbishop, Cardinal Valerian Gracias in 1950. Independence for India dawned in 1947- a nation was reborn into an era where modern thought and enlightenment sought to end centuries of stagnation. Ideas like parliamentary democracy, constitutional rule, universal adult suffrage, were transplanted overnight into a society that was throwing away the vestiges of colonial over-lordship.
It was in such an era that the 38th Eucharistic Congress was held in Bombay in 1964. This was perhaps the pinnacle in the history of Christianity in the country and the Church in Mumbai, in particular. The Catholic community constitutes a minuscule fragment of the population of India. Yet it punches much above its weight in the areas of education and healthcare. In taking these most basic of human necessities to those that most need them, but denied access because of deprivation, the church in India has made a telling contribution to society.
Bombay leads in this aspect by virtue of some of the finest colleges in the country. It is to the credit of the Church in Mumbai and to its Catholic laity, that they are working to a vision of a great future, despite the many challenges of these times.