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Indian Catholics strive to restore Portuguese heritage church

Our Lady of Mercy Church built in 1562 at Thane in the western state of Maharashtra lies in ruins, embroiled in legal battle
The ruins of Our Lady of Mercy Church (Nossa Senhora Des Merces) built by Portuguese Jesuits in 1562 at Thane in the western state of Maharashtra.

The ruins of Our Lady of Mercy Church (Nossa Senhora Des Merces) built by Portuguese Jesuits in 1562 at Thane in the western state of Maharashtra.(Photo: youtube.com)

Published: November 08, 2023 11:34 AM GMT
Updated: November 09, 2023 05:22 AM GMT

An Indian court has allowed a Catholic activist to intervene in an ongoing legal battle to reclaim, restore and declare a 16th century Portuguese-era church as a historical monument.

Melwyn Fernandes was appointed an intervener to expedite the case filed by Mumbai archdiocesan clergy to reclaim Our Lady of Mercy Church (Nossa Senhora Des Merces) built by Portuguese Jesuits in 1562 at Thane in the western state of Maharashtra.

The next hearing of the case is on Nov. 21.

The church is located in a neighborhood called Pokhran and is around 45 kilometers away from Mumbai, the financial capital of the country. It is currently in ruins, a part of which is being claimed by a Hindu temple trust, Fernandes said.

Judge A. S. Nalge of the Thane Civil and Sessions Court last month asked the St John Baptist Church, the complainant in the dispute, to include Fernandes after he sought to intervene in the dispute as he felt the case was proceeding at a slow pace.

Fernandes, who is general secretary of the Mumbai-based Association of Concerned Catholics, told UCA News on Nov. 7 that the dispute dates back to 1970 when the church was being renovated and a stone with Hindu carvings was found at the entrance arch.

Hindus residing nearby started a campaign that the church existed on what was originally a temple of the Hindu god Shiva.

In May 1974, the local Catholic community celebrated a seven-day feast in the Church. “After the feast, it was noticed that some non-Christians were meddling with the inscriptions and idols and conducting prayers in the Church,” Fernandes said.

The church authorities complained to the police, who submitted a report to the Thane magistrate.

The magistrate issued a restrictive order banning people from gathering in the area “to maintain law and order," recalled Sunita Banis, a Catholic advocate involved with the case.

Meanwhile, the Janakadevi Utkarsh Mandal, a temple trust in Thane, obtained an ex-parte (for one party) order from a local court on Jan. 1, 2014, that favored its contention that the church was originally a Hindu temple.

Father Rudolf Andrade, the then parish priest of Our Lady of Mercy Church, challenged the order in a local court on July 30, 2015.

Andrade said the case is taking a long time. “But we are hopeful to restore it [church] for posterity,” he said.

Judge Nalge observed that the case is meant to see if the ex-parte judgment “is the result of fraud, misrepresentation or suppression of facts.”

She has made Fernandes “a necessary party” to the case and said “an effective decree cannot be passed” in his absence.

The dispute in the court is a result of “multiple claims,” said Father Nigel Barett, spokesman of the Bombay Archdiocese.

He told UCA News that the archdiocese was “trying to deploy all legal means to get the ruined church back and under historical monument tag.”

Mayur Thackeray, an archaeologist at the Directorate of Archaeology and Museum in Mumbai, told UCA News the “ruined monument can be recovered and protected as a heritage structure.”

He said the directorate had informed the Thane Municipal Corporation to declare it as a heritage structure for its conservation.

Joseph Dias, founder of the Catholic Secular Forum, said the neglect of the centuries-old place of worship is shocking.

“Some people with vested interests are trying to usurp the land around the ruined church as land is a scarce commodity in Mumbai,” he said.

The church was in regular use till 1737 when war broke out between the native Marathas and the Portuguese. The church was abandoned after the Portuguese were defeated in 1739 and the worshippers moved to St. John the Baptist Church in Thane.

Thane district is dotted with many Catholic churches dating back several centuries. Christians make up around 2.5 percent of the district's over 11 million people, a majority of them Hindus.

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