Pune’s first church was born out of a gesture of gratitude from Peshwa to Portuguese soldiers

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Pune got its first church in 1792 thanks to the generosity of a Peshwa – minister of the former Maratha state – born out of his desire to strengthen the army. The inaugural Mass was held there on Christmas Day that year, and another Christmas Day, 229 years later, is an auspicious time to revisit the history of the church.

Tucked away in the narrow lanes of Nana Peth, the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is known as the Town Church because it served as the entry point to Poona. The land on which the church was built was donated by the then Peshwa Sawai Madhavrao II in gratitude for the services of Portuguese soldiers enlisted in his army.

At a time when the powers of the Peshwas seemed to be waning, Sawai Madhavrao found a friend in the Portuguese Empire in Goa to strengthen his army. The Portuguese and Goan officers who came to Pune needed a place of worship, and the Peshwa quickly gave them land for this purpose.

Church records indicate that Dom Minguel de Noronha, a Portuguese national and an officer in Sawai Madhavrao’s army, was the driving force behind the recruitment of soldiers from Goa and northern Canara. Noronha raised monetary contributions to build a church on the land donated by the Peshwa, who himself helped support the cat.

Soon a small structure was built on the land with only mud and mortar and Father Vincent Menezes was appointed the first pastor of the church. The church was rebuilt with stone and mortar later in 1852.

According to excerpts from the book “Poona Guide and Directory”, after the fall of the Peshwa regime, the British government continued to support the church by registering the reverend among its official officers and paying him a nice monthly stipend.

On the north side of the church is the Ornella School, founded in 1887, and on the south side is the Portuguese Association Hall. The cemetery is a short distance away.

At the invitation of the Patriarch of Goa, the Apostolic Carmelite Sisters founded the Mount Carmel school in 1943, in a building behind the church. The church was enlarged in 1952 and the following year the parish came under the tutelage of the Bishop of Poona.

“Although the Marathas were keen to establish the primacy of ‘Hindu Pat-Pat-padshahi’ or the Hindu Empire, it was a righteous regime with regard to the freedom to profess one’s faith”, explains Sandeep Godbole, columnist and well-being. known expert on the heritage of Pune.

“Sheikh Salla Dargah in Pune has also received the patronage of the Peshwa court. Indeed, a dozen dargahs of Pune, as well as Hindu temples, received donations to celebrate the birth of the son of Bajirao-II. The granting of land for the church should be seen from the same perspective that everyone was free to profess their religion and customs. The emblem of Ornellas High School bears the word ‘Jari Patka’ – the Maratha flag – and the Shaniwarwada in remembrance of the grant from Sawai Madhavrao, ”says Godbole.

On the north side of the church is the Ornella School, founded in 1887, and on the south side is the Portuguese Association Hall. The cemetery is a short distance away.

According to Pune Nagar Sanshodhan Vrutta, published in 1952 by Bharat Itihas Sanshodhak Mandal, a monthly grant of Rs 94 was given to the school and the church from 1793, adds Godbole.

The church celebrated its 225th anniversary in 2017 and the descendants of the Peshwa, Vinayakrao Peshwa and his nephew Mahendra Peshwa were congratulated on the occasion.

“The church was then the mother church of Poona,” says Father Joe Abraham, chancellor of the diocese of Poona, which has about 38 churches under his jurisdiction.

The former parish priest, Father George D’Souza, said the church was at one of the entrances to the town of Poona. The entrance was marked by a neighborhood gate that once existed here. Therefore, the chowk at the corner of the road is still known today as the “quarter gate”.

The church celebrated its 225th anniversary in 2017 and the descendants of the Peshwa, Vinayakrao Peshwa and his nephew Mahendra Peshwa were congratulated on the occasion.

Besides the rich historical background of the church, the Portuguese connection remains in the form of documents such as documents relating to baptisms, marriages and deaths.

Father Malcolm Sequeira, Vicar General of the Diocese of Poona, points out that according to the law in force in Goa, the children and grandchildren of anyone born there before 1961 are entitled to a passport and to Portuguese nationality. “People who come from Goa but have been baptized in Pune come to church for their certificates,” he says.

Father Mariano D’Silva, the current pastor of the church, says that several acts in Portuguese have been translated. Church authorities say a proper procedure is followed to preserve these ancient documents. Photocopies were taken of the records which are on paper.

The church offers service in Marathi, Konkani and English and the congregations over the years have largely been settlers who have moved here from Goa and Mangalore. Marathi Catholics are also among the parishioners.

Father Abraham says that the descendants of the early settlers around the church left for better prospects. Newer, upscale neighborhoods in the city like Fatimanagar, Wanowrie, Kondhwa, and Undri have attracted former parishioners – a trend that has been around for a few decades now. However, parish council member Joe Vaz says that despite this migration, people have been generous in their contributions to the upkeep of the church.

The impact of the ongoing Covid pandemic on Christmas church services has yet to be assessed, but elders like Adv Luis D’Souza (79) wish to attend mass in person. “I have fond memories of this church. This is where I got married and is linked to several other family events. I look forward to the traditional Christmas service this year, ”he said.

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