433-year-old church in Thane gets a makeover

St John the Baptist Church in Thane is ready to reopen after a mammoth restoration that has infused life into one of Mumbai’s oldest and largest parishes. Fiona Fernandez takes a tour of the site few days before it opens its doors, to relive its rich history and legacy

On September 20 2015, as the congregation celebrates mass inside the restored, 433-year-old St John the Baptist Church in Thane, it will mark a red letter day in local heritage conservation. More importantly, it will be a labour of love fructified for the church’s 10,000-odd parishioners, who for the past year-and-a-half have waited for this day.

The main altar made of wood had been gilded, cleaned and polished. Very little restoration was needed for this centrepiece of the 432-year-old church. Marble was added later, in the 1960s. The wooden coffered ceiling was all painted, poorly repaired and one could not gauge the materials that were used. The joints had opened in some places, and had rotted. A painstaking process of removing the paint and repairing the joinery followed. The lower three rows on both sides of the sanctuary are in wood panels. The higher rows are in MS plates, which would have replaced the original wooden panels during previous repairs. Pics/Sharad Vegda
The main altar made of wood had been gilded, cleaned and polished. Very little restoration was needed for this centrepiece of the 432-year-old church. Marble was added later, in the 1960s. The wooden coffered ceiling was all painted, poorly repaired and one could not gauge the materials that were used. The joints had opened in some places, and had rotted. A painstaking process of removing the paint and repairing the joinery followed. The lower three rows on both sides of the sanctuary are in wood panels. The higher rows are in MS plates, which would have replaced the original wooden panels during previous repairs. Pics/Sharad Vegda

The past
As a nine-year-old, I recall craning my neck while attempting to fully soak in the stunning, towering wooden altar inside the Portuguese-styled church. Being a parishioner from the neighbouring St Pius X Church in Mulund, visits were regular, and that sight remained etched in my mind. However, by the early 2000s, neglect and decay had taken a toll.

The original bell tower was where the West verandah stands. This was shifted to the South East side. Its architecture was responsive to the 1990s language, that of being modern. This was in contrast to the heritage church. Efforts were made to blend the tower with minimal intervention, by adding Mangalore-tiled roofs with decorative fascia
The original bell tower was where the West verandah stands. This was shifted to the South East side. Its architecture was responsive to the 1990s language, that of being modern. This was in contrast to the heritage church. Efforts were made to blend the tower with minimal intervention, by adding Mangalore-tiled roofs with decorative fascia

It was around the time, in 2002, when conservation architect Vikas Dilawari was invited to inspect the church, and submitted a concept note. Years later, in 2008, based on the 2002 paper, the then parish priest had requested him to look into repairs of the sanctuary, altar and two side altars.

An aerial view of the sloping Mangalore-tiled roof and bell tower that faces Talao Pali. The tapering of the structure towards the altar (foreground) depicts the Portuguese influence. Churches were built in a way to ensure that the congregation’s focus was on the celebrants serving mass at the main altar
An aerial view of the sloping Mangalore-tiled roof and bell tower that faces Talao Pali. The tapering of the structure towards the altar (foreground) depicts the Portuguese influence. Churches were built in a way to ensure that the congregation’s focus was on the celebrants serving mass at the main altar

In February 2009, a detailed Fabric Status Report was submitted. The report was elaborated in December 2010 to do major repairs/restoration and refurbishment. Post clearances from the Archdiocese, Heritage and Finance Committees, a proposal was prepared for approval from the Thana Heritage Conservation Committee (THCC).

One of the arches of a door shows an etching that dates back to 1707 constructed using basalt stone
One of the arches of a door shows an etching that dates back to 1707 constructed using basalt stone

However, as there was no THCC committee in place, the proposal had to wait till December 2013 when permissions were secured. Tenders that were floated in 2012 had to be reworked, and were awarded in 2014. Work began in early 2014.

The present
Cut to September 2015. It’s a scorcher of an afternoon. Sunlight crisscrosses the scaffolding inside the church as parishioner and PR professional Karen Annunciation, guides me to the site. Workers are buried in last-minute preparations for D-Day.

A closer look at a detail of the stone arch, which was painted upon. This has been painstakingly cleaned and the paint removed. Now it shows exposed stone like it would have originally sat along with door lintels. This has brought as sense of history back to the interiors
A closer look at a detail of the stone arch, which was painted upon. This has been painstakingly cleaned and the paint removed. Now it shows exposed stone like it would have originally sat along with door lintels. This has brought as sense of history back to the interiors

Parish priest Father Allwyn D’Silva is listening to Jitendra Chavan, Dilawari’s main supervisor as he relays a quick update. “Looking around, how does it feel, Father?” I enquire. The genial priest, who’s been helming affairs for six years, replies, “Challenges were many.

A dated photograph of the altar prior to restoration
A dated photograph of the altar prior to restoration

Despite it being a 400-plus-year-old church, the exteriors did not reveal this age. It appeared as a contemporary building due to the interventions done during repairs in 1990s,” he reveals. The Franciscan church, built on the edge of the scenic Masunda Lake, popularly called Talao Pali, had withstood plenty of turmoil over centuries.

Close-up of a detail from the canopy that is perched on the left interior wall of the church. It was recreated from scratch based on historic references
Close-up of a detail from the canopy that is perched on the left interior wall of the church. It was recreated from scratch based on historic references

The roof, the main wooden altar and side altars were the few elements to have survived, and with a new lease of life, it is ready to relive its history. Around us, even as dust does somersaults, we get a sense of the history, and perseverance to protect it.

Showing us elements of this mammoth restoration — from the splendid canopy that was rebuilt from historic references, to the cleaned-up basalt stone archways and the carved wooden altar, Father Allwyn downplays the effort.

During past repairs, the existing exterior walls were plastered to a thickness of 3” to 4” by using gunitting (the process of concrete repair); this caught the restoration team by surprise. To add to this, the Baroque church extension was done in RCC.

The bell tower never blended in with the heritage church. “These repairs didn’t make the restoration easy since the original fabric and spaces had been altered,” reminisces Fr Allwyn.

The future
We walk away from the wooden altar and reredo (altarpiece) towards the centre. Above us, we notice an unbelievably large ceiling fan. “Oh! That’s called a Big Ass fan,” chuckles Fr Allwyn, as everyone around bursts into peals of laughter.

As we prod on this unique acquisition, we learn that the Big Ass Fan, despite being common globally, is a rarely seen in India. It’s popular for its efficient electricity usage, but procuring it wasn’t a breeze. “Till the end, the parish committee was divided.

Bandra’s St Peter Church parish committee connected us with the vendor who showed us a few functional fans, and the committee was finally convinced. It’s a heritage structure but we have modern, eco-friendly amenities like LED lights, as well as ramps and railings for senior citizens,” adds Fr Allwyn.

Watching our step, we note that the flooring is decadent yet historic in character. “Minton tiles?” we ask. “The central passage had original Minton tiles in two colours. Since this was not available, we matched it using black marble and Jaisalmer stone in the same pattern; it now looks cohesive.

The worn-out Kotah flooring was replaced with marble in the same pattern. The tall adanga marble dado was replaced with a small height Italian marble dado with a black marble moulding,” Chavan explains, before, rushing towards the section where carpenters are applying finishing touches to the main carved wooden door (South porch) that took Vasai’s Sequeira Brothers three months to complete.

By now, parishioners like Paul Aguiar and Julius Rodricks are updating Fr Allwyn on a few developments. Turning around, the priest tells us about their contribution, and insists on rattling off more names: “There’s Rosemond D’Souza; of course, Vikas Dilawari and his main supervisor, Jitendra Chavan, Earth Craft Contractors, and Fleur D'Souza, on behalf of the Heritage Committee. There are countless others, managing the lights, TV and screens.”

He glances around to check if he has skipped names. Meanwhile, parishioner Dylan Hilton heads to the control room for a sound check. He’s excited that his church will resonate to state-of-the-art acoustics, from UK-based Martin Audio — specialists in sound for places of worship.

“This will be the first-of-its-kind,” quips Fr Allwyn. It’s 6 pm. The tools have gone silent. A gentle breeze greets us as we step outside the Thane treasure. “We can’t wait for September 20; all of this will be ready for the world to see,” signs off Fr Allwyn. Amen.

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