It’s priests vs parishioners at this church in Mumbai

St Joseph’s parish in Mira Road, is the site of a battle royal between priests and parishioners; Church ready for Charity Commissioner’s April inquiry

Mira Road has only one parish called St Joseph’s. It has approximately 25,000 parishioners, which is a very high number, considering that many parishes do not evenhave half that number.

The school, which is an extension of the spiritual centre is illegal, say parishioners. Pics/Nimesh DaveThe school, which is an extension of the spiritual centre is illegal, say parishioners. Pics/Nimesh Dave

The parish is going through turbulent times, with at least 27 parishioners accusing the parish of illegal construction and money laundering.

(Left to right) Austin Menezes, Michael Fernandes, Stephen Martis and Robert D’souza, parishioners of St Joseph’s Church
(Left to right) Austin Menezes, Michael Fernandes, Stephen Martis and Robert D’souza, parishioners of St Joseph’s Church

They also claim that Church premises are rented out for Rs 40,000 per night for hosting wedding receptions and functions. This money does not find mention in the audit and is not plowed back for the benefit of the Church.

Fr Melvin D’cunha, parish priest of St Joseph’s Church in Mira Road
Fr Melvin D’cunha, parish priest of St Joseph’s Church in Mira Road

Their main grouse though, is that a spiritual centre called Anubhav, built for meditation, prayer and inter-faith communication in 2004, was turned into a school suddenly in 2013. In their complaint to the Thane Charity Commissioner in 2014, the parishioners have questioned the legality of the school and have also stated that there is embezzlement of funds. The name of the school under the scanner is St Joseph’s School, and it has a pre-primary and primary section.

“The Charity Commissioner is looking into the matter, there is progress," claimed Stephen Martis, parishioner.

Austin Menezes parishioners explains, “The St Joseph’s School within the centre is illegal, and, does not have the required Floor Space Index (FSI). The two storey building is unauthorised and when a Right to Information (RTI) was filed by us in June 2015, it was revealed that there was no architect or plan.”

Robert D'souza, parishioner said, “There was illegal construction done and church property was used for commercial purposes.”

Violet Mascarenhas, St Joseph’s School headmistress denied all charges, claiming that the school in Anubhav building is legal.

Michael Fernandes, parishioner, stated that, “We want the church to be a clean body, but since we pointed out corruption; we have been getting many threats.”

These threats took the shape of a funeral wreath with a letter saying, ‘Christmas 2015 will be your last’ which was sent to some of the parishioners in September 2015. It was delivered through a local florist.

This letter had a smiley icon face and looked trivial, but the recipients filed a Non-Cognizable (NC) offence at the Mira Road police station.

Fr Melvin D’cunha, parish priest denied all allegations. He stated, "We have not received any communication from the Charity Commissioner. We do God’s work and have 25,000 people with us. These people are making false accusations. When the Charity Commissioner’s enquiry is held, we will answer as we are in the right.”

Fr. K T Emmanuel, secretary to Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay, said in response to a question, “I do not know about this case and have not dealt with it.” Parishioners however say the Cardinal’s secretary signed many of the complaints they filed to the Bishop's House, about the accounting discrepancies in the parish and other illegalities, acknowledging that they have received them.

With accusations flying, a Charity Commissioner of Thane’s report of March 11, says there is a discrepancy of approximately R 32 lakh in financial documents produced by the Church, for funding of the school. This has started the ball rolling, for some solution to this problem. The report also states that no tender was called for certain construction work done on the church campus. This Thane Charity Commissioner's report, has been sent to the Charity Commissioner's head office in Worli. An inspector from the Thane office, claimed that they have received instructions to begin a detailed inquiry from April, this year.

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