Remembering the first Indian Roman Catholic saint from Vasai

Updated: Sep 29, 2019, 07:44 IST | Anju Maskeri | Mumbai

After years of struggle to acquire land, the city's East Indians will build a chapel in honour of St Gonsalo Garcia, the first Indian Roman Catholic saint from Vasai.

A statue of Saint Gonsalo Garcia at the East Indian Museum, Manori. Pic/Sameer Markande
A statue of Saint Gonsalo Garcia at the East Indian Museum, Manori. Pic/Sameer Markande

In August, members of Mobai Gaothan Panchayat (MGP) passed around a collection box during a Mount Mary Gaothan visit called the Mot Mauli Gaothan Yatra. They surmised that the congregation of various gaothans, would be an ideal place to advertise their initiative of building a chapel dedicated to Saint Gonsalo Garcia (1557-1597), the first Indian Roman Catholic saint. "We thought we'd be able to raise Rs 20,000 or thereabouts," says Gleason Barretto, founder trustee. "We ended up collecting Rs 93,540."

The Nagasaki connect

The idea of raising funds was incidental to a land deal in Manori village that was finalised just a week earlier. A 50 sqm plot that belonged to an East Indian family of late Peter and Beatrice D'souza landed with the MGP as a donation. "The collection box was a good way to test waters; to see if the community was ready to pool in," says Barretto. The money will now be channelled into managing the initial expenses in the first phase plan of the chapel project. This will include the construction of the entrance gate, compound wall and debris for levelling the ground.

Garcia's mother hailed from Vasai (then called Bassein) and that time they were called Portuguese Christians. He was trained by Jesuit priests at the college near the fort," Barretto says. MGP Mahasarpanch Alphi D'souza adds: "What makes him relatable, is that besides being a preacher, Garcia was also a native. "He was one of us."

According to the website of Archdiocese of Bombay, at the age of 15, Fr Sebastian Gonsalves, a Jesuit priest working in Vasai, took Garcia to Japan for missionary work: 'After working for four years, the Japanese shoguns suspected the missionaries of sedition and were placed under arrest in their monastery in Miaco, Kyoto, on December 8, 1596. A few days later, when they were singing vespers, they were arrested, manacled and immured. On January 3, 1597, the left ears of twenty-six confessors among them Garcia, were excised; but were then collected in reverence by the local Christians. On February 5, Garcia was crucified on Nagasaki Hills with twenty five of his companions.' He was declared a saint by the Catholic Church in 1862. Barretto says in Nishizaka Hill, Nagasaki, a monument memorialises the 26 martyrs. The members now plan to bring relics of the saint from Japan.

Taking forward a legacy

About five years ago, the MGP decided to popularise native devotions. Since then, the community has been holding various initiatives including a feast to keep his teachings alive. The feast is held on his birth anniversary, February 6. (Incidentally, he was crucified on February 5.) In 2016, they installed a statue of Saint Garcia at the East Indian Museum. "While we have great respect for all saints, the reason for giving Saint Garcia priority is because he has his roots in our region, and is a role model for the community," Barretto says.

Gleason Barretto, founder trustee of Mobai Gaothan Panchayat (MGP)

"In 2013, we requested the Archdiocese of Bombay to dedicate a church or a chapel in Mumbai to Saint Gonsalo Garcia, between Colaba and Borivli," Alphi D'Souza says. The biggest stumbling block in a space-starved city was the availability land on which to build a chapel.

"Since East Indians are the original inhabitants of Mumbai, we owned large tracts but over the years we've lost the land to various development and infrastructure projects," Barretto says. So the decision of the D'souza family to give the land away came as a happy surprise. "The land may not be sprawling but it's good enough for a chapel." MGP hopes to construct the chapel within the next two years.

The team has now roped in architect Benzoni Sequeira and brother Minglesh to design the altar and the chapel. "We are mulling on two options at the moment. One is to construct a traditional Portuguese-style chapel with Gothic arches, pinnacles and columns. The other is to have a boat-shaped design and the chapel house will be on top of that. Saint Garcia travelled extensively and most of his journeys were on sea. So the boat is an important motif," Sequeira says.

Barretto feels the chapel will help people understand the legacy of the saint. "He was the first Indian to be canonised. It's a matter of great pride to both the community and the country."

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