Once upon a time the city of Mumbai (Bombay) was made up of seven lush, green islands. Mahikavati or Mahim was one of them. Over time, Mahim was inhabited by Hindus and Muslims.
In the year 1534 the Portuguese arrived and took a great fancy for the island. With them came the first missionaries…The Franciscans. They were the first to build two churches in the area. The first being our very own Sant Migule Church (now St. Micheal’s Church of Upper Mahim or St. Michael’s), in 1585 and the second was Our Lady of Salvation in 1595, in Lower Mahim, now renamed Dadar.
There are conflicting dates regarding the actual year the foundation of our church was laid. 1512, 1534, 1540, 1585. From this one fact becomes clear. The church was indeed built in the 15th Century by the Portuguese and it is the first one built in Mumbai .
This is an early description of our church by the Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island, “The San Miguel Church of Upper Mahim, was built probably in I540”, built at the northern extremity of the island, very near the creek that separated Mahim from Bandra. A certain Mr. Burnell, a visitor to Mahim, wrote in 1710 describing the island and the Church as follows: “On the northwest point of the island is Mahim seated, being a pretty large town and hath an indifferent Buzar, the buildings being brick and covered with pautile”.
According to Fr Meersman, the Franciscan historian (I957:6I), “The church of St Michael appears in 1585 as a fully functioning mission station.From circumstantial evidence it can be concluded that Mahim was the most important and the most advanced area among the islands of Bombay. The Portuguese commercial and missionary activities must have started in Mahim even before 1534 and there must have been a mission station in Mahim from the beginning of the sixteenth century.
An Englishman who came to Mumbai on behalf of Charles the 11 of England wrote,“Mahim is the best part of the Islands and the Portuguese think it too good for our King’s Majesty”. However the British managed to take over the Island city, with the advent of the East India Company in 1663. St Micheal’s must have been then progressed with the English.
Mahim however, came into serious difficulties during the Sidi War in Bombay in I687. They Sidis originally hailing from Abyssinia had settled down in Janjiraas.
Aurangzeb encouraged the Sidis to attack Bombay. They landed at Sewi and marched towards Mazagaon. Emboldened by the weak resistance of the English army, the Sidis planned plunder and rapine on a large scale, landed in Mahim and destroyed and burned the houses on the Mahim Island and St Michael’s church as well.
But, the Franciscans soon renovated the church as only the roof and the doors were burnt down.This is a description of the church I7I0 by one of the visitors, “by the riverside fronting the Mandove stands a large and beautiful church being a Convent of theFranciscans, with a large verandah before the portal and at a small distance on the road a large wooden cross set in a brickwork pedestal”.
The Franciscans remained in charge of the parish of St Michael till 1720,when they were expelled from Bombay by the British for ‘tampering with the loyalty’ of the Roman Catholics of Bombay.
With the approval of the Holy See in 1720, the Apostolic Vicar General of the Grand Moghul, who was an Italian bishop, took charge of the spiritual welfare of the Catholics of Bombay and its dependencies, after pledge in obedience and loyalty to His Britannic Majesty.
Under the Vicars Apostolic
In 1794, the four Bombay parishes were divided. St Michael’s Church at Mahim was the second church chosen by the Vicar Apostolic, the first being that of Esperance at Boribunder (1570) which was later shifted and named The Holy Name Cathedral. As such, St Michael’s Church at Mahim was under the jurisdiction of the Vicars Apostolic for 59 years. Thereafter St Michael’s Church and Parish came under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Goa (Padroado) until 1928 when the double jurisdiction came to a happy end.
There were eight vicars between 1857 and 1903. At the turn of the century Fr Sequeira, who was in charge of St. Michael’s extended the sanctuary and erected the main altar and the two side altars. Fr Domingo Bernadino Vieira demarcated the vast landed properties of the church and built boundary walls to prevent trespass or misappropriation. Fr Bernando Francisco Mendonca developed the school and started the High School.
Fr B FD’Silva built the new school building on the side of the main road. He brought the land adjoining the church property and built houses for parishioners on a reasonable rental basis, known as St Michael’s Colony. An oratory was built near this colony on the side road where to this day mass is sung once a year. This oratory was built with monetary funds from the East Indian Death Benefit Fund. Fr B F D’Silva also extended the church building by adding a spacious porch in front of the church.
Novenas to Our lady of Perpetual Help
Great progress was made during the tenure of Monsignor George Fernandes and Fr Edward Placidus Fernandes who began the Perpetual Novenas to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, Monsignor George Fernandes, the rector and parish priest of St Michael’s church from 1950-1962 began a congregation for nuns known as the “Poor Sisters of our Lady” (PSOL).
A devotee said, “The picture of Our Mother of Perpetual Help has a special aura. One glimpse of it is all it takes to experience a thrill and a joy which cannot be described in words,” The old church was narrow. It could house only two rows of pews. It had a side porch near the grotto. In the late 1960’s the porch collapsed. The old structure walls were left inside, while a new, modern, spacious and airy one was constructed outside and was completed in 1973 to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of Our Lady of Perpetual Help novenas.
St. Michael’s Today
Today , St Michael’s church at Mahim is simple and solemn, large yet intimately prayerful in atmosphere, a ‘populist’ church in the best sense of the word.The Church is close to the sea with a fishing village nearby but is almost in the market-place amidst crowds with the main road buzzing with heavy traffic. It has no parking space for devotees and no aesthetic beauty but is geographically strategically positioned. As such this arterial route is often a conduit of cultural transmission.
Yes, St Michael’s is a city shrine almost in the centre of Mumbai, i.e., the end of the city and the beginning of the suburbs. With the opening up of many residential sub-divisions and industrial areas in the northern part of the city and beyond, Mahim has become one of the busiest transportation hubs in Mumbai.
Earlier St Michael’s church had a Catholic population of over 13,000. Presently the Catholic population is only 4, 800.
Today, St Michael’s church is managed by the Archdiocese of Bombay under the direction of the Cardinal. The Parish priest and his assistants outline the policy parameters and execute the day-to-day management of the church affairs. The employees and volunteers work with extraordinary, exemplary zeal to attain maximum convenience to the devotees who throng there every Wednesday.
In a fast-paced city like Mumbai it is heartening to witness the shrine filling and emptying itself every half-hour with the crowds cascading like a flood unto the main road, often disrupting traffic and reminding office-goer who traverse through the main artery of Mumbai that it is Wednesday-Novena Day.
St Michael is the Archangel warrior, the commander-in-chief of the heavenly hosts, the Prince of angels and the Protector of the Church. In Hebrew ( MiCchaCel) signifies, “Who is like God”. His name was the battle-cry for the good angels when they drove Satan from Heaven. He is guardian, Comforter and protector of people in times of sorrow and conflict. He has indeed protected our church for centuries.
Author: Godfrey Pimenta
Godfrey Pimenta is the Vice President of BOMBAY EAST INDIAN ASSOCIATION.