Mumbai: A dispute dating from 1970 between a Hindu temple trust and Catholics over the ruins of a Portuguese-era church in Thane has been revived after a court recently allowed a local resident to be appointed as an intervenor in the case.
The land and 300-year-old ruins of Our Lady of Mercy church in Pokhran, with colonial-era architecture, has been claimed by the Jankadevi Utkarsh Mandal, a temple trust, and the local unit of the Roman Catholic church.
Court had appointed intervenor in the case last month
Last month, Judge AS Nalge of the Thane Civil and Sessions Court asked the complainants in the dispute – St John Baptist Church, Thane – to include Melwyn Fernandes, a social activist from Thane, as an intervenor in the case. Fernandes had sought to intervene in the dispute as he felt that the case was proceeding at a slow pace.
The judge was told that Catholics had been conducting their services and holding pilgrimages there. “However, since 1970 some Hindus tampered with the entrance arch of the church thereby replacing it with a stone containing a Hindu carving and it was falsely campaigned that the structure is a temple and not a church,” the judge noted in the order, allowing Fernandes to join the case.
Fernandes had sought intervention in the case as a ‘beneficiary’ of the church, which filed the suit.
“Though our church filed a suit to claim the ruins as a place of worship, most priests did not take any interest in pursuing the case. The church had dropped the case in 2006 till a new priest revived the case in 2015,” said Fernandes.
Land on which the ruins exist marked as a playground in DP
Advocate for St John Baptist Church, Thane, PB Bhosale, said, “The trustees of the temple have changed. The new trustees will join the suit.”
Sunita Banis, advocate for the intervenor, said that the church lost the land because it did not maintain adequate legal papers. “The land was gifted to the church by Queen Victoria. A family, whose descendants are now in the temple trust, had got the disputed land transferred in their name,” said Banis, who added that the local community wanted to restore the church for regular prayers.
On Monday, October 30, the court heard the suit and listed the case for another hearing next week.
The land on which the ruins exist is marked as a playground in Thane city’s Development Plan, with no mention of the church.
History of the church
An archaeologist who studied medieval and late medieval archaeology of North Konkan said that when Thane came under Portuguese rule, from 1534 evangelical missions such as Franciscans, Jesuits, Augustinians and Dominicans arrived in the region.
The Church of Our Lady of Mercy, or Nossa Senhora das Merces, was built by Jesuits probably in the first quarter of the 17th century. The church was in regular use up to 1737 when war broke out between the Marathas and Portuguese. When the war ended in 1739 with Portuguese defeat, the church was abandoned and worshippers moved to St John the Baptist Church in Thane. The church is a good specimen of Indo-Portuguese architecture.