A 400-year-old chapel in Daman could soon be history as the local administration is in the process of acquiring land on which it stands. The purpose of the move, the administration says, is to “beautify a football ground” adjacent to it.

The notice from the district collector for acquisition of land on which the Chapel of Our Lady of Angustias stands has shocked the Catholic community in the Union Territory. “They [the authorities ] did not tell us so but we fear they may even demolish the church,” said Father Anselmo D’Souza, a priest in Daman.

The matter has also drawn the attention of the National Commission for Minorities, which has asked the administrator of the Union territory to send it a detailed report on the matter by March 21.

According to church officials, the Chapel of Our Lady of Angustias or Our Lady of Sorrows, located next to the popular Moti Daman Fort, was constructed in the early 1600s, and has been in use since then. It is believed to be the oldest chapel in Daman.

On November 23, the district collector of Daman issued a notification proposing the acquisition of 980 square metres of land, which belongs to the Confraria of the Chapel of Our Lady of Angustias. “It is required for the project of acquisition of land with the existing structure for beautification of the football field,” the notification says. Confraria is a Portuguese word that means brotherhood or fraternity.

The notification had said that consultations would be conducted with the “stakeholders” in the area.

Two weeks after the notification, Pushkar Patel, assistant environmental engineer at Gujarat Environment Management Institute at Gandhinagar, which was tasked with carrying out a social impact assessment study, met with members of the Catholic community at the collector’s office.

“We raised our concerns, including the fear of demolition, and he noted them down saying he would include it in his report,” said D’Souza.

It has been more than three months since but church officials remain in the dark about what could come next. “The government did not get back to us after the initial discussion,” said D’Souza.

Credit: Special arrangement.

On February 28, the national minorities commission asked the administrator of Dadra Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu to file a report on the matter. The commission did so after receiving a letter from a group called the Watchdog Foundation in Mumbai.

The letter by an advocate named Godfrey Pimenta contended that the notice to acquire the chapel under the Indian Property Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Re-Establishment Act 2013 had no legal basis.

“Is the administration beautifying a place by destroying a church?” the letter stated. “The said chapel is a protected site as defined under the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904. We therefore demand that the Administration of Daman should refrain from destroying the religious sanctity of the said chapel and preserve it for posterity.”

Pushkar Pate, who carried out the social impact study, did not respond to Scroll’s calls and requests for more information. Scroll also contacted Sonal Patel, president of the Daman Municipal Council. She declined to comment, saying she was on leave.

Shock and anguish

On December 16, Father Brian Rodrigues, the parish priest of the area and the president of the chapel, had written to the district collector opposing the government’s acquisition plans.

The letter expressed “shock” and “anguish” over the acquisition of the chapel for “the mere purpose of beautification of [the] football ground”. It underlined the historical and cultural importance of the building saying that “it is not only a religious structure, but of historical value”.

While the chapel has stood there for centuries, the football ground came up much later. “The chapel and its treasure trove of gilded wood carvings is surely not an eyesore,” Rodrigues wrote.

The letter also notes the uninterrupted use of the chapel since it was built, and that it is held in reverence by many communities. Church officials say that the chapel is an example of the “world-renowned work of Portuguese craftsmen” with its “gilded wood carvings, gilded altars, a pulpit, and a choir loft that is still in use”.

The chapel is also featured on the government’s Incredible India tourism website. It mentions that the chapel was built by a Portuguese governor in the 17th century.

“The chapel’s history dates back to the time when the Sultan of Bijapur was defeated by Portuguese commander Alfonso de Albuquerque in 1510,” the Incredible India website says, adding that today, “the church stands as a fine specimen of wooden architecture and craft of Portuguese artists”.

Said D’Souza, “If the church is demolished, then a part of the culture will go away.”