You could say the reason Pune’s oldest Catholic church exists is war.

At the close of the 18th century, Peshwa Madhavrao II, the de facto leader of the Maratha Empire, wanted Catholic soldiers from Goa enlisted in his army to have a place to worship in his capital. Historical records say Madhavrao donated four acres of land towards this purpose in 1792, marking the birth of the Catholic Church in Pune.

Pune’s Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church, also known as City Church, stands today on that same piece of land in the crowded Nana Peth area, tucked snugly between narrow lanes. Its 225th anniversary was celebrated by the Catholic community in early December. Peshwa descendants – Vinayakrao Peshwa and his nephew Mahendra Peshwa – were felicitated during the mass, which saw priests, two bishops of Pune and the Archbishop of Goa at the altar. The gothic structure, which was erected in 1852 in the place of the original mud and mortar building, was cloaked in lights and its spires resembled giant lit candles.

City Church, Pune. Photo credit: Amandeshmukh/Wikimedia Commons [CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence]

Savio Ambrose, a parishioner for the last 40 years, called the honouring of the Peshwa descendants “a great gesture” by the parish priest, Father Salvador Pinto. Ambrose, who was responsible for placing banners along the route of the procession on that day, said, “The church has been a very important part of my life and of most parishioners.” He added that although many Catholics from the area moved away in the last few decades, mostly in and around Fatima Nagar, they still return to City Church for feast masses and Christmas.

Cheryl Martyres, a parishioner of the church since she was baptised there 21 years ago, sang in the choir on December 8 and also applauded the Peshwas. “It is because of them we have this beautiful church which has brought so many people together,” she said.

Forgotten histories

Few know of Portuguese contributions to Peshwa might. By 1788, according to PS Pissurlencar’s Portuguese Mahratta Relations, there were about 100 Portuguese and over 200 Goan Catholic soldiers enlisted in the Peshwa army. They were recruited for their knowledge of artillery, something the Marathas had failed to master, and gunners in the army were handsomely rewarded in comparison to other soldiers. “In the seventeenth century, every European in India was supposed to be an artillery expert,” writes Romesh C Butalia in The Evolution of the Artillery in India. Dom Noronha, a prominent Portuguese officer born in Goa, is said to have been behind Madhavrao’s gift.

Peshwa Madhavrao II. Image credit: James Wales/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY Public Domain Mark 1.0]

This history, however, throws into sharp relief how tricky land dealings have been for the Catholic Church in modern India. A priest who worked on property matters of the diocese in Pune for years said the process of seeking permission to construct a church or registering a building as one involves nearly two years of paperwork, at the end of which, hopefully, approval is granted by the Maharashtra Home Ministry no less. He says the authorities use this time to verify, among other things, if the institution would be a source of noise pollution in the area, if there is sufficient space for parking and if the construction complies with fire safety regulations.

“We just don’t receive permission,” insisted Pune’s Bishop Thomas Dabre in an interview, adding that the authorities fail to understand what “true secularism” is. He made it clear that this is not unique to the current government, and that this resistance was faced during the tenure of the earlier regimes as well. The biggest piece of evidence in support of this claim is that, historically, some of the red tape is avoided if the building holding the holy sacrament is a prayer hall and a school or if other social and educational facilities are present on the premises.

Uphill battles

“Your votes do not count,” said the priest who worked on property matters. According to him, people belonging to the Catholic community make up such a small portion of the electorate that the church’s causes draw very little support from political players, though it is much-needed. This leaves the Catholic Church, the largest landowner of non-agricultural land in the country by some estimates, in a uniquely vulnerable position.

City Church, Pune. Photo credit: Deborah D’Souza

Last month, the Mumbai High Court ruled that the cancellation of a plan to allot land for a Christian cemetery in Goregaon, Mumbai, was “discrimination on religious grounds”. The bench asked the state administration to “show the public that it believed in secularism and unity in diversity, and there is no discrimination on religious grounds,” reported the Hindustan Times. Also last month, the Slum Rehabilitation Authority in Mumbai bizarrely labelled the plots on which two schools and a church stood in Jogeshwari East as a slum area suitable for a redevelopment project, reported the Mumbai Mirror.

In 2016, members of the Catholic community in Mumbai came out to protest the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s intention to demolish a heritage cross and part of a cemetery belonging to Our Lady of Remedy Church in Kandivli, which they alleged was only to widen the road for a 32-storey tower and for the benefit of a builder. The High Court told the municipality not to touch the property after a petition was filed by the parish priest. Officials belonging to the Pune Diocese suspect land donated all those centuries ago by the Peshwa ruler has been encroached upon, too.

There’s no doubt City Church has had a significant impact on generations of Catholics in Pune and helped establish a close-knit community of Christians in the area. The Poona Goan Institute, a social club set up in 1904 by a few Goans, still stands on a plot close to the church and is one of the oldest Catholic institutions in the city. The church holds sentimental value for many like the Martyres who can say that it was where their grandparents and parents were married.

And it all started with a plot of land gifted by a Hindu Prime Minister to his Catholic soldiers.