Bachi Karkaria's Tales from TJ Road: Bridging past and present, Fatima Church is a microcosm of Sewri's transformation
Through this fortnightly column, Tales From TJ Road, Bachi Karkaria tells the story of Mumbai's metromorphosis.
Read more columns in this series here.
Christmas Star Over Sewri
What links the still ramshackle part of Sewri with Portugal? A modest church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the form in which she had appeared to three peasant children at the Cova da Iria in 1917, catapulting that unknown Portuguese hamlet to worldwide devotion. Our local Shivaji Nagar’s ‘Fatima Church’ gets its shot at fame every time we give directions to TJ Road; it’s the turn-off point from the arterial Dock Road. The faithful don’t treat it with such secular airiness. After all, it is Mumbai’s devotional centre for the St. Jude’s Novena. This patron saint of Hope and Impossible Causes must be the busiest of Christ’s apostles going by the number of inserts in the newspapers thanking him for favours received. Like the Biblical demons, human despair is ‘legion’.
A ‘Do Not Touch’ glass-encased statue of St. Jude, in a red nylon cloak covered in spangles, stands to the left of the altar. It contains his sacred relic embedded in a small pendant at his side; it was bequeathed to Fatima Church by the saint’s grand shrine at Jhansi. Above the simple altar, is Christ nailed to the Cross, but with arms raised as though in supplication or benediction. Parishioners come here in both.
Today, the Our Lady of Fatima Church, to give it its ordained name, is decked up with wreaths of faux holly suspended from the high ceiling alongside the long-rod fans. They aren’t subject to the physical distancing imposed on the pews beneath: each alternate bench is marked with green tags at either end; the in-between benches have only one in the centre. Still, Christmas did see what would count as a full house in these constrained times; most however opted for the virtual midnight mass. (Check out its services on YouTube).
The kindly Father Merwyn D’Souza speaks warmly of his flock, now as socially diverse as it has always been ethnically. It represents the ‘development’ that has changed Sewri beyond recognition. The huge, 19th-century, ‘European’ cemetery next door would have witnessed the area’s colonial glory when the Governor lived down the road at what is now Haffkine Institute. Built only in 1965, Fatima Church would still have seen the King Cotton heyday, serving the spiritual needs of the Catholic spinning and weaving masters as well as lowlier millhands. Then, as the textile industry and Sewri sank, so did the parishioners. St. Jude had much on his hands — as he did again this year when the area’s rising entrepreneurial phoenix caught COVID.
Father Merwyn tells us that the core congregation has always been the original locals, ‘that is the East Indians and those whose ancestors came to Mumbai as migrants mostly from the South such as Mangaloreans and Goans’. The priest adds, “We also have the true natives, the fishermen Kolis. They still maintain their traditional culture despite having converted to Christianity, and even after they have migrated, some even to America. For them we have a mass in Marathi every Sunday.”
Like Sewri, Fatima Church’s congregation is a work in progress, reflecting the changing demographic mosaic. Later entrants include stylish residents of the rising gated complexes as well as that SoBo brag, the highly trained ‘Jharkhand maids’, who have moved in with their well-heeled employers. Add to these the mainly Kerala Christian staff of the newish Global Hospital round the corner. Indeed, Fatima has long had a ‘nurses pool’— from the huge public hospitals close by — KEM, Tata Memorial, the two Wadia institutions for women and children, and the Mahatma Gandhi one for TB.
There are after all only two churches in this fast-growing vicinity, the other being St. Paul’s, near the historic Hindmata cinema. Father Merwyn adds that the power of St. Jude also attracts the occasional non-Christian
I’ve written about Fatima Church because it’s Christmas week, but Mumbai’s multi-faith character is fully represented even in this short stretch of widespread Sewri. There are several small temples, mosques, and a tiny ‘gurdwara’ inside a flat. So we boast the whole, unity-in-diversity cliché — Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isai. Why, at the other end of TJ Road even stands the surprisingly elegant headquarters of the Nagrani cult.
The latest doff to Sewri’s ‘realty chic’ is ‘Epic’, a Shapoorji Pallonji gated community being built on the stretch leading off from Fatima Church. Its large glassed-in site office right on Dock Road has become the new landmark for secular direction-givers. For spiritual-seekers, the church remains the beacon.
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