Dwindling attendance and falling collections are pushing some of Mumbai's churches towards closure — and possibly into the jaws of real estate sharks, Brian de Souza reports
There was a time, says Dominic Pereira, the portly parish priest of Umerkhadi's St Joseph's church, when four services were held every Sunday for the faithful. People attended in large numbers and the fellowship was something that old-timers still remember.
No longer. The numbers are down to a smattering. On Sundays, just two services suffice for the 650-odd parishioners.
The situation at St Joseph's is echoed in many churches across the island city: Our Lady of Health at Cavel, hidden away in a congested lane, was built in 1794. It was once a cathedral with a large following but now has just 265 parishioners; there is St Ignatius, a 109-year-old church located within spitting distance of the Mumbai docks, that has about the same number.
"Families got bigger and people moved out as they wanted more space and privacy, "says Pereira, 67.
These changes are a reflection of the demographic changes in Mumbai as a whole as the city expands beyond Borivili, and further east of Vashi.
Evans D'Souza of Cavel says just 60 people attend a single service. Many of his congregation sold their dilapidated structures and moved to the suburbs where larger houses promised a better life.
Many of those left behind are in their 60s and 70s and the numbers in these churches will only fall further in the coming years.
So what does this mean for these old churches? Church authorities have only discussed these issues informally but the need of the hour is specific initiatives.
The emptying out of churches in South Mumbai has implications for the way they are managed, the schools they run and for handling increasing maintenance expenses. "It is not easy to manage with Sunday collections," says Evans.
With weekly collections from some South Mumbai churches falling, funds from property that the church owns elsewhere are being channelised wherever needed. The larger churches in the suburbs, for instance, are now raising funds in commercial ways like renting out premises for functions, apart from the money that comes from church-related activities. Some of this goes towards maintaining the old churches.
The worry is that many of these "white elephants" sit on prime real estate and in the event of a shutdown, may well become a prime target for real estate developers.
Warner D'Souza, a member of the church's heritage committee, disagrees. "As long as there is a worshipping congregation, churches will always be open."
The numbers may be down but "the ethos still persists," says Anthony Charanghat, editor of The Examiner, a weekly church magazine. The challenge of the future, he feels, "is to think of ways to expand the range of social work."
Declaring an old church as a heritage structure is no way out, maintains Warner, as it would mean negotiating a welter of complicated rules with no guarantee that a structure will be looked after.
On a more optimistic note, Evans D'Souza of Cavel says, "The hope is that with the government redeveloping grade II and III buildings in the old city, we may well see a flow back of people to these areas."