Monday, 13 April 2015

Portuguese Church, Brabourne Road

Calcutta’s (Kolkata) Portuguese Church, formally known as The Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary, has existed in various forms since 1690, but has always experienced some friction with the British. Many Portuguese migrants to India took native wives, and their offspring came to be known as Kintal. Many of these Kintals moved to Calcutta in search of fortune, and the East India Company allowed them to settle in specific areas near the river. Since the Kintals were the only people in India then breeding and selling fowl, the area they settled in is known as “Moorgeeghata” or “the fowl market” even today. Job Charnock had originally granted 10 bighas of land to the Roman Catholics of the Augustinian order to set up a mass hall in the area. But when in 1693 Sir John Goldsborough of the East India Company found the company’s Protestant factors were converting to Roman Catholicism in the mass hall and taking native wives, he ordered them out. The friars would return on his death only 6 months later, and this time they erected a brick Church, a little further away from the original mass hall, and this is where the Portuguese Church or The Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary stands today.

The Portuguese Church

Portuguese Church Altar

The Chapel was enlarged in 1720 by Mrs. Sebastian Shaw under the direction of Vicar Fari Francisco d’Avsumpaco. In 1756, when the Nawaab of Bengal, Siraj ud Daulah ransacked Calcutta, the Portuguese Church was miraculously spared. However, the British finding their own Church of St. Anne’s destroyed in the war, took over the Portuguese Church and began conducting services there. The Court of Directors in London however was not in favour of this and three years later the Church was restored to the Portuguese. In 1796, the Portuguese community of Calcutta decided to build a modern Church and it is thus that the present Church of the Most Holy Rosary came to be. The present Portuguese Church was designed by James Driver. A striking and unique feature of the Church are its two giant towers which look almost like minarets, topped by crown shaped cupolas. In front is a neat pedimented porch. The Church was consecrated on the 27th of November, 1799. The cost of construction was borne by Joseph Baretto of the well-known Calcutta (Kolkata) banking family.

Goethals plaque
The Church is in active use today, and the congregation for Sunday Mass is quite substantial. Since the Portuguese Church is the largest Roman Catholic Church in Calcutta (Kolkata), it is also the seat of the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Calcutta. Visitors who are used to the muted interiors of Calcutta’s (Kolkata) mostly Anglican Churches will be somewhat startled at the liberal use of colour in the interiors of the Portuguese Church. Behind the altar is a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary, which now sports an LED Rosary! On the wall behind the altar may be seen two round windows with some lovely stained glass. But the most interesting feature of the Portuguese Church is the 14 wooden panels which depict the “Stations of the Cross” in bas relief. Scattered around the Church are many other statues which demand some time for proper appreciation. On the walls are a number of memorial tablets, among them one to Archbishop of Calcutta, Paul Goethals, a Belgian who was Archbishop of Calcutta from 1886 to 1901. His vast and precious collection of books which he donated to the Jesuit Fathers of St. Xavier’s College on Park Street formed the Goethals Library, which exists even today.

Portuguese Church stained glass

Behind and to the left of the altar is a little secret that the Portuguese Church has held for a long time. When Nawaab  Siraj ud Daulah ransacked Calcutta in 1756, the acting Governor of the old Fort William in Calcutta, John Zephaniah Holwell claims that that 146 people were forcibly driven into the Black Hole Prison, a military prison along the Eastern curtain wall of the fort, measuring about 18 feet by 14 feet. Holwell claims that in the night, through heat and suffocation, 123 of them died. Many eminent historians argue that this event did not occur at all. However, Holwell did erect a monument to the dead just outside the site of the Black Hole prison, which eventually fell into disrepair and was dismantled. Its place was taken by a replica built under orders of Lord Curzon, in 1901. That too had to be ultimately removed to the grounds of the St. John’s Church, due to energetic protests by Indian freedom fighters, led by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. The Portuguese Church is the final resting place for Mrs. Mary Carey, a Black Hole survivor.

Portuguese Church - plaque marking Mary Carey's grave

About the events of the night of 20th June, 1756, Dr. Bishop, Headmaster of Merchant Taylor’s (where Clive was educated) writes, “on all sides strong men fell, maddened by thirst and dying with heat, a woman outlived the weakness and the horror”. This woman has been identified by H.E. Busteed in his “Echoes from old Calcutta” as Mrs. Mary Carey, wife of mariner Peter Carey, who was probably a sailor. She may have been rescued by a general in the Nawaab’s army by the name of Mirza Amir Baig who helped her escape. By all accounts she was strikingly beautiful and only 16 when she entered the Black Hole of Calcutta. She remained in Calcutta (Kolkata), and before long, remarried. By her second marriage she had two sons and a daughter. During later life she reverted to the name of her first husband. Mary Carey died on the 28th March, 1801 at the age of 60 and was buried in the graveyard that was once attached to the Portuguese Church. When the Church was enlarged that graveyard was cleared. The Bengal government later identified the approximate spot where she had been buried and placed a plaque on the wall marking the spot, which is visible to this day. Busteed claims that he got this information from near relatives of Mrs. Carey who were still living in India at the time the book was written. Does Mrs. Carey’s bloodline exist even today? Who can tell?

Portuguese Church interiors

 Within the compound of the Portuguese Church today is a Presbytery, and inside we found the priest, an elderly, soft spoken and kind South Indian gentleman, who showed us around the Church. The best time to pop in to the Portuguese Church would be just after the Sunday Mass. While they are chilled out folks, and have no issues with people clicking photographs, please do seek permission before you start clicking. Also keep in mind that this is a place of worship; be respectful, do not eat or smoke or drink alcohol inside, dress modestly and speak softly.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh



Churches of Calcutta           - Roy, Pijush Kanti
Echoes from Old Calcutta    - Busteed, H.E.
Calcutta Old and New         - Cotton, Evan


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