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HISTORY OF HOLY CROSS CHURCH, KURLA

A very few churches in the Archdiocese of Bombay have a long history like Holy Cross Church – Kurla.  Its history is writ large on its centuries old walls and reminisces of past artifacts.  The large history of 429 years of Holy Cross Church, Kurla, can be gleamed from certain well preserved historical records.  These historical records are available not only in India, especially in Portugal and Rome.

St. Francis Xavier the great Apostle of the Indies set sail for India on April 7th 1541.  He was exactly 35 years old that day.  The voyage from Lisbon (Portugal) to Goa, which took one year and twenty nine days, was a nightmare of a journey on dirty and overcrowded ships.  He finally reached Goa on May 6th 1542.  In March-April 1548 St. Francis Xavier went further north to beautiful Bassein now Vasai.  Did St. Francis Xavier come to Kurla enroute to Bassein or on his return we do not know for certain.  However, the very fact he had recommended a church to be built at Kurla and also written a letter addressed to the King of Portugal, petitioning a grant of Land at Kurla to build a church and residence, we can safely conclude that St. Francis Xavier might have come to Kurla.

Some years after the death of St. Francis Xavier, the Viceroy – Don Antonio de Noronha, on behalf of the King of Portugal, honoured his request.  On February 22, 1570 King Sebastian of Portugal wrote from Evora confirming the donation of the Villages of Bandra and Kurla, as well as Saki and Mohili in favour of the Jesuits of St. Paul’s College of Goa.  This was because Goa was the headquarters of the Jesuits of Asia and St. Francis Xavier was the first Provincial Superior of India and the Far East.  On November 1, 1572 this donation was solemnly re-affirmed by the Royal Court of Lisbon.

The Jesuits finally came to Kurla and Bandra in 1573.  We can presume that the first small Chapel, seed of this present magnificent edifice, was built in the same year 1573.  In 1580 there definitely was a proper Church, for reference is made to the Church “built by the Jesuits of Bandra in 1580”.

In 1586 the visitor, Fr. Valignano reports that two Fathers and two Brothers residing at Bandra cared for the people of Kurla, spelt by the Portuguese of the time as “Curulem” or “Corlem”.  The Jesuits used to come on Sundays and Feast days of obligation to celebrate Mass, teach Catechism and help the Catholics in their needs.  On November 21, 1595 there is a heartfelt lament that Kurla is without a resident priest; it only has visiting priests, because of which Christians are dying without the Sacraments, especially in the monsoon… In a letter of November 5, 1593 to the Jesuit General, Rev. Fr. Claude Acquaviva, one of the missionaries, Fr. Simao de Sa, who had been staying in Bassein for three years, wrote an earnest request that a resident priest be stationed at Kurla, in the Church of San Salvador, because the Fathers, residing in Bandra whilst taking pastoral care of Kurla, could not visit the Christians during the rainy season because they had to cross two rivers that were rapid and swollen that posed a great danger to life.

The letters of 1593 tell us that Kurla Church was called “Iglesia de San Salvador” (Church of Our Holy Saviour).  Interestingly, we find the name of Kurla church had been changed to “Invencao de Santa Cruz””Church of the finding of the Holy Cross” later the name of the Church was shortened to “Church of the Holy Cross”.  We presume that the change was made because of the special devotion to the Cross of Christ.  These findings are called from the Annual Letters to Rome of Jesuits of India, which was found in the Monumenta Historica Societatis lesu and the Documenta Indica.  Also recorded is that the Feast is celebrated on 3rd May, which was a day of obligation.  According to a letter of November 29, 1595, two hundred and seventy persons were baptized on the parish Feast Day of that year.  We see, therefore, that this tradition of celebrating the Church Feast in Kurla Parish on 3rd May (now the first Sunday of May) goes back to over 400 years.

Happily, the Annual Letter of 1620 definitely speaks of a resident Priest by that time, and has some interesting details.  I quote: “Our Francis de Cunha lives in the village of Kurla, from where he governs the Church.  He has under his charge some 2000 Christians.  The inhabitants of these parts are generally speaking devout.”  He goes on to speak of the great devotion of the faithful to Blessed Ignatius of Loyola, and some miracles attributed to him.  Ignatius was canonized and became Saint Ignatius two years later on March 12, 1622.  The letter continues: “A part of the Church which has been blown down was rebuilt”.

In 1669 Holy Cross Church, Kurla, is reported to still have had only 2000 Parishioners (no marked increase in 49 years…)  This letter of 1669 greatly praises the piety and devotion of the faithful of Kurla.  This sort of praise was rarely found in an official narrative of this kind; we can imagine that the narrator must have been more than ordinarily impressed by the excellent quality of the Catholics of those days.

During 1669 to 1739 when the British were on the Island of Bombay and Salcette was still in Portuguese hands the Jesuit Church and the houses of Kurla were frequently threatened by bombardment from the fort of Sion, situated on the northern end of Bombay.  Whenever the British had any grievances against the Portuguese, which was often, Kurla and Bandra which lay immediately across the Mahim creek, suffered from these bombing reprisals.

In 1739 Kurla Church fell into the hands of the Marathas, and so the Jesuits had to bid a sad farewell to Kurla, never to return to the Parish they considered one of the most fervent and most beloved in India.  The Jesuits were replaced by the Diocesan clergy and from 1739 to date they have been serving the Kurla parish with great dedication.

Like so many parishes in the suburbs of Mumbai, Holy Cross Parish also experienced many changes in the size and shape so also in the population of the parish.  However, the most drastic changes started taking place about 50 years ago because of the continued influx of Catholics into the parish.  

The Catholic population increased appreciably which led to the creation of six new parishes namely Our Lady of Fatima, Kirol (1953), St. Joseph, Kurla Station (1968), St. Jude, Jeri Meri (1972), St. Anthony, Saki Naka (1975), Holy Family, Pestomsagar (1982) and Infant Jesus, Ghatkopar (1983).  Thus, out of one original parish, Kurla was divided and subdivided in the course of time as seven independent parishes.

Kurla parishioners believe that the good traditions laid down by their forefathers have to be followed. For even today one sees and experiences this piety and devotion in them in a tangible manner.  There is very good attendance at the daily Mass throughout the year and on Sundays the Church is overcrowded.  The intense devotional life of the parish is also seen at the celebrations of innumerable novenas and other devotional practices.  Because of this reason, it was a felt need for more accommodation in the parish church and therefore the Church extension and renovation of the Church was undertaken. His Eminence Ivan Cardinal Dias released and inaugurated this project on 5th May 2004.

The Gothic wooden original altar was removed in the wake of implementation of the liturgical forms about 40 years ago.  In the place of the old wooden altar a new marble altar facing the people was installed.  However, the background behind this altar was bare and empty.  It was strongly suggested to provide a decent background for the altar.  The original altar was traced which was lying in one of the churches in Goa and an enlarged replica of the original altar was sculptured which now provides a beautiful background for the altar.