A speck of Portugal lives on at Pune Church


PUNE, India: The Quarter Gate once marked the separation point between the British military confines of the Pune Cantonment from the civilian areas of the city. Here, in one of the lanes, is the Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church.

However, asking a local for directions to the church, while using its official name, is an ordeal. “Oh, City Church is what you are looking for! It’s that way. Take a right turn from the roundabout,” a local resident remarked, as he explained the route. City Church is its colloquial name. So much so that the official church website also incorporates the name.

Unknown to many, the Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church is the oldest catholic church in the region, even before the British built the St Mary’s Church off Staveley Road.

As the church records, dating back to the late 1700s, mention, the history of City Church is connected to the Peshwa army. At a time when the Peshwas were waning in power, Madhavrao Peshwa found an unlikely ally in the Portuguese empire in Goa to strengthen his army.

While the new Portuguese and Goan officers, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, moved to the city, they did not have a place of worship in the area. In 1792, Madhavrao conferred a piece of land to Portuguese national Dom Minguel de Noronha and the church is said to stand at the same spot till date. Church records claim that Madhavrao himself contributed towards building the structure.

The records also point out that, in December that year, the first Catholic mass was celebrated by the Portuguese at the piece of land, and in December 1794, a small, permanent structure was put up to mark the beginning of the chapel.

After the British donated land to the church and funded its refurbishment in the 1840s, not much of the original structure remained, especially in the interiors. Even so, Portuguese architectural signs are visible, as is obvious from the front facade. That is one of the few parts of the chapel that has not undergone noticeable changes and is almost reminiscent of churches in Old Goa, also Portuguese-built.

The demographic and ethnicities of people, who have congregated at the chapel it became a church in the 1880s has remained similar in its near-225 years, except when the British occupied India. Then, Irish soldiers and some Catholic Scotsmen congregated at the church, apart from St Patrick’s Cathedral on Prince of Wales Drive.
The church offers services in English, Konkani, and Marathi, which also reflects the ethnicities that congregate here. “At our church, the congregations are largely settlers who moved here from Goa, Mangalorean Catholics, as well as Maharashtrian Catholics,” said Salvador Pinto, the parish priest.