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Old churches — more than just a structure 

By William Pais

Mangaluru: Any historical building in whichever place and time it is built reflects on the cultural richness of people of the place. This is a common argument. If one applies the logic of this argument to Konkani speaking Catholics, may not be more than hundred years old and their arrival to the region is fairly recent. But the truth is Mangalureans migrated from Goa around 450 years ago.

In India, and more so elsewhere, cultural history of people is linked to religion. How many churches that are old are remaining in Mangalore and Udupi dioceses? The ones we had, have been unilaterally demolished without a scant regard for historical sentiments, to make place for modern church structures devoid of aesthetics. The old churches need to be maintained for reasons that go beyond religious. For they physically document the sacrifice, architecture of the time, unwavering faith of people who built them.

The justification for razing church buildings is peculiar to the Mangalore diocese as each parish is competing to build a new church. A person, in most of the cases, parish priest, with a scant regard for history and heritage, coupled with people who sing his paeans, decide that an old church building should be razed and a new one erected. A plan is drawn that has everything grand and flurry of activity follows to gather funds. The first target is the Gulf where you would find a right emotional concoction of language, faith and love for native place. This coupled with the treasure of blessings promised by the person visiting to seek donations, clicks the deal, without seeing the merits of the project envisaged. As a result, flow of donations to build a modern church starts without even the person looking at the basic plan of the church to which he is donating.

Compare this scenario with the diocese of Goa where most of its churches are centuries old and are fit for service although at times the congregation spills out of its doors. Has the number of faithful not increased in Goa in the last 400-odd years that they never felt the need to raze the church to ground to make way for the new one? The fact is Goa gets its identity from the church heritage, is too obvious to understand.

A historical edifice stands as the living example of a stage in human history and any efforts to erase it will only prove to be an effort of destroying our sense of identity. A mere look at the monument is enough to convince about the time in which it was built. A new church building does not give a historical perspective, thereby undermines identity of a community.

I come back to the question raised in this article as to why we need to keep the old church buildings. An old church is a testimony the sacrifice of our ancestors. The older the monument, stronger the sense of identity it provides to everything that inhabits its surroundings. Identity gives us strength in an ever-changing world. History and heritage are the prisms of seeing ourselves.

An architectural creation is a strong element, providing a link between the past and the times we live and this link is essential for us and our future generations. Identity does not come cheap but carefully earned with cumulative human efforts over the ages. My concern does not stop at the demolition of old churches but extends to all structures that are testimony to the historical, spiritual and human evolution. I feel the same pain when an old temple is demolished as when I see a church being razed to the ground. I feel proud when I see around 400 years old Monte Mariano Church in Farangipet, that the Franciscan friars have retained in good condition. Perhaps this is the only structure which explicitly announces the antiquity of church in Mangaluru diocese.

There are many challenges to protect the heritage structures owned by private individuals but the secular heritage like churches, temples, parks, old streets, government heritage buildings belong to people. More so buildings like the old church buildings can easily be protected if a policy is evolved with regard to its protection. I have therefore suggested a heritage policy framing for Mangalore diocese and Udupi dioceses can also take inspiration from it.

Whenever I get the information of a church demolition, I collapse virtually, and feel a sense of helplessness. This time unfortunately it happens to be St Antony’s Church, Allipade, Bantwal, where I grew up. It was built eighty years back with architecture of the time, when church building was undergoing a rapid change. I heard the stories narrated to me by elders that people carried a stone when they came for mass. That most of the surroundings had houses that were thatched, despite which people of the time decided to build a strong and beautiful house of prayer.

Harboring these apprehensions, I run to the parish priest, and the parish council members, to make a case for saving a church. I go to the bishop, plead my case and tell him that I don’t have an agenda in crusading to save a church. He gives a patient hearing, agrees to my point of view and I return with a satisfaction deep inside that my crusade is paying off. As the church manual says bishop is the head of the local church where almost all the hierarchy ends. I rest assured something positive will happen. But more importantly, we have to rise to the need for importance of saving our heritage. The lame excuse that ‘nobody hears our opinion’ should be done away with. The case of hearing comes only when you say an opinion, so say an opinion, and if it reasons enough, it will prevail.

However, I am not against building new churches, but they be not built in the place by demolishing the old church. Am I against change for good? I am not. Demolishing an old edifice, does it herald a change? A big no. If a church cannot hold a swelling congregation (it is not likely) a new church may be built but in a different place. It is enough that we alter our surroundings in our private spaces, but public heritage like the church building should be left intact and maintained for future generation to let them know from where their identity stems from. Identity is the sole protector in times of crisis, it is an intangible asset we inherited from our ancestors, and are duty bound to pass it on to the future generation.

(William Pais is the author of ‘The Land Called South Canara’ and the Director of Gallerie Orchid, Mangaluru. This article appeared in on September 28, 2017)

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