Located on the corner of Gaffar Baig Street and St. Vincent Street, opposite Shivaji Market in Pune, St. Xavier’s Catholic Church is a welcome place to retreat to for some peace and quiet having explored the Camp district of the city. I did just that back in 2019, and took a handful of photographs of the church which I never got around to posting online. Reviewing those photographs two years later during lockdown (plus a little research), has led me to a completely unexpected discovery regarding this church, and one that I think now justifies a bit more of my time documenting.
The history of St. Xavier’s Catholic Church starts in 1846, when Father Leitao was appointed Military Chaplain for the Cantonment district of Pune. This was an expanded role for Father Leitao, who was already in charge of the civil Catholic population of Pune at the city chapel of St.Annes. In the absence of any nearby church, Father Leitao conducted Mass at his bungalow which was situated at the corner of East Street and Exhibition Road.
Despite St.Patrick’s church being opened three miles away in 1850, the need for a proper local church was badly needed. On December 9th 1859, Father Steins with the assistance of Mr.Loughnan applied for a plot of ground “on Malcolm Tank Road” to be laid out for a Roman Catholic chapel and school.
The request was granted, with further correspondence from January 9th to August 25th 1860 where the land was described as destined “for a Roman Catholic chapel, school, and priest’s quarters”. Architectural designs of the church were drawn up by Brother Schmidt, and the foundation stone was blessed on October 14th 1860 by Mgr. Bonnand, Vicar-Apostolic of Pondicherry and Visitator Apostolic, who happened to be visiting Pune at that time.
In December 1861, while the building of St. Xavier’s Church was still in progress, Father Leitao suddenly died. The care of the civil population fell to the Military Chaplain of St. Patrick’s, and Father Leitao’s bungalow was almost immediately sold. With no local place to now hold Mass services, they were conducted for a couple of years within the bare recently built walls of St. Xavier’s Church prior to the roof being constructed.
The death of the architect Brother Schmidt delayed the building of the church even further, until it was finally completed in 1864.
The internal space of the church is, as one would expect, immensely peaceful and tranquil, with the wooden structure of the roof left exposed and some lovely stained glass windows. But what caught my eye the most came upon me as I concluded my walk down the church nave.
At the end of the north and south transept are large murals that extend across the full width of the transept, by the artist Angelo da Fonseca, and dated 1944. The first one depicts Saint Francis Xavier arriving in Goa, then capital of Portuguese India, on 6 May 1542, thirteen months after leaving Lisbon.
On the opposite far transept wall is the second mural, depicting the moment Saint Francis Xavier died from a fever on Shangchuan Island (China) on 3 December 1552, while he was waiting for a boat that would take him to the mainland.
At the time of visiting St. Xavier’s Catholic Church I was completely unaware who the artist Angelo da Fonseca was. Subsequent research has led me to discover an interesting character, one who has left an enduring legacy in India.
Angelo da Fonseca was born in St. Estevam, Goa in December 1902, the youngest seventeen children. He started out in medical studies at the Grant Medical College in Mumbai, but soon left for Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art, the oldest art school in Mumbai. In 1930 he left the prestigious art school as he felt it had too much of a European/English setting. He joined the Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan near Kolkata, where he was trained by his guru Rabindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose.
Fonseca was a prolific and versatile artist, not only producing paintings but also artworks in wood, slate, stained glass, wax and baked clay. During his lifetime he produced over 1,000 water colour and oil paintings, including large murals at places such as St. Xavier’s College (Mumbai), Missio Museum (Aachen, Germany), De Nobili College (Pune), Rachol Seminary (Goa), and of course here at St.Xavier’s Catholic Church in Pune. He was reportedly strongly influenced by the writings of Father Heras, who encouraged Indian artists to paint Indian rather than Western themes.
Since he was a Christian, many of his paintings incorporated Christian themes such as depictions of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and various biblical scenes. These images however all had an Indian perspective, adorning the Christian saints with working class Indian clothes and features, thereby giving the common man social images they could identify with. This unique style of cross-cultural art was both groundbreaking and, at the time, controversial.
Fonseca returned to Goa in 1931, which was then ruled by the Portuguese Colonial Government and led by the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. During his time in Goa he faced severe criticism for painting Christian themes with Indian settings. In one well recorded incident, he was criticized by the Priest in his native village of St. Estevam for painting the Virgin Mary in a traditional Goan Sari (Kunbi).
Frustrated by these criticisms and uncomfortable with the stringent social norms imposed upon him (he was often threatened), Fonseca eventually left Goa and moved to Pune, practicing at the Christa Prema Seva Ashram.
He was knighted by Pope Pius XII in 1954 for pioneering the Christian cultural renaissance in India, despite still finding little acceptance in his own homeland. Two of his works also featured at two exhibitions showcasing Asiatic colours at the Vatican.
Fonseca married Ivy Muriel Menezes in 1951, and had a daughter Yessonda Delphina in 1957. He died just ten years later in 1967 of meningitis. Ivy Muriel died in September 2015 in Pune, bequeathing his collection of paintings to the Xavier Centre of Historical Research in Goa, who hold regular exhibitions of his works.
Who would have expected this quiet infrequently visited church in Pune to contains works by such an artist ? Although there is absolutely nothing recorded about his association with St. Xavier’s Church on the internet, his signature and the date are extremely visible to the lower right of both murals.
The church occupies a relatively small plot of land with only a couple of memorials to see in the garden.
I learnt many years ago to expect the unexpected in India, it’s one of the joys of visiting the country. Little did I know that such an unassuming mid-19th century church would house such a secret. It’s discoveries like this that make me even more keen to return just as soon as I can.
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