Early History of Parel

Parel was one of the original seven islands of Bombay. The European association with this area begins in the 17th century when the islands were taken over by the Portuguese who soon established a Jesuit church and convent.

The British confiscated Parel along with other islands in 1689. In the 1770s, William Hornby, the Governor, shifted his official residence to Parel. The Jesuit buildings were converted into the Governor’s Residence. Soon after, this area metamorphosed into one of the elegant British areas of the city.

By the mid-1860s Parel, along with Byculla had a large British poplulation. The Christ Church, Byculla, set up in 1832 served the religious needs for this English congregation. Later in 1859, the St. Peter’s Church was opened up in Mazagaon to serve the burgeoning congregation in the area.

How it all began

Although Parel had a sizable population of the English, there was no Anglican church set up in the area. However, things began to change after the late 1870s. In 1878, a resolution was passed by the Government of Bombay to set up a State Railway Stores Depot between the Great Indian Peninsular(GIP), the Bombay Baroda (BB) & Central India (CI) Railways at Parel. Work commenced in 1879 and by early 1882 all the facilities had been moved from Byculla to this area. Along with the Stores Depot the Railways also built “married men’s quarters, reading rooms, bungalows,” and other facilities. Thus by the early 1880s the British population in Parel increased considerably. As the area did not have an Anglican church it was the need of the hour to establish a church building at the earliest.

Religious matters concerned with the Government were maintained separately under the Ecclesiastical Department. It is with the archives of this department that one finds information regarding the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Parel. The department was to deal with baptisms, burials, cathedrals, cemeteries, chaplains, churches, endowments, priests, construction and repair of churches etc.

The idea for setting up a church was proposed as early as 1881, as seen in the letter written by the Right Reverend, the Lord Bishop of Bombay, dated 29th August, 1881, requesting the Public Works Department “for the preparation of designs and estimates for building a church at Parel, to accommodate two hundred worshippers, the design to be such as will render it capable of enlargement in the future, without sacrifice of its original type.” 1The Bishop also mentions that funds would be made available through both the Railways companies and further writes that “in consideration of the connection of the Railway Companies with Government, and also of the fact that His Excellency, the Governor’s Band, will attend Divine service at the proposed church, the Government will contribute the balance of the sum required to erect a church for two hundred worshippers, exclusive of the choir." 2
1 Ecclesiastical Department 1881, Vol 120/81, Compilation No. 16.
2 Ibid.

In response to this letter the Public Works Department passed a resolution on 15th September, 1881, in which a clause states that “ The design will necessarily have to be economical ; but it should be capable of further enlargement. It should, in the first instance, exclude such additions as carriage porch and tower, which may, however, be estimated for separately, in view to construction hereafter; the object at present being to provide a church for a considerable population.” 3

While the PWD was preparing the design along with the estimate, the onus was on the Bishop of Bombay for selecting an appropriate site for the church. The Ecclesiastical Department sent reminders to the Bishop in the preceding months. In reply the Bishop wrote to the Secretary to Government, Ecclesiastical Department, that he “regretted his inability to select the site for the Church at Parel.” 4 From the following content of the letter it seems that both the Railway Companies were large contributors to the church, while both wanted the site at a convenient location to their respective employees. Also considering that the church would also serve to the people of the Governor’s Residence the Bishop indeed had to undertake some “complicated negotiations.”
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.

After a further reminder from the Eclessiatical Department in January the Bishop was finally able to the inform them of the finalization of a site for the church. In his letter dated 10th February 1882, he writes “Site agreed upon for the proposed church at Parel is situated on the north side of Currey Road as indicated in the enclosed plan.” He hopes that they have finally settled upon a site “which should satisfy the demands of both Railway Companies to have the interests of their respective employees considered.” Unfortunately this plan is not attached in the folio of this church, nor does it seem to be present in the corresponding PWD files.

Soon after, the plan of the church was submitted to the Bishop for his views on the proposed design. The estimate prepared for this design was Rs 32,482, and if the entrance porch and belfry tower be omitted it would be reduced to Rs 28,004.

According to the Bishop, he found the design submitted to be appropriate as a whole, but he had “several criticisms in detail” which he could resolve with the architect. Subsequently the only alteration that he suggested was “the substitution of a different form of belfry whose lines shall be of severer type, more in harmony… ‘with the third pointed style’ in which the building is designed.” 5 The final modified design was also sent to both the Railway Companies.
5 ED letter.

Further correspondence with regards to the acquisition of the land shows that the original plot of area 3700 square yards, was a private property and was bought at the cost of Rupee one per square yard. It also mentions that there were some private properties adjoining the land and like them being low lying, this plot had to be filled in to about 3 feet to bring it up to the road level.

The fact that this church was primarily meant for the Railway employees is made clear in the Government Resolution where it is stated that the Government will contribute Rs. 7000 “on the assumption that sittings will be required for 200 railway employees and their families; if a smaller number is required, a proportionately less sum will be granted according to the rules prescribed by the Secretary of State.” 

In the starting stages of the proposal for the church, the Government seemed a bit disinterested and reluctant to contribute towards the construction of the structure. It is only through the persistent efforts of the Bishop of Bombay and the Railway Chaplain Rev. R. W. Evans that the project was carried through. Indeed Rev. Evans was the first chaplain at the Church of St. Mary’s.

According to the Public Works Department- Railways, dated 7th October 1882, the initial estimate was summarized as follows:top


1st Design - Rs 3700
Ground - Rs 4189                       
Preparing ground - Rs 32,482
Building - Rs 40,371
2nd Design [without tower and porch] - Rs 3700
Ground - Rs 4189
Preparing ground - Rs 28,004
Building - Rs 35,893

The contributors are
Government - Rs 3300
For landt - Rs 3700
Great Indian Peninsular Railway - Rs 5400
Bombay Baroda - Rs 5400
Central India - Rs 17,800                                                         

1st Design - Rs 22,571
2nd Design - Rs 18,093


Efforts were made by the Ecclesiastical Department to obtain more funds from the Government. They even sent a letter dated 6th April 1883, saying that “number of seats has been underestimated. The Railway Companies needed 120 seats each and 40 seats for Government House and its dependants, and other residents at Parel who would use the Church.” 6 They request the church seating to be increased to 300, perhaps hoping that funds from the Government would be proportionately increased. This letter is also the first time that the name of the architect , [John] Adams is mentioned.
6 Ibid.

A Parel Church Committee was set up sometime around April 1883. The names of the members are not mentioned and hence it is difficult to assuage whether this committee was an independent set up or part of the Ecclesiastical Department itself. It had asked for a revised plan at estimate for 300 persons and an organ chamber to be added to the design.

Although this request for 300 seating was turned down and the original plan retained, an additional 3000 square yards on Elphinstone Road was given to the church. Mr. Adams was also requested to incorporate the organ chamber, which he did in the southern side of the apse. A further 20’ wide strips of land were given on the East and West sides.

In May 1883 work finally commenced on the construction of the church and the foundations were laid for the main structure. The work on the Belfry tower and entrance porch was to be deferred. Appeals were made for private donations which were to be paid to the Manager of Parel Church Building Fund. By the end of 1883 they had managed to collect an amount of Rs. 8000. A concert was held at Ganesh Khind [Pune] where a further Rs. 1000 was collected.

However it took more than a year for the church building to be erected. In an letter dated September 29, 1884, the Bishop of Bombay writes to the Government requesting to his “proceeding to the consecration of St. Mary’s Church, Parel, on the building being completed, which is expected will be the case before the end of October [1884].” It is in this letter that for the first time the name of the church appears. So far it had been referred to as Church at Parel for Railway employes.

However, the work proceeded even into the month of November with the Parel Church Committee monitoring the work and giving suggestions as and when required. A few alterations in the original design made as a result of these suggestions were that the perforated stone screen between the Organ chamber and Apse was removed. The central dummy window in the Apse was opened up to admit more light. They had even suggested that the inner walls be washed with light grey instead of yellow. Apparently the architect Mr. Adams had no objections to these suggestions.

In one of their suggestions they mention that “texts be supplied to Mr. Murzban, should be written over two of the main arches. These texts are likely to be the ones over the main door of the church.

The folio of the Ecclesistical Department regarding the Church at Parel ends with this letter. No further information is given on when the entrance porch and the belfry tower was built.

The Church of St. Mary the Virgin was finally consecrated on December 4th, 1884 by the Bishop of Bombay, Bishop Mylne D D. The Governor of Bombay, Lord Fergusson handed over the church to the local congregation with the words, "I hope my friends that when this holy house becomes an accomplished fact you will use it regularly." Sir James Fergusson is well known for propagating Western education in the Bombay Presidency and the prestigious Fergusson College in Pune is indeed named after him. top

Architectural Style

The style of architecture chosen for the church is the Neo-Gothic or Gothic Revival. This style was in fact the preferred style in Bombay and most of the public and religious buildings built during this period (1860-1900) were in this style.

In the beginning of the 19th century the Gothic Revival began to be identified with British nationalism, as the contemporary popular belief was that Gothic had originated in England and the country therefore could lay claim to it. Also, since most of the other architectural styles were imported from the Continent, England was only too eager to assume the leadership in Gothic Revival. This attitude was further confirmed and solidified when in 1836 the British chose to build their Houses of Parliament in a version of the Gothic Revival style. 

The Ecclesiological Society played an important role in the propagation of this belief and the Gothic Revival in general. In 1841 the Society began publication of a periodical called The Ecclesiologist, in which the editors stated their interest in "Church building at home and in the Colonies," among others. 7

The Portals of St. Mary''''''''s have a number of plaques, but unfortunately they are not clear as they have weathered over a period of years. However there is one plaque of importance and that is of Oliver, Lady Fergusson who died on the 8th of January 1882. She was the wife of Lord Fergusson, the Governor of Bombay. Lord Fergusson also donated the organ to the church in her memory.

The reason that the plaques may have weathered inspite of being protected in the porch might be that the entrance porch was most probably built at a later date leaving the plaques open to the weather elements. A plaque dedicated to a certain George Turner is in a fairly better condition and was installed in 1911, and does not seem to have weathered as much. One may conjecture that by 1911 the entrance porch had been constructed. Also the porch is covered by a flat roof which seems to be constructed of reinforced cement concrete. Since this technology had begun only during this period it once again hints at the porch being constructed somewhere around this date.

While the church is built in the Gothic Revival style as characterized by the pointed arches, quatrefoil patterns etc, the belfry tower seems to be of a different style. The flat arches and the quoins on all the four corners this tower tends to be more on the Classical style. However, due to the usage of the same material, i.e. black basalt and porbandar stone, it does not look too incongruous with the rest of the church.

The Church is designed in a simplistic manner and follows the rules prescribed for an Anglican church. Its orientation is in an east-west axis, with the apse on the eastern side so that the worshippers do not have their backs on the setting sun while praying. 8 A small vestry is placed on the north side of the apse while the Organ chamber has been incorporated on the other side.
7 Victorian Gothic Revival [on-line]; available from http://www.saintstephens.on.ca/gothic_revival.htm; Internet; accessed 20 April 2004
8 Barr James 

While externally some ornamentation is incorporated in form of quatrefoil parapets, mouldings, quatrefoil bands, the interiors on the hand are quite simple. The little ornamentation includes the stoned base of the trusses carved with a foliage pattern. It should be mentioned that on the sloping ends of the gable, on the exterior, the year “1883” is inscribed in shields on both sides.

While the overall design of the church is the Gothic Revival style it tends to borrow a lot specifically from the Perpendicular style as seen by the hood mouldings over the arches and the two tiered cusped arched windows on the nave walls.

The windows are also simple in design and follow the prescribed diagonal pattern, made up with coloured glass. However, only the windows on the upper level seem to be original while those on the lower tier create a fair impression of leaded windows.

While the interior architecture is simplistic, the wooden furniture on the other hand is of excellent quality and executed in the Gothic style. These include the pews, the lectern and the pulpit amongst others.

The architect of the church, as mentioned earlier, was John Adams. In his 30 year career in Mumbai he had built over 25 buildings. He joined the PWD in 1869 and prime examples of his buildings include Wilson College, the John Connon & Cathedral School and the Royal Bombay Yatch Club. 9 He is also known to have design furniture which may explain the superior quality of wood work in the Church of St Mary the Virgin.

The certain Mr. Murzban mentioned earlier may have been Khan Bahadur Muncherjee Cowasjee Murzban , one of the first Indian architects in the British era. He was a construction supervisor with the PWD and is known to have collaborated with John Adams on a few private commissions. 10 
9 Bombay Gothic 138
10 Ibid, 140-41. 

Surprisingly the Church of St. Mary the Virgin does not find mention in many of the books that deal with the history of Christianity in Mumbai. A reason for this might be that this church was serving almost only the employees of the two Railway Companies and hence did not hold much importance to the other British residents of the city. Other churches in Mumbai were set up by missionaries for local native population and more information on them is available in the archives of their respective missions.

Also, with the establishment of mills in the central Mumbai area and the shifting of the Governor’s Residence to Malabar Hill, the importance of Parel in general would have diminished. As this church was meant exclusively for the British population and perhaps being attended by a smaller congregation, it is indeed difficult to find references to this church in regards to personal accounts, memoirs and other archival literature.

One reference to this particular church is found in the book “Love Unites People- Memoirs of a Christian Worker in Singapore from 1913 to 1959” by George Daniel. During his visit to Bombay on way to Singapore he briefly lists the Anglican Churches in Bombay, Church of St. Mary the Virgin being one of them. He further writes that he joined a choir only when he shifted his quarters to Parel and came to know of Rev P. Ekyne, Chaplain of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Parel. He was part of the choral service for two years of his stay in Bombay and once the Choir of St. Mary’s was invited to the St. Thomas’ Cathedral. top

The Present

The church today falls under the Diocese of Mumbai- Church of North India. Consecrated in 1884, the church is hemmed in by a bustling market on one side, and a busy over-bridge on the other. While originally intended as a church for the Railway employees the Church seems to have lost all its association with this organization. The congregation of St. Mary''''''''s has been changing through the years from a totally British congregation meant to include the Governor of Bombay and the employees of the BB and CI and GIP railways to an assorted group of people from all walks of life.

Not being a part of the larger religious and social scene of British Bombay, the church has unfortunately been deprived of the glory that it deserves. However, the Church continues in its ministry, faithfully serving the Lord and reaching out to people, not just from Parel but all over the city of Mumbai. top

Select Bibliography

Ecclesiastical Department: 1881Vol 120/81, compilation No. 16. Maharashtra State Archives
Bombay Gothic- Christopher London
Love Unites People- Memoirs of a Christian Worker in Singapore from 1913 to 1959. - George Daniel
Anglican Church Architecture- James Barr
Public Works Department, Railways: 1868-89, Vol list Pt III No. 738-977
Christ and Western India- A study of the growth of the Indian Church in Bombay City from 1813.- Elizabeth G K Hewat