Nossa Senhora das Merces: Thane’s Unknown Historic Treasure

The almost 500-year-old Jesuit church is in ruins but offers a rich slice of history

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We’ve all learned about historic monuments in school. In Mumbai, we have the Gateway of India, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and the Elephanta Caves off the coast. These historic structures are thriving tourist attractions because they are well-maintained and famous all around the world. But did you know that there is old, abandoned structure in Thane that has so much history attached to it, I’m surprised most people don’t know about it. Against the backdrop of the Yeur range of the Salsette hills, stands the ruins of the Jesuit church, Our Lady of Mercies or Nossa Senhora das Merces. Here are some facts about the ancient church:

 1. It Was Built By The Jesuits

It was built by the Jesuits—a religious order founded in the 16th century. Our Lady of Merces is one of the two establishments run by the Jesuits in the city of Tana which in some documents referred to as a Hermitage.

2. It Was the Jesuits’ First Residence

In 1550, as the Portuguese settled in Thane, the Jesuits founded their first residence here. They went out into the countryside spreading their faith, converting people, and attending to the educational needs of the people in the settlement of Thana.

3. Nossa Senhora das Merces May Have Been Founded Sometime in the Late 1500s or Early 1600s

As early as 1575, a Jesuit letter described Vanganacer ( a village in Thane) as having many mango trees around a tank but yielding little revenue. The parish must have been founded sometime in the next half-century as an official report of 1630 lists the Vicar of Nossa Senhora das Merces as one of those supported by a government stipend.

4. Sunday Services Were Held in Latin and Portuguese

The Jesuit account of 1669 tells us that Sunday services here were in Latin and Portuguese, but the priest took the trouble to explain the Christian doctrine to his flock in Marathi.

5. It Was Deserted After the Maratha Invasion

The church and parish were perhaps deserted after the Jesuits left following the Maratha invasion in 1737.

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6. “Phirangi Dharmacha Devool”

In the official documents of the town of Thane, the church is referred to as “Phirangi Dharmacha Devool” and taxes were regularly paid by the church of St. John to the local authorities.

7. The Churchgoers Were Humble Folk

The parishioners here were the farmers, cultivators (those who did not own land but worked on other’s lands) and toddy tappers.

8. The Church’s Facade 

On the facade was the emblem of the blazing sun with the letters IHS(Jesus Saviour of Man) with a credit above the H and three nails below chosen by St. Ignatius in 1541 for the society of Jesus.

9. The Parish Unit is Created

In 1986, with a further growth in the population, the parish unit of Our Lady of Mercy was created.

10. St. John the Baptist Church Became the Major Church for Catholics in Thane

After 1737, only one church functioned to serve the Christians of Thane. The church on the banks of Massunda lake, now known as St. John the Baptist, remained the main parish church for two and half centuries more.

Where did the parishioners of Our Lady of Mercy go to? Since the church records were destroyed with the churches, we have a few scattered references to go by. Perhaps, some of the Christians reverted to their earlier possibly Hindu faith while others moved their residences closer to the functioning parish church. Whereas the church of Our Lady of Mercy suffered neglect, the roof caved in, the rain soaked-walls sprouted vegetation, and it slowly withered away from people’s memories.

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