An appeal to the People of God

For the greater glory of God and peace to His faithful and...

From 1857 to 1865, there was a small chapel on the present site of St. Mary’s Church, Delhi. The construction of the present church building started in 1864 and completed in 1865. It was blessed on 10 December 1865. Rev. William Keegan was the Chaplain of St. Mary’s Church at that time.

In 1723 Fr. Ippolyto Desideri of Tibet-Hindustan Mission was posted in Delhi. During the same year he founded a church. It is presumed that this earliest known structure was the predecessor of St. Mary’s Church, Old Delhi.

During the massacre in Chandini Chowk by Nadir Shah, the Christian churches administered by the Jesuits were destroyed.

According to Fr. Andrew Strobe, a church was rebuilt and blessed on 24, December 1746. This small church stood until work on St. Mary’s Church was started in 1864.

The new church built by Agra Archdiocese, was blessed on 10 December 1865. Thanks to the efforts of Fr. William Keegan a learned priest who guided the Pastoral life of Delhi as Parish Priest of St. Mary’s Church for over 26 years. His name appears in the Baptismal Register from October 6, 1859 to April 14, 1885 without interruption.

Mr. Charles Corcoran, his wife Sarah and Mrs. Dominga D’Eremao, the chief benefactors of the new church, funded the construction of the Church.

The marble plaque in Latin readable from the choirloft of the church above the main door, translates thus:

“This Church dedicated to the Immaculate Mother of God, designed by the well-known architect, Crawford Campbell, built with munificence, and blessed by Rev. William Keegan, the Chaplain, was solemnly blessed by the Very Reverend Angelo, Pro Vicar Apostolic on 10 December 1865 – Rev. William Keegan”.

As one faces the main altar, on the right below the statue of St. Anthony, there is a marble inscription in English which reads:

“To the everlasting memory of Rev. William Keegan, DD, Catholic Priest of the Agra Mission, who during 28 years laboured assiduously in the Vineyard of Christ, a man of varied and profound learning. He left writings in Urdoo, thus bequeathing to prosperity claims to its grateful consideration. He was a Member of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda in Rome. He died in Delhi on the 1stof May 1885 at the age of 65”

The Priests’ Residence of St. Mary’s Church Old Delhi was built in 1886.

Fr. Keegan perpetuated the names of three major benefactors on two marble slabs in the Church. On one slab are the names of Mr. Charles Corcoram and his wife Sarah, and on the other slab the name of Mrs. Dominga D’Eremao is inscribed. She died on 4 February 1871.

St. Mary’s Church served the spiritual needs of the Irish Regiment of the British Army garrisoned at the Red Fort up to the year 1914. It was in 1914 that Delhi Cantonment was established for the Armed Forces of British India. The wooden pews of St. Mary’s Church, which remained in use until renovation in 1965 had hooks to hang the rifles of the army men who marched in and out of the Church in uniform wearing their firearms for Sunday Mass . It is noteworthy that the Code of Canon Law 1917 forbade Catholics from carrying of firearms and weapons into Churches.

St. Mary’s Church also served the Railway Employees as well as those of the Post & Telegraph Department.

Under the Italian Capuchins, St. Mary’s Church served the people of Delhi from the second decade of the last century till 1935 in which year the Sacred Heart Cathedral was consecrated. Till that time St. Mary’s Church was the only major place of worship for Catholics in the City, though there were small chapels at Masihgarh, Pompeyabad, Paharganj and Shahdara.

In 1911, St. Mary’s Church was in a dilapidated state. Fr. Luke Vannucci OC came to Delhi (Order of Capuchins – In those days the Friars of the Capuchin Order used to use the suffix O.C. Now the Friars use the suffix OFM Cap). He engaged himself in the renovation of the Church. Apparently the renovation done on a shoestring budget did not cope with the ever increasing pollution that the Old Delhi Railway Terminus and its surrounding environs would cause to the Church. As it is today, in those years too, Jama Masjid-Chandni Chowk areas were the abode of pigeons. A large number of them had made the church their home. And maintenance of the Church had been a chronic nightmare.

The historic St. Mary’s Church of Agra Archdiocese became the proud possession of the newly erected Archdiocese of Delhi in 1959.

The centenary of the dedication of St. Mary’s Church was due in 1965. Archbishop Joseph Fernandes had plans for a second renovation under an eminent architect, Mr. Karl von Heinz. Pigeon-proofing the church was one of his major concerns. Fr. Lawrence Pinto was the Parish Priest and Fr. Joseph Mary Fernandes his Assistant.

For three years, the parishioners put in all their might and contributed their mite to raise funds to meet the cost of the extensive repair work. St. Mary’s Church was finally ready on December 10, 1965 for its Centenary Celebration.

Today amidst the din and bustle of Old Delhi, St. Mary’s Church stands with serene dignity. Through the foliage of trees where squirrels play hide and seek and little birds chirp, she peeps at the Red Fort, the pride and glory of the Walled City of Shajehanabad, the symbol of the innumerable struggles for India’s Independence besides being the most recognizable landmark of the Historic Old Delhi. As the National Tricolor is unfurled and hoisted by successive Prime Ministers of India on its ramparts on August 15 every year, St. Mary’s Church joins the nation in prayerful tribute.

St. Mary’s has had witnessed the Imperial rule of the British. She witnessed the Independence and continues to witness the democratic rule of the People of India. Her famous neighbours, the Jama Masjid and the Jain Mandir which directly face the Lal Qila and St. James Church a little away in Kashmeri Gate have been doing the same. There are other Christian Churches too in the neighbourhood. They are the Baptist Church in Chandni Chowk close to Lajpat Rai Market and the CNI Church at Fatepuri

In 1923, Fr. Luke Vannucci O.C started St. Theresa’s Parish High School close to the Church behind its Sacristy in tents. His professed intention was to teach the poor children and afford them a fighting chance to succeed in life. He built a proper building for his school and raised it to the standard of a High School. The Government approved the School as St. Theresa’s Parish High School in 1935 with 113 pupils on its roll.

In a letter written to the Archbishop of Agra, Fr. Luke wrote about how much loved his school and the poor children. He described to the Prelate the opposition he had to face both from the contemporary Protestant Pastors as well as from his own Capuchin colleagues.

The Yamuna flows on the other side of Shahjehan’s Angoori Bagh (Vineyard) near the Red Fort not far from St. Mary’s Church. Much water has flowed under the Old Iron Bridge since the great Fr. Ippolyto Desideri had built St. Mary’s Church in 1723 and Fr. William Keegan rebuilt it in 1865 and Fr. Luke had renovated it in 1911 and added St. Theresa’s School to it. Lost in the pages of history are the poor children for whom their beloved ‘Papa Luka’ had opened up avenues of equal opportunities with the children of the privileged class through education.

There are people who believe that the graveyards of those killed by Nadir Shah and of the victims of Mutiny were located at the gate of the Church Complex facing the Red Fort. A night watchman in 1976-78 used to narrate stories of visions of the ghosts of the dead rising at night and haunting the area. It is here a modern Metro station is being built during the years 2012-2013.

St. Mary’s Church continues to witness the great moments of history as well as suffer the haunting memories of not so happy events of the past. Bearing the name of the Mother of Jesus, she continues to serve the people of God through her great Parish Priests for over one and a half century.

A doctrinal Dissertation on St. Mary’s Church Old Delhi was undertaken by Ms Agnes Alponsa Araujo, M.A. B.Ed. and submitted to Madurai Kamaraj University for the award of the Degree of Master of Philosophy in History in December 2004. Fr. Cirilo Rodrigues former Manager of Estates of the Archdiocese of Delhi and Parish Priest of St. Mary’s Church had done research on the land deals related to the Church and St. Theresa’s Parish High School. These studies are part of the foundation of this chapter as well as references elsewhere in this book about St. Mary’s Church, Delhi-6.