For some obscure misguided reason, I was under the assumption Camp [the Cantonment] area in Pune would be just one road. To add to it, my rather simplistic imagination envisioned Pune’s famed historical churches, built to serve the then Poona’s British Raj gentry, to be standing sentinel on both sides of it in a homogenous line. I could not be more wrong.
After being driven through a maze of wide, empty streets on a Sunday morning, I found myself dropped outside a poker faced, art deco facade by a cab driver with the announcement, “Old church.” Before I could ask or argue he had sped away, and there was I in the slowly rising heat, wondering, my brows raised towards the heavens, where the hell was I?
Almost, as if in answer, a woman with a beaming smile stepped out and wanted to know what I was looking for. Her name was Sheeba Reuben Deshmukh, a counsellor and committee member of the Oldham Methodist Church, the church I had been dropped at.
I explained to her I was a blogger from Mumbai and exploring Pune that weekend.
“Have you been to St. Mary’s?”
“Nope.” [I racked my brains in an effort to try and place it amongst the scores of articles I had pored over the night before.]
“Okay, go straight, then turn right, and at the crossroads … Forget it, let me take you there.” And just like that, with a warm smile and cheerful chatter, she walked with me through wide boulevards flanked by sumptuous villas, past Pune’s iconic schools to an ethereal powder-blue edifice dating back to 1825.
“This is St. Mary’s Church in Camp!”
I had to blink hard. In less than a few random street turns I had been transported back in time to a different era and world.
Left: St. Mary’s Church’s distinctive powder-blue bell tower is topped with a spire rising 103 feet high; Right: The pipe organ inside is the second oldest surviving organ of its kind in India and was imported from England in 1869
The year was 1817. To support its transition from trade to colonial rule started in 1757, the British East India Company had set up a large military base in then Poona. A church to meet the military personnel and rapidly increasing civilian populace’s spiritual needs was the inevitable next step.
St. Mary’s Church was subsequently built in the early-1820s by Lieutenant Nash of the British East India Company’s Engineers and consecrated on 3 July, 1825. Referred to as “The Mother Church of the Deccan” by the Metropolitan of the then Anglican Communion in India, it is the oldest surviving Anglican church in mid-Western India and seats 1,000 worshippers.
In 1970, the Anglican Church in Northern India joined the union of the Church of North India (CNI). St. Mary’s, by default, came under the CNI banner but it continued to carry out its old traditions as well: Worship services are currently in English and held in both the Anglican and CNI formats. On Sundays, these are followed with Contemporary Service.
Post a series of introductions and welcomes by the pastor and members of the various fellowships, supplemented with vivid narratives of the church’s star attractions, I seated myself in one of the front pews. The Contemporary Service was on and a group of young jeans-clad men were singing worship music to the accompaniment of drums, electric guitars, and key boards et al. I had never heard anything like this before.
It was an eclectic mix. 21st Century musical notes and 200-year-old stained glass windows. Gravestones spanning two centuries and the living, hugging and sharing in the life of the church, within its walls. People of different cultures, regions, professions, languages, and backgrounds unified by a common belief and worship.
I am not a Christian. I am an Arya Samaji by birth and secular and spiritual by practice. I was in many respects, one may claim, an outsider and non-believer in St. Mary’s Church. Yet, the warmth of all I met did not diminish one bit. They welcomed me into their community like I was one of their own.
As I was about to pack my camera gear, my new found friend, Sheeba gently slipped a note into my hands: “Thank you for worshipping with us today and we look forward to you joining us in worship again! God bless you!”
I hugged her goodbye, richer for the lovely structure, lilting voices and genuine warm welcome to Christ’s home in Pune.
Come browse my photo essay on St. Mary’s Church in Camp’s many wondrous treasures. I hope you find them equally lovely as I did. ❤
Left: Detail, pipe organ. Till recently the organ was in use in all church services. It is currently shut down for repairs and restoration to it’s former glory by UK experts at a cost of around Rs. 3 million. It will start playing in a couple of months once again; Right: Gravestone of Sir Robert Grant, Governor of Bombay and author of the hymn “O Worship the King”
Sheeba Reuben Deshmukh: If it wasn’t for her I don’t know if I would have got to visit St. Mary’s Church, and even if I did, I doubt I would have got to see and know it the way I did above. Thank you, Sheeba.
- Address: St. Mary’s Church (CNI), 1-A Sholapur Road, Camp, Pune – 411001.
- Contemporary Service is held at 10:30 am on Sundays.
- If possible try make your visit on a Sunday so as to capture the church’s warm community vibe.