Church Down the Years
Vankola of Kole-Kalyan – Down the Centuries
Vankola, now known as Vakola was less of a village and more a hamlet and for almost three centuries, the villagers were part of Our Lady of Egypt Church (1606) at near-by Kalina founded by Fr. Manoel de Mathias, a Franciscan missionary who baptised many in the Kole Kalyan area. The entire region comprised East Indian Catholics to whom credit goes for both Kalina and Vakola Churches, as is the case with most churches in Mumbai, Vasai, Manori-Bhayendar belt, etc.
Fr. Cyril A Abreo in 1914 as Assistant Parish Priest at the Kalina church conceived a chapel for the villagers of Vankola urged them to donate for the purpose. Responding to his appeal, Mr. John Rodrigues (popularly known as Jamboo) gifted the land, but it took 7 years for the villagers to see their dream turn into reality. This was because it was World War 1 time and construction material was hard to come by. Farmers made up the bulk of the villagers and during these seven years (1914 – 1921), Mass was offered in a small hut in the village which was surrounded by vast fields. Finally, on 1 January 1921, the chapel was blessed with St. Anthony as its patron saint and affiliated to the Kalina church.
From Chapel to St. Anthony’s Church
As the number of Catholics increasing, the hierarchy felt it important to develop the village and meet the spiritual needs of the villagers. Fr. Mendes was appointed (1937) as Priest-in-charge to stay on the premises and work towards building a bigger church to accommodate the rising Catholic flock. On 1 July 1945, the full-fledged autonomous Parish of St Anthony’s, Vakola with Fr. Cyril D’Souza as the first Parish Priest of around 400 Catholic families was created.
In the late 1940s, Fr. Michael Rego, as Chaplain constructed two rooms which in 1949 became St. Anthony’s village school Fr. Simon Fernandez (1954) initiated St. Anthony’s Guild for benefit of the widows and poor. Expansion of the church was hindered because in front of it was in the midst of marshy land and in front of it was a pond. In the late 1950s, responding to appeals from the church, M/s. Vincent and George Rodrigues sponsored the cost of not only filling the pond but also building a wall around the property. Fr. Ayres Fernandes, who was Parish Priest (1957) with Fr. Cyril Noronha and Fr. Philip Lobo as assistants also simultaneously, began work to maintain the school which had creaky wooden flooring and whose classrooms had been used as the priests’ residences. By 1960, the renovation and extension of the church was complete.
Schools, Presbytery & Vatican II Council
It was only in 1963, with Msgr. Alfred Aguiar as Parish Priest that two storeyed residential premises for priest came to be. He was also responsible for building further extensions (1967) to double the size of the church, as the parish was bursting at the seams. Msgr. Alfred Aguiar recollected that this became a necessity as post Vatican Council II, there was need for the priests to face the congregation and also celebrate mass in English and other vernacular languages.
St. Anthony’s School was a co-education one and while Msgr. Nelson Mascarenhas was Parish Priest the North Wing of the School built with the three floors extended. By 1967-68, the additional floor of Presbytery was completed, and construction of a Convent House for the St. Charles nuns and a girls school was started. Msgr. Nelson Mascarenhas also initiated (1978) outreach units – one at Yogi Raj Ashram Chapel in between the Kalina and Vakola Churches and also one nearer to the railway station – Prabhu Yesu Center Chapel to cater to spiritual needs of those who did not live close to the church.
By the 1980s with Fr. Octavian Dias as Parish Priest and Fr. Leslie Macfarlane as Assistant Parish Priest, the interiors of the Church was redone to make it aesthetically appealing and also provide the right ambience for prayer and worship. During 1986 to 1993, Fr. Dennis Pereira as Parish Priest completed all pending projects. The two outreach units had chapels – one at Prabhat Colony near Santacruz Railway Station and another at Yogiraj Ashram near the University Campus spiritually catered to by the Vakola fathers.
Golden Jubilee – Landmark Consolidation
When in 1993, Fr. Vernon Aguiar was appointed as Parish Priest, it ushered in an era of landmark consolidation with multiple project to mark 50 years of the Church which was to be in 1995. Accordingly, total renovation of the Church building was taken up. The interiors now included the entire wall behind the altar being fitted with natural stone. The smaller crucifix with a crucified Jesus was replace with a 14 feet tall crucifix of the Risen Lord with arms outstretched. The altar now had Italian marble flooring and two majestic pillars rising up on either side. A picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour was installed. While parishioner, Mr. Allwyn D’cunha designed the interiors, Mr. Theo Figueredo of Pali, Bandra did the marble flooring in-lay work.
In 1995, St. Anthony’s School too added a new third floor for science labs, library, a computer room and an art room. The School Hall had granite tiles in-laid on the walls and a white marble façade for the stage. The stage was also redesigned to have 4 wings and 3 curtains with improved lighting and shifting backdrops to enhance performances on it. A new hi-tech sound system was put in place adding to the AV experience. The entrance was redone and grey marble tiles beautified the stairways. This was done by Mr. Bosco Fernandes of Girgaum, assisted by parishioners, Mr. Felix D’souza and Mr. Anthony Paul D’souza was responsible for modifications and stage construction.
Fr. Felix & Team
The Church today, with the coming in of Fr. Felix D’souza as Parish Priest has undergone radical changes to make it cost-efficient and also improve the church-goers experience. All ceiling mounted fans have been replaced with 2 large HVL solar fans, projectors and LED screens installed and a beautifully redesigned grotto outside.
St. Anthony’s Goes Hi-Tech – Rising to a Higher Level
Post 2016 with the appointment of Fr. Felix D’souza as Parish Priest and supported by an equally enthusiastic and co-operative parish team, St. Anthony’s took off to another level. It went energy-efficient with large HVL solar power fans replacing the hanging ceiling ones. These are not only cost-saving but also environment friendly. In order to improve the church attendees experience and facilitate worship; projectors, LED screens and audio-visual equipment were installed. The Drama and Theater Ministry was started and Communications Cell was empowered to create and publish content. The parish Facebook and YouTube social media channels started to be effectively used as online platforms. In March 2018, thanks to Fr. Nasli Reporter, the St. Anthony’s App was launched.
The Eucharistic Adoration Chapel was completely renovated. A revolving statue of St. Anthony and Mother Mary was placed at the Church entrance and a statue of Jesus welcoming all was placed on the top of the Church, making it visible to general public. A huge Last Supper statue found its place into the Church too. The grotto was beautifully redesigned and CCTVs surveillance protected the premises with bright lights liting up the church compound. A shed outside the Church was erected to accommodate the outstanding Catholics and chairs placed for them to comfortably attend Church services.
The Bridgettine Congregation of our parish observed the canonization (5 June 2016) of St. Maria Elizabeth Hesselblad, their founder by Pope Francis with a Special Mass on 6 August 2016 with His Eminence, Cardinal Oswald Gracious as main celebrant and Fr. Felix D’Souza, Fr. Joseph Pimenta and Fr. Angelo Lobo as concelebrants. Fr. Lawrence D’Souza joined in the celebrations too.
In 2017, there were four major activities taken up:
1. Clean Vakola – a project to identfy dirty areas of the parish, click photos and bring it to the notice of the municipal corporator. At least one of them responded by increasing garbage collection in the area.
2. Healthcare Guild
The data of health-related professionals from our parish, like doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, yoga trainers, dieticians and athletic trainers were collated zone wise. Invites were sent out to these professionals for meeting to which 20 professionals responded and decided to form a group and work to support the church.
3. Care Centre for Senior Citizens
A centre for 50+ years parishioners with a healthy lifesty was launched on the ground floor of Rajesh Park on 15 August 2017. It functions Monday to Saturday twice daily. The charges to use the equipment are nominal to defray the monthly expenses incurred. Fr. Felix, being ever so thoughtful, felt this was the need of the hour as nearly 43% of our Parishioners are senior citizens in this group.
4. Herbal Garden
A Herbal Garden on the left side of the small entrance of the church was started. Two banners giving details of these herbal and medicinal plants and their uses were at the entrance of the compound wall. Having these plants at home makes things much simpler and easier as naturopathy or for home remedies. The aim of this garden is to encourage parishioners to grow these plants in their homes
and have a healthy lifestyle.
The parish put together three musical dramas – Life-giver Jesus Christ (March 2018), Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat (December 2018), while The Parish Pastoral Council members had NLP session held and were sent for training.
St. Anthony’s church, Vakola, along with the Archdiocesan Centre for Social Action (CSA) offered the church premises to tribal groups from the Raigad district to sell their fresh, out-of-the-farm produce. On 10th December 2018, in addition to their own products, these tribals were guided by CSA to buy fresh vegetables, nachni flour and other homemade products from their neighbouring tribal self-help groups and sell them in the city. This experience sowed seeds of entrepreneurship among the tribals, who exclaimed they had not earned so much money at a time in their lives. The ever patronizing parishioners opened their hearts not only in welcoming them, but also purchasing and supporting this noble cause of – Food for the tribals and food for your soul by reaching out.
A Musical – Love Is… was staged in December 2019. The Diocesan Youth Council (DYC) Youth Festival – YOUTSAV 2019 on 8th December was also hosted in the parish. St. Anthony’s High School hosted the H Ward Science Exhibition from 3 – 5 December 2019. During this year, the following major activities were undertaken:
1. Van Service for the Physically Challenged
For those who would love to attend Mass but could not come to Church due to ill health or handicap, the new initiative ensured they were not deprived of attending Mass. A van service with flexible timings was introduced every Saturday evening and Sunday morning. The eight-seater van was also utilized for the New Year’s Eve service, the Mass for the sick and homebound, Ash Wednesday and feast days.
2. Antonian Harmony Club
On 17 January 2019, the Antonian Harmony Club, a Music Learning Outreach was started. The project was born of the perceived need whereby, even with a wealth of musical talent in our parish, many would find it difficult to afford a musical instrument or commercial music classes. Generous donors contributed to a initial pool of musical instruments – 3 keyboards and 5 guitars to start with. Musically gifted parishioners readily and enthusiastically volunteered to teach. The classes have progressed well with close to 60 students to begin with learning the keyboard, guitar and drums.
3. Asha Kiran Completes 25 Years
The Community Centre of the Parish celebrated its Silver Jubilee on March 19, 2019. Fr. Lancy Pinto, the Chief Guest spoke highly about the functioning of the Centre and encouraged our women to actively participate in all activities which were beneficial to them and also helped other downtrodden to come up in life
4. Employment Bureau Service
Finding a good job is truly difficult. We may have years of experience under our belt, academic records to back us, but the right opportunity at the right time is something we all look out for. Most of the time, our direction may not be right. This often is a concern for the employer too, as finding the right candidate could be a task in itself. The Employment Bureau of St. Anthony’s Church Vakola tries to bridge this gap. It is working on a database of job-seekers and personnel managers or employers.
2020 – 2021 COVID Witness
St. Anthony’s Outshines During the Pandemic – One would have expected the corona virus to have dampened the spirits in Vakola, rather far from it, the parish team and religious with lay collaborators rose valiantly to the challenge. Bishop Allwyn D’Silva’s CHURCH ON THE FRONTLINE (Episode 12) records the accomplishments as highlighted by Fr. Felix D’souza, leading from the front. According to him, when it became clear to all concerned in March 2020 itself that churches would have to be closed for some time, the parish fathers and religious decided that parishioners could not be deprived of their spiritual needs. Besides, St. Anthony’s being a vibrant parish with many activities, there was need to maintain a connect and take the church to parishioners homes via the internet.
Bishop Allwyn D’silva describes it as a holistic, creative and meaningful witness that touched the lives of thousands, especially those suffering and the marginalized. Fr. Felix D’souza said Pope Francis’ reflection inspired him. At the start itself, the Holy Father said the pandemic was a storm in which all were caught-up wondering when it would end. The pandemic according to him had put all of us in a tomb closeted from each other and there was need to roll the tombstone for a resurrection. The issue was who would bell the cat? The church needed to rise and be the one to roll the tombstone by using its gifts, talents, resources, charisms… to become alive to our parishioners.
Accordingly, three areas for action were identified:
1. Worship – The Church’s primary responsibility remained the spiritual welfare of its flock. Holy Mass was live streamed and remains so to date. Prayer services, including Rosary, Holy Hours, Taize Meditation, Feast Novenas and those for special intentions like students preparing for exams, dealing with emotional and mental stress, etc. Even Sunday School and Confirmation Catechism Classes were held on Zoom and all sections of the parishioners were connected online. The audience response was enthusiastic which spurred the parish on.
2. Programs – St. Anthony’s being a very large parish, most parishioners throughout the year participate in its activities. The team wanted to continue their involvement through virtual platforms to keep their spirit from dying out. Unique online events for kids, young, working adults and even senior citizens were organized. Faith Academy for children, the youth had virtual interaction with experts on skill development and how to face post-COVID times. Adults and Senior Citizens were tutored on health issues and lifestyle diseases. There was online entertainment by parishioners and by parishioners regularly through out the lock-down. There was also a mental health counsellor available with a helpline on mobile to assist.
3. Outreach – Humanitarian gestures of relief through free distribution of rations and essential supplies to the jobless, down-trodden and families with COVID patients had many thanking St. Anthony’s for the kindness. With salary cuts and unemployment electricity or even rent bills could not be paid and here also the Church stepped in. Many families could not buy drugs or medicines, which is when the parish tied-up with certain chemists and bore the expenses. Institutions like Asha Kiran, the community center, WIN Home and other religious pitched in to get police permissions, co-ordinate hospital admissions, run a community fridge and even buy machinery to empower women and supplement the household income.
Fr. Felix puts it well when he says – The power of the Lord was felt. Truly, lock-down did not lock the Lord’s presence in the hearts and was made real to our parishioners.