Today, December 27, is the feast of the church of Nossa Senhora De Penha De França. The church is replete with architectural details that tell us stories of the past. It was recently reopened for services after going through another cycle of renovation
Maria de Lourdes Bravo da Costa Rodrigues
The beautiful and imposing Church of Our Lady of Penha de França is visible to the onlooker from distance. Those travelling on the Panaji-Ribandar causeway cannot miss it. It is perched on a rock just above the river. It has been reopened for liturgical services on December 14 this year, after having undergone restoration work under the guidance of parish priest Fr Mathew Fernandes.
Britona in Serula has the honour of having the only church in Goa, and probably in Asia, devoted to Our Lady of Penha de França. The village of Serula was the biggest village of Bardez Taluka which had three parishes namely: the Our Lady of Socorro, Socorro, Salvador do Mundo, Salvador do Mundo and Our Lady of Penha de Franca at Britona, besides having a number of chapels.
Mother Mary is known by different invocations and these are related to different happenings and places where she had appeared around the world. A steep mountain called Penha de França existed in the province of Salamanca, in Spain, where the first chapel was built.
The devotion to Our Lady of Penha de França later spread not only in Spain but was also carried to Portugal and Brazil. Philippines and Mexico have one church each in her honour. According to Filipe Neri Xavier in Bosquejo Historico das Comunidades, and the Anuario da Arquidiocese de Goa e Damao of 1933 and 1955, the church was built in her honour by Ana de Azevedo widow of Cristovão De Sousa who took the habit of the Third Order of Our seraphic father of St Francis of Assisi, following her husband’s death. The church was constructed in 1626 at her cost. She donated her house, properties, and coconut groves which are situated near the church by a gift deed dated December 14, 1629. However, within 26 years the church building collapsed. A new one was built from the foundation in 1655 by the Franciscans’ ex-provincial Fr Manuel do Lado.
According to the historian, Paulo Varela Gomes, the church is potentially one of Goa’s most interesting examples of religious architecture. However, he raises doubts about the period when the church was built. According to him, the façade is crowned by polygonal towers, which only appeared in Goa’s architecture in the project for the Franciscans’ mother church dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi in Old Goa, built in the 1660s and following decades. The building also has a vault covering both the chancel and the nave itself, which is very rare in parish churches. These are barrel vaults with penetrations, a roof type which only seems to have been disseminated in Goan architecture after the 1650s, due to influence from the Jesuit and Theatine projects in Old Goa. He concludes that either the Church of Penha da França constituted an experimental model of Franciscan architecture or the 1655 date put forward for the project until now is mistaken. Except for the crown, the church’s main façade follows the traditional Franciscan model, with a large galilee (a porch or a chapel) at the base opened by three arches (the central one larger than the other two).
It is a large sized church with 3 bays and 3 storeys. The frontispiece has swan-neck pediment, with coupled pilasters at corners. There are consoles for cornices at all levels and twin octagonal bell turrets with ball filials. There is a staircase in two sections which descends to the riverbank and the quay that was formerly the church’s main access.
Inside, the building has a single nave with no side chapels, as well as a false transept and a high choir supported by the galilee. The Church has a beautiful main altar with Our Lady of Penha de França’s full size statue with the Infant in her right hand. There are another four altars, two each on either sides of the main altar dedicated to Our Lady of Piedade, to Jesus, Our Lady of Rosary and to St Francis Xavier. The old rectory building is to the south, joined by a patio. To the north is the courtyard ground where the church’s side is treated as a sumptuous façade element, as often occurs in Goa, via a system of windows with pediments and a double order of pilasters. The ground level of this court is lower than the church; access to the north side door is by a staircase with two facing sections, as at the main entrance.
By decree no1360 dated March 31,1932 the church was declared a National Museum. A grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, was built in front of the church and blessed on February 11, 1932.
(The masses will be at 7 a.m. and the feast mass will be at 9.30 a.m.)