The Panjim Church, situated on the slope of the Conceicao Hill, with its majestic stairway in the middle of the magnificent Church Square in the heart of Goa’s capital attracts hordes of tourists who visit Goa. The Church is dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. It has a rich history and was originally one of the six “hermitages”(ermidas) constructed by Portuguese craftsmen. The Panjim ermida which was the first one, was upgraded to a Parochial Church in the year 1600 by the Archbishop Don Frei Alexio de Menezes. After several years, a need was felt to have a bigger Church as the original hermitage was not sufficient for the increasing Catholic population of the town. So it was decided to extend the capacity of the Church by rebuilding it from its foundations. The new Church built was inaugurated in the year 1619 by the Archbishop of Goa, Frei Cristovao Sa e Lisboa.The Panjim Church may look big but practically it has a sitting capacity for not more than 400 persons.
At a stone’s throw from the ermida was the famous College of St Thomas Aquinas of the Dominican Order where students studied Philosophy, Theology, Languages and the Arts. Unfortunately, the area surrounding the college was infested with poisonous cobras that caused the death of several members of the Order. So they had to transfer, just before the Panjim ermida was upgraded to the status of a Church. When the Church was constructed, the entire area occupied by Panjim was a part of the village of Taleigao. Before Panjim was officially declared as a separate city, the area existing in front of the Panjim Church at the foot of the hillock was a paddy field with a few huts and ponds. This area has now been developed into the Church Square.
The Panjim Church had its own cemetery behind the Church on a hillock which had to be transferred as the hillock needed to be excavated for the construction of a road that would shorten the distance between Church Square and 31st January Road leading to the famous “Fontainhas”.
Since the hill needed to “cut” the quaint little road behind the Church is known as “Corte de Oiteiro” (In Portuguese “Corte” means cut and “Oiteiro” means hill).The graves of some of the people buried on the eve of the transfer of the old cemetery are still on the top of the hill behind the Church and the last person rumoured to have been buried there is a European soldier who committed suicide. Even after the graveyard was transferred, every Monday before 8 o’clock mass the Priest and members of the congregation would perform blessing of the site that used to be the graveyard. At the entrance of the “Corte de Oiteiro” road near the base of the main Church stairway there is a “Poco de Ossos”(well) where the unclaimed bones from the graveyard used to be thrown. That well is still known as “Addanchi bhain”.In fact whenever there was shortage of water in the area, some people used to draw water from this well for domestic consumption! It was only recently when the water from this well was found to be contaminated that this practice was stopped.
There are three stairways leading up to the Church besides one motorable road Calcada Padre Rosa. The main stairway was constructed in 1870 by trimming the front part of the hillock. It was arranged artistically by constructing angled platforms which gave a majestic view of the whole city. This magnificent stairway is known as “Escadaria de Igreja” .On the second last platform of the main stairway is a pedestal on which is a big marble statue of Our Lady with the pedestal also serving as a pulpit for mass on occasion.
What captures everybody’s attention at the centre of the Church’s façade is the huge bell that is reportedly the second largest in Goa weighing 2250 kilos –the biggest bell lies in the Se Cathedral in Old Goa. The bell was originally used at the lighthouse in Aguada to ring the hours for the benefit of ships .The bell was brought to the Panjim Church in the year 1874.It took several years to get the bell fixed as there was a need to reinforce the façade. It was also said that during the operations to fix the bell, two workmen lost their lives.
The interiors of the Church are magnificently decorated with ornate paintings and carvings with the majestic ceiling providing a treat for the eyes. The Pia Baptismal at the entrance if the Church with its intricate carvings, artistic tiling and embellishments was used for infant baptisms over the years. The floor of the Church is dotted with graves of eminent personalities and Church benefactors. The pulpit from which Mass was said is opposite to the altar of the Sacred Heart as mass in the olden days used to be said with the priest facing his back to the audience. The side altars are fully gold plated with the beautiful statues of angels holding a crown. The old organ in the Choir area was brought to Goa from Portugal in 1890 and has been at the Church for over a century.
The eminent Parish Priests who have looked after the Church over the last hundred years have their portraits hanging in the Old Hall of the Church. Father Antonio da Rosa was Vicar for 16 years. “Padre Rosa” as he is remembered was very strict and once famously refused to administer the sacrament of Holy Communion to a lady who had attended church in a short sleeved blouse! We have to remember that those days were more conservative and a certain dress etiquette was maintained. Father Claudio de Sa in 1943 started the famous procession of the candles-Procissao de Velas where on 13th October every year the statue of Our Lady of Fatima is brought down the hill from the Bishop’s House to the Panjim Church along the beautiful Altinho road providing a majestic spectacle of music, light and colour.
The Panjim Church still stands tall over Panjim City to this day and provides a beautiful backdrop with its legends and mysteries attracting tourists from around the world.