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Restoration work under way at St. Mary's Church

T.S. Subramanian

The Archaeological Survey of India (Chennai circle) is executing it

  • The oldest Protestant church in India is situated within the walls of Fort St. George in Chennai
  • 325th anniversary celebrations of the church will be held once the restoration work is over

    CONSERVING HERITAGE: Workers on the job at the St. Mary's Church in Chennai. — Photo: Vino John

    CHENNAI: St. Mary's Church — the oldest Protestant church in India which is situated within the walls of Fort St. George here — is undergoing a big restoration programme. The Archaeological Survey of India (Chennai circle) is executing it. On October 18, 2005, the St. Mary's Church entered its 325th year. Hectic work is under way to complete the restoration in January 2006.

    T. Satyamurthy, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, said that during the British rule, whenever the roof leaked, another roof was added. This had led to three-feet of overburden, which weakened the building and its arches. In the 1930s and the 1940s, a tar sheet was laid on the roof. The ASI had now removed the extra weight of the dead mortar and the tar sheet, filled the cracks, done water tightening, "restored the original double-vaulted roof, brought it to its original level and replastered it using traditional methods." An interesting aspect was that the plinth up to five feet was built of brick and mud mortar to absorb the effect of shelling. Above this level, the church had been built with brick and lime mortar.

    Arches de-plastered

    According to S. Dhandapani, Deputy Superintending Archaeological Engineer, ASI, the arches were first de-plastered because they had moisture content. Replastering was done using mortar of "kadukkai, jaggery and lime." Then lime-rendering with yolk of eggs was done to give a marble finish.

    P.S. Sriraman, Assistant Superintending Archaeologist, Fort Museum, ASI, said the Museum had on display a set of silver plates of St. Mary's Church, donated by Elihu Yale, who was Governor of Fort St. George. The Museum also had the Bible of Streynsham Master, who built the church. The Museum had two registers of the Church, containing the details of baptisms, weddings and burials that took place there, from 1680 to 1819.

    "We have completely digitised these two volumes because a lot of foreigners come here, looking for their lineage. They go through the compact disc and search for the information they want," Mr. Sriraman said.

    The Church is replete with history. Reverend Charles Herbert Malden, in his handbook to St. Mary's Church and Its Monuments published in 1905, says, "It is not only the oldest place of worship built by the English settlers in India and now in use, but it is believed to be the oldest

    British building of any kind in the whole of India."

    Voluntary subscriptions

    Streynsham Master of East India Company, who became the Governor and Commander in Chief of Fort St. George and the town of Madrasapatnam, was instrumental in building the church. He raised voluntary subscriptions to build it. According to the book, The Church in the Fort, A History of St. Mary's, published by St. Mary's Church, Church of South India, 38 persons contributed 805 pagodas or about 400 English pounds at the then rate of exchange. Streynham Master was the highest contributor with 100 pagodas.

    The construction began in 1678. On October 28, 1680, the consecration took place. The English inhabitants of the settlement were assembled in the church, and the Governor and his Council members proceeded to the sanctuary "in state, with their official roundels carried over them."

    First marriage

    The first marriage that took place in the church was that of Elihu Yale, after whom the Yale University in the U.S. is named, to Catherine Himmers on November 4, 1680. Robert Clive, who put aside the pen of a writer for the sword of a soldier to lay the foundation of the British empire in India, was married to Margaret Maskelyne on February 18, 1753 here. On August 16, 1689, Mary, Elizabeth and Katherine, daughters of Job Charnock, founder of Calcutta, were baptised in this church. The mother of these children was a beautiful Hindu widow who was rescued from a `sati' fire by Charnock.

    The Church is full of tombstones and exquisite marble monuments in memory of the Governors of Fort St. George, their wives or children. Glyn Barlow, in his book The Story of Madras, published in 1921, points out that this multitude of tombstones will make a visitor wonder how there can be sufficient room for coffins below. "As a matter of fact, the coffins and their contents are not there, and the inscriptions of `Here lyeth' and `Hic jacet' are not statements of facts. The explanation is an interesting story, which is worth the telling," he says.

    In those days, the "English Burying Place" was where the present Dr. Ambedkar Government Law College stands. By 1711, the stately tombs here were "turned into receptacles for beggars and buffaloes." Later, when the French under Count Lally besieged Madras, they used the tombs as cover for their attack on the city. After the unsuccessful siege, the English destroyed the tombs but the slabs that bore the inscriptions were laid in St. Mary's churchyard, says Barlow.

    Tony Freeman, Verger of the church, said the rededication and the 325th anniversary celebrations of the church would be held once the restoration and conservation were complete.

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