Luz Church, built in 1516, is not only the oldest church in the city but also one of the oldest European monuments in the country.
Chennai is synonymous with temples and every tourism brochure highlights its legendary temple architecture, the intricate carvings of its pillars and its many urban legends, apart from the usual sights and sounds that are unique to this city of organised chaos.
But not many are aware that it is also home to some of the country's oldest churches that have survived time and remain unsung reminders of multiple cultural influences: Dutch, Scottish, Portuguese and British.
Tucked away in a narrow lane behind St. Isabel's hospital in Mylapore is The Church of Our Lady of Light, commonly known as Luz Church. Atop its archway, clearly marked, is the year of its founding: 1516. Locally called ‘Katu Koil' or ‘Forest Shrine', it is the city's oldest-known Church.
There is a certain calming silence around this monument, perhaps in respect to the many buried within its grounds. On its south wall is the stone inscription in Portuguese which translates as “Friar Pedro de Antongia built this in 1516” – the evidence that it is 500 years old.
On the entrance steps, on the altar and on the walls surrounding it – there are tombs everywhere, inscribed in stone and marble. Most date back to the early 1800s. The sanctum sanctorum itself is surrounded by ochre swirls and leaves, flowers of gold and silver. And in the middle stands the Our Lady of Light statue.
In 1500 AD, eight Franciscan Friars set sail from Lisbon with Pedro Alvares Cabral's fleet (he was a Portuguese military commander who was said to have discovered Brazil). They landed in Calicut, where three of the friars were slain. The others reached Cochin and began to spread the word of Christ.
They sailed south to spread their message, thus establishing the Cochin-Malacca (the Malaccan fort was built in 1511 by the Portuguese) sea route. “This route was extensively used but was long and the Portuguese wanted a rest stop on the eastern coast. They found a small lake connecting to the Bay of Bengal, where they could dock and take their goods to shore. It was Pulicat. They established a church in Pulicat in 1515, and called it the Church of Our Lady of Glory,” says Father L.C. Rayanna, Parish Priest, Church of Our Lady of Light.
Legend has that as they were sailing to Pulicat a year later, a storm carried them away and they were lost. The friars prayed and were suddenly drawn to a bright light which led them safely to land. They had reached the shores of Mylapore. “They followed the light to a clearing in the forest. Inspired, the friars built a church at that very spot and named it Nossa Senhora da Luz or Church of Our Lady of Light, in 1516,” he explains. The church was constructed in Baroque style. As the forest gradually disappeared and made way for a bustling neighbourhood, the area around the church came to be called ‘Luz', the Portuguese word for ‘light'.
The Luz Church was damaged between 1662 and 1673, when the Golconda forces occupied it. When Hyder Ali ransacked Luz Santhome between 1780 and 1782, the church came under attack. Later, the East India Company too occupied the Luz Parish Residence for a few years.
Luz Church, the first church in the city and the second on the east coast to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is still referred to as ‘Katu Koil' by many in the area. An unbroken list of vicars and parish priests of the Luz Church from 1787 has been preserved in the church records.