St. Joseph’s Church in Perumpannaiyur with its rich past awaits renovation.

The Saint Joseph’s Church in Perumpannaiyur is a magnificent one, but details about the early history of the family that built the Church are sketchy.

The story begins in the late 1500s in a village in South Arcot district, where lived a rich Udayar family. The head of the family was the friend of an influential Palayakaran (Poligar), who often came to the Udayar household to play chess. Little did the Udayar know that he was nurturing a snake in the grass.

The story of the Udayar family

The Udayar had a little girl who would sit on her father’s lap as he played chess with his friend. When the little girl attained marriageable age, the Poligar asked for her hand in marriage and threatened to carry her away, if the Udayar refused. Unwilling to give his daughter in marriage to the old Poligar, Udayar left the village one night. But the Poligar, hearing of this, chased them, and was on the verge of catching up with them. The girl then told her family that she would rather die than marry the old man, and begged them to kill her. Left with no choice, her father killed her. When the Poligar found that the girl was dead, he no longer troubled the Udayars. But the family did not want to go back to the village which held such bitter memories. So they moved to Ayyampettai, and later to Kovilpattu. This was around 1601 A.D. At that time, the village of Kovilpattu belonged to a Mudaliar, who mortgaged his lands to the Udayar, who cultivated the lands. The Mudaliar was unable to redeem his property, and thus the entire village of Kovilpattu came into the possession of the Udayar family. The head of the Udayar family later purchased land in Perumpannaiyur, near the village of Semmangudi, and moved there. In course of time he became rich.

Sometime in the 18 century, one branch of the family converted to Christianity. In 1867, Sinnu Udayar, a descendant of this Christian branch of the family, came into possession of vast acres of land and two lakhs in cash, upon the death of his father. With all the wealth at his disposal, his thoughts turned towards building a church in Perumpannaiyur. A Catholic priest from the Puducherry mission suggested that the church should be so tall that it should be seen from a distance. And indeed, the Saint Joseph’s Church at Perumpannaiyur stands tall, at a height of about 110 ft. and Rev. Father Pecheur, from Puducherry, was present to give his blessings when the foundation was laid.

Reverend Father Aloysius of Puducherry helped Sinnu draw the plan for the Church, and to gather materials for building the church. In 1871, the foundation was laid.

In 1873, Sinnu donated land for the upkeep of the church and for a cemetery. Later Sinnu’s nephew Periasami Udayar executed a document endorsing his uncle’s gifts to the Church.

In 1877, Sinnu purchased a harmonium for the church for 500 rupees, and had it sent to Puducherry, from where it was sent by boat to Karaikkal. In 1879, he bought a bell, weighing two tonnes, made by Grouzel Hildebrand Foudeur in France. The bell cost Rs. 1,400. It took four able-bodied men to pull the rope to ring the bell. The church took 14 years to build but Sinnu did not live to see its completion. Initially the church was administered by the Puducherry diocese, later by the Kumbakonam diocese and is now under the Thanjavur diocese. The Church is an architectural treasure hidden away in a remote village. With its massive proportions, inverted wine glass dome, arched colonnades, rich woodwork, intricate detailing and its frescos, it seems as if some European church has been magically transported to this village in Southern Tamil Nadu.

The imposing church has, however, developed cracks and one can see the growth of vegetation on the walls and the roof. Father Gerard, who is in charge, says that restoration work is being planned. Conservation architect Sakthi Murugan, who is also a member of INTACH, has been asked for an assessment of the repairs required and the probable cost.

Use of cement

Sakthi Murugan says, “A portion of the lime plastering will have to be sent for analysis to check what materials were used. In some cases the resin from vilva fruits was used and even coconut fibre was used.” Why was coconut fibre used? “The advantage of a fibrous material is that it will hold the mortar together and help preserve its integrity.”

He points to cement plastering in some portions of the wall as proof that some renovation work must have taken place in the 1930s or 40s. How does he fix the date of renovation?

“Although cement was manufactured in Porbandar, Gujarat, in the early years of the 20 century, the use of cement was not known to masons here in Tamil Nadu. However, wherever there were strong Christian missions, cement was used in churches and other mission buildings even in the 1940s and 1950s. One can see proof of this in places such as Tuticorin and Palayamkottai. So there is reason to believe that the Perumpannaiyur Church also might have been renovated around this time. As part of the restoration work, this cement, which was a later addition, must be scraped off and lime plastering done again.”

Near the church are the houses of the Udayar family which built this church and endowed it with property. The houses, sold, remain locked. As for the church, funds are required for restoration. Those interested in contributing may contact Father Gerard at 9443104370.