The Rheims Cathedral of our country

You don’t need a passport, visa or ticket to France to see the Rheims Cathedral. Just go as far as Idaikattur.

Our French connection is not restricted to former colonies presently in the Union Territory of Puducherry, as most Indians think. A visit to the village of Idaikattur on the Rameswaram highway will show you the Sacred Heart Church, a tall edifice with huge towers that is the exact replica of the Rheims Cathedral in France.

The history of the church dates back to the 19thcentury. In 1866, Idaikattur Parish was established and a St. James Church was constructed in a thatched shed. In 1886, Fr. Ferdinandus Celle assumed charge as the parish priest and wanted to construct a proper building for the church. With this mission, he went to France to collect funds.

Meanwhile, Mary Anne, an Anglican living in France, was suffering from an acute heart disease. After much medication and treatment, she could not find a solution to her problem. On the request of a Roman Catholic, Mary Anne prayed to Jesus Christ at the Sacred Heart Church and was cured.

On hearing the mission of Fr. Ferdinandus Celle, Mary Anne wanted to donate money but she wanted the priest to construct a Sacred Heart Church at Idaikattur that would be a replica of the Rheims Cathedral. He accepted the condition.

When the construction work started, Fr. Ferdinandus accidentally encroached on a piece of temple land on the northern side of the church. Though he was ready to purchase the land, villagers refused and wanted the land back. So the issue was taken to court.

After six long years, a three-man commission was appointed to resolve the issue. On the night before the men left Madras for Idaikattur, the chief of the commission had a dream in which he saw hundreds of angels constructing a building. Next day, he was surprised to see the church at Idaikattur, the same building he had seen in his dream.

The chief of the commission spoke to villagers and told them about the dream and angels involved in construction work. The convinced villagers donated more lands for construction of the church.

The church is built in the Gothic style and has a vaulted roof supported by columns with cantilevers. These columns are connected to a circular terracotta ring with openings. There is a hollow space between the roofs with small openings that lets the air circulate.

“The whole structure was constructed by local masons who saw the model of the Rheims Cathedral,” says Fr. Saminathan, the parish priest.

“The real wonder is that the church has a foundation of only three feet depth,” he says. “Recently we gave support to the 118-year-old church building by erecting two beams.”

Another unusual feature of the church is the statue of Sacred Heart Jesus Christ. Paintings and statues of Christ usually show his heart at the centre of the chest. At Idaikattur, the statue shows the heart on the left side of the chest. The Christ is highly embellished with golden crown and silk robes. “It is believed that there are three statues with these above-mentioned features in the world,” says Fr. Saminathan. “Two are in France and one at Idaikattur.”

To mark the dream in which angels built the church, Fr. Ferdinandus placed statues and paintings of 153 angels in and around the walls of the church. The number also symbolises nine (1+5+3=9) choir angels. The church houses statues of St. Paul, St. Peter and other apostles, St. Ignatius and other saints, and guardian angels. It contains statues of Pieta (Mother of Sorrow) on the right side of the altar and the Holy Family and Mary as a child with her mother Anne on the left side. “All the statues and paintings are brought from France and they are as old as the church,” says Fr. Saminathan.

Stained glass paintings and statues depicting important events are displayed, including the baptism of Jesus Christ, beheading of St. John De Britto, the death of St. Joseph and the resurrection.

Relics of 40 saints are contained in four wooden boxes kept on the altar. The tomb of Fr. Ferdinandus Celle stands on the right side of the altar. A 118-year-old ‘Monstrans for Eucharistic adoration’, brought from France, resembles the front elevation of the church.

Friday masses are popular. On the first Friday of every month mass and prayer service are held to mitigate all problems. On the second and third Fridays, services are held to address problems with children, marriage and health. Mass on the fourth Friday is dedicated to studies and employment. Holy mass is also arranged on prior request. The church plans to construct an exhibition room to display all donations made to the Lord, similar to the one at Velankanni Shrine.

Commuting to this interior village, which is 1.5 km from Muthanendal, is quite a task for devotees. “If the railway authorities could stop the trains that pass by, it would lessen their burden,” says Fr. Saminathan.

The church authorities have made repeated request for a stop on the existing track. “But I do not know when it will happen,” says devotee Dhanalakshmi. “The Lord must decide.”