Restoration Work at the Saint Anthony’s Church at Pallieri, Thanjavur, is under way.
Pallieri is a small village, three kilometers from Thanjavur, and separated from Thanjavur by a jungle stream called Mudalaimuttu Vaari. “During summer, the villagers would walk across the dry bed of the stream. But when it rained, the village would be cut off from Thanjavur, for there was no bridge across the stream, until the 1990s,” recalls 60-year-old Philomena, who has lived in Pallieri all her life, and has taught in the elementary school there. And yet this tiny village has an important place in the history of the Roman Catholic Church in Thanjavur.
In the centenary souvenir (1967) of the Sacred Heart Church, Thanjavur, there is a reference to Pallieri.
It was this reference to Pallieri that made A. John Joseph, retired audit officer, Indian Audit Department, set out on a search to unravel details about the historicity and antiquity of the Saint Anthony’s Church at Pallieri. John Joseph, who is from Pallieri, says he was guided in his research by Reverend Father Edward Jagannathan, S.J., assistant director, Jesuit Archives, Shenbaganoor, Kodaikanal. John Joseph cites evidence to show that the Church must have been built in the 1700s, around the time when Veeramamunivar was in Elakkurichi.
In 1845, Father Claude Bedin was sent to take charge of South Thanjavur, and he wanted the Catholic Church to grow in strength. Fortunately, he was able to buy a land in Thanjavur, from a rich Christian. He had, however, to make his moves carefully, to prevent his detractors from thwarting him. He moved palm fronds, ropes and timber to Pallieri, much to the mystification of everyone. On April 14, 1846, in the dead of night, Father Bedin moved men and materials from Pallieri to the site which he had bought in Thanjavur. The men from Pallieri worked through the night and the next morning a thatched church, which could accommodate 2000 persons had taken shape.
Those opposed to Father Bedin appealed to the British Collector, Sir Henry Montgomery to intervene, but there was nothing the collector could do, for the land had been bought by Father Bedin and he was well within his rights to build anything he chose on the land. And so the ‘pandal’ church was allowed to stand, and in course of time was replaced by the Sacred Heart Church. Thus it was that the little village of Pallieri played an important role in the construction of the Cathedral in Thanjavur.
In course of time, the Pallieri Church, where generations of people had worshipped, developed cracks and water began to seep in. The Bishop of Thanjavur, most Reverend Dr. M. Devadass Ambrose, has taken great interest in the history of the Pallieri Church, and also in repairing it.
Conservation architect Sakthi Murugan, is repairing the Church. He shows the materials used for the purpose. For plastering, he is using hydraulic lime, which is in the process of being slaked. Where there are huge cracks, he is using stones as stress stoppers. But before fixing cracks, one has to diagnose the reason for it, so that the problem does not recur.
Sakthi’s guess was that there must have been a water body close to the Church, which might have caused the huge cracks in the building. “In clayey soil, when a building is close to a water body, uneven settlement causes a portion of the building to sink and to get detached a little.” However, Sakthi noticed that there was no water body near the Church. Persistent enquiries with some of the old timers in the village, however, revealed that there had indeed been a pond behind the Church many years ago and that it had been filled up. By way of abundant caution, Sakthi is taking steps to ensure that any future water stagnation in the silted up pond does not cause damage to the church.
The little church with its barrel vaulted roof is slowly being restored. But when the work is finally done, it would have been well worth the effort, for while the Church may be small, its history is big.