St. Mary’s Church - Where stones tell a tale

Anusha Parthasarathy visits St. Mary’s Church in Fort St. George and is fascinated by its over-three-century-old history

August 21, 2012 04:47 pm | Updated August 22, 2012 01:14 pm IST - Chennai

A painting of The Last Supper at The St. Mary's Church

A painting of The Last Supper at The St. Mary's Church

Just beyond the crowded Assembly building in Fort St. George is a quiet corner, surrounded by tall neem trees with dangling creepers and a metal gate with an antique lamp at the top. This is the rather quaint entrance to what is claimed to be the oldest Anglican church East of the Suez and the oldest British building in India. St. Mary’s Church is a history book in itself and every step inside seems like a step back in time.

The church is now part of the Church of South India, Diocese of Madras. The presbyter, Reverend J. Krubha Lily Elizabeth, points to a booklet on her table about the church’s history.

“The St. Mary’s church was built in 1680 when those who lived in the fort needed a place of worship. Earlier, the chaplain would conduct prayers in the dining hall or some such place.” On March 25, 1678, work on the church began under Governor Streynsham Master. As it was Our Lady’s Day, the church was named St. Mary’s Church. It is said to have been built with voluntary contributions from the English who inhabited the fort. According to the booklet, ‘It will be 80 feet long, 50 feet broad and built with 3 aisles arched with brick and stone’.

The church was consecrated on October 28, 1680, with Rev. Richard Portman and all other English inhabitants of the fort. “They say it was a beautiful day when the Governor and Chaplain headed to the church. They had lined up soldiers all the way to the entrance and people came to see the dedication service of the first Anglican church,” says Rev. Krubha, “We’ve had 112 pastors here so far and there were eight before the church was built.” The Chaplain’s House, which lies behind the church, is now a military station headquarters.

The first organ was bought in 1687 from Captain Weltden for 70 pagodas and was in use till 1718, when a new one was ordered from England. In 1761, the West Gallery was enlarged to make room for an organ. But in the beginning of the 19th Century, two new vestries were built on each side of the present chancel, thereby reducing the gallery size. The organ was removed when a new sanctuary was built in 1884. The present one, which is the fifth, dates back to1894. The present organist is John Collison.

The teak balustrade in front of the gallery dates back to the time when the church was built. The ewer was presented in 1888. The altar rails presented by the Princess of Tanjore have been replaced, but the memorial plate on the step is still there. “There is a window behind the altar where you can now see a painting of The Last Supper. The church has become synonymous with this painting whose artist is unknown. The painting is said to have come from Pondicherry in 1761.”

The church has 104 tombstones, the oldest being that of Lord Pigot dating back to 1777. The original graveyard was situated where the High Court is now, but was shifted later. When the French besieged Madras and took over the building, many of the slabs were brought to St. Mary’s Church and used to lay a pavement. In 1782, when Hyder Ali invaded Madras, the slabs were used to mount the guns around the Fort.

When the church was built, it was called the company church and remained the Presidency Church for 150 years. There have been very few changes in the church since then. The spire was added only in 1710. It then became a garrison church, serving the British regiments stationed in the fort. The British army stocked its artillery here.

The registers of baptism, marriage, death and burial have been preserved right from the time the church was consecrated. While the oldest are preserved in the Fort Museum, the rest lie in the church. The register of graves from 1680 to 1947 can be seen at the church and some plates and chalices that were presented by Elihu Yale, then Governor of Madras, a large silver basin, silver flagon and communion cup are on display at the museum.

The first marriage registered is that of Elihu Yale, after whom Yale University was named. He married Catherine Hynmers, a widow, in 1680. Robert Clive married Margaret Maskelyne at St. Mary’s Church in 1753. The visitor’s book dates back to1903 and has autographs of King George V and his queen, Mary. A new visitor’s book even has records of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit here.

It also records the visit of the Duke of York, Prince Andrew, who was here for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee special service on May 4 this year.

The Vestry committee of St. Mary’s Church was a pioneer in many aspects — setting up a charity school (which is now the St. George’s School on Poonamallee High Road), a male and female asylum, a military hospital inside the fort from which the General Hospital later developed and a library.

“I guess a lot of Madras’ history took shape here, since this is where the East India Company began its operations,” says Krubha.

Fact box

Worship continues at the CSI St. Mary’s Church, Fort St. George, with a service on Sundays 9 a.m., and a bible study on Wednesdays 7 p.m.

The church is closed to visitors on Sundays.

The present Bishop is Rt. Rev. Dr. V. Devasahayam.

The affairs of the church are administered by a committee whose chairperson is Rev. Immanuel Devakadatcham.

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