History & Culture

Stained glass, teak pews & prayers

A view of St. Marks Church at Podanur in Coimbatore. Photo: M. Periasamy   | Photo Credit: M_PERIASAMY

The Battle of Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia (1915) was one of the earliest which British India fought in World War I. Nuzzled behind the Podanur Railway station and shadowed by tamarind trees centuries old, CSI St. Marks Church remembers the Battle through a white marble plaque. In honour of fallen soldier, Peter O’Niell, the engraving says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John XV - 13 Verse.”

Seated on teak pews, feet against the cold terracotta floor, and with the silence of a 94-year-old church for company, it is easy to eavesdrop on the memories of bygone generations. They resonate from all around the unpainted brick walls. The Biblical assurance is whispered once again. This time, from above the altar, through a stain-glass window shipped from England after the War. A wounded soldier rests beneath clouds separating him from a risen Christ who welcomes him with open arms. It reads, “In memories of those who died in the Great War 1914-1918.”

Tudor style

Back then, Podanur was home to British Railway officials, the Anglican Christians among whom worshipped at All Souls Church, Race Course. The community soon expanded and began a separate fellowship housed in the Railway Building which they later outgrew. The Railways then built St. Marks Church within its premises, designed in the traditional Tudor T-church style and constructed with Malabar red bricks imported from Kerala. A truss of teak rafters hoists the sloping tiled roof and flying buttresses support walls which rise toward pointed arches.

While the inaugural plaque of St. Marks dates back to 1918, records of marriages and burials are signed from 1910, making the congregation 112 years old, at least. Its history has been pieced together from recently-recovered handwritten notes by former pastor, J.J. Jesudasan, recorded for the church’s 70th anniversary in 1988. Some parts remain unfound but the gaps are filled by parishioners’ memories.

Incidentally, Jesudasan was preceded by H.O. Fowler, former principal of Stanes School and honorary priest at St. Marks for 25 years.

Repair and restoration

Time has done little to St. Marks. “The walls have held without a crack all these years. Only the bricks closer to the ground have weathered a bit because the rain hits them directly,” says Mini Fowler, architect and church Secretary. In 2009, the roof was re-tiled with the same tiles to fill in holes created by ambitious footballs from the adjacent ground. “Before that, we used to sit for services with buckets and plates to catch rainwater falling from a leaky roof,” says P.A. Mathews, former Secretary. Around the same time, the gap between the rafters and the walls were closed off to keep out rats, squirrels, bats and birds nesting in between. “There wasan owl that would to come for services regularly,” he says. In 2000, a parish hall and sexton’s quarters were added to the premises, built in sync with the church’s architecture.

However, the teak pews, choir stands, altar tables, pulpit, doors and windows, and iron altar railings, have remained intact for a century. Even the church bell, which wakes Podanur up on Sunday mornings, is the same. “That bell is nothing short of miraculous,” says parishioner Sulogena Thomas.

Lost & found

“It was stolen once and for weeks after, the congregation used to stand in the vestry after church, staring up at the steep roof where the bell was, wondering, ‘How on earth did anyone get that high up to steal it?’ However Jesudasan was convinced we’d get it back”. Weeks passed. Eventually the thief was caught along with the ingots of the bell’s melted cast iron. “These were taken all the way to a bell maker in Tirunalveli who recast our bell, down to the exact resonance of its particular chime!”

With its heritage preserved so carefully, St Marks, today, is a fully functional church with a congregation of 60 members. Some stolen brassware has been replaced, the plump kneelers people jostled for are missing and the old pipe organ has been substituted by a swanky electronic keyboard. Even so, the order of Sunday service has remained unchanged for years, say parishioners. “What has changed is the camaraderie we once associated with the church. People are too busy to spend the kind of time we did together when younger,” says Sulogena. “Christmas was a big community affair then. We sang carols around the neighbourhood and had a packed candlelight night service,” says Mathews. Adds Sulogena, “In the Sundays before Christmas, we’d host campfires with stories, songs and potluck dinner in the church compound. The same bunch of us played Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus in the nativity play, till we were in Class XII and too large to be cradled! We’d also decorate the church with jasmine strings because that’s all we had. We used to be poor as church mice, but managed to have a grand time together.”

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Printable version | Mar 8, 2021 11:36:08 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/stained-glass-teak-pews-prayers/article3639577.ece

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