The church by the shore

The author traces the humble beginnings of St. Thomas English Church in Santhome

Published - December 23, 2014 07:04 pm IST

St. Thomas English Church. Photo: Suresh Balachander

St. Thomas English Church. Photo: Suresh Balachander

Tucked away along that sinuous bend where Santhome High Road is busy at any time of the day, St. Thomas English Church (STEC), once known as ‘St. Thomas-by-the-sea’ by the British, is easy to miss. Blame it on the sprawling, breezy campus, dotted with white frangipani trees. The little white church nestles in the north-eastern corner, right on the shore where the apostle who lent it his name once walked.

The oldest Protestant church in Santhome, STEC was built in 1842 at a time when the area had a fairly large number of European residents, and was a popular health resort, especially for sick officers and their families. This was the church of the Protestant elite in Madras who lived in the garden-houses of Adyar, with the Governor having his own pew.

The year 1824 was a landmark year, with the arrival of Robert Carver, a dynamic Methodist missionary from Ceylon. Carver succeeded in securing the goodwill not only of the then Governor of Fort St. George Sir Thomas Munro, but also of Bishop Heber. He took charge of the work of the Vepery-based Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, the oldest mission of the Church of England in India at Santhome, Poonamallee, St. Thomas Mount and Pallavaram.

It was during this period that Bishop Turner of Calcutta visited Santhome in 1830 and felt the need for a proper church for the resident Europeans to worship. His contribution of a sum of money led to the purchase of land, but nothing further was done until 1836, when Bishop Daniel Corrie (whose life-size marble statue can be found in St. George’s Cathedral), wrote to the Home Society and obtained a grant of 200 pounds to build the church. His sudden death in 1837 and the transfer of Robert Carver to Mannargudi further delayed the construction.

Work on the construction of this Church was resumed by Rev. A.C. Thompson of the Vepery Mission. He had been regularly holding services in English and Tamil since 1837. He received Rs. 2,000 from the Metropolitan, and smaller sums from other sources, but on his departure to England in 1839, the scheme once again fell into abeyance.

In 1841, Robert Carver was back in Santhome, and was ordained deacon and priest in 1842. On December 10 of the same year, he had the satisfaction of witnessing the consecration of the present St. Thomas English Church. But Carver died just three years later and was buried under the altar. Following Carver, many notable men like Rev. A.R. Symonds, Rev. Thomas Dealtry and Rev. A. Westcott ministered here.

St. Thomas-by-the-sea was now a full-fledged Anglican parish, complete with a single manual ‘Thomas Robson’ pipe organ built in 1868. According to Anila Manoharan, the church organist, “It’s the second oldest pipe organ in Chennai, the oldest being the one at St. George’s Cathedral, built over 10 years earlier in 1857. It is currently being restored.” The 12 memorial tablets inside the church also shed valuable insight into the people who worshipped here.

Centenary celebrations in 1942 were rather low key, according to a history of the church written by Rev. David Chellappa, who was the first Indian presbyter to serve here. Membership had declined partly due to the evacuation of Madras during 1941-42, though a small but keen group of Europeans, Anglo-Indians and English-speaking Indians remained devoted to their little church.

When the nation moved towards Independence in 1947 and the Church of South India was formed, STEC came under CSI Diocese of Madras and was allowed to continue its Anglican tradition. Since then, it has been steadily growing, not just in numbers, but in its many outreach activities too.

The 1980s saw a flurry of activities like the starting of an English-medium school for the underprivileged, a picturesque open air altar and a medical centre with a de-addiction programme.

The 2004 tsunami struck right behind the altar, but the church was left miraculously intact. It was yet another opportunity to reach out, and the congregation turned out in full measure to help those affected get back on their feet.

Now, STEC is a close-knit congregation of around 200 families from in and around Santhome under its presbyter Rev. D. Richard Ambrose Jebakumar.

Now in its 173rd year, STEC is looking forward to a revamped pipe organ and a brand new parish hall. This little church by the shore has virtually been a second home to most of us who have played in its sprawling campus, sang in the choir, climbed the walls of the open-air altar to look at the sea, watched the sparrows flit in and out of its large doors during the Sunday morning service and spent countless moments making memories at St. Thomas-by-the-sea.

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