Faith

Of stained glass, bells and prayers: A look at four of Coimbatore’s oldest churches

Echoes from the past (Clockwise from top left) The CSI Christ Church on Trichy Road, St Michael’s Cathedral in Town Hall, St Mark’s Church in Podanur and CSI All Soul’s Church in Race Course

Echoes from the past (Clockwise from top left) The CSI Christ Church on Trichy Road, St Michael’s Cathedral in Town Hall, St Mark’s Church in Podanur and CSI All Soul’s Church in Race Course   | Photo Credit: S Siva Saravanan

There are echoes of history in four of the city’s oldest churches

CSI Christ Church, Trichy Road

The stained glass windows in CSI Christ Church glisten, as the early morning sun rays seep through them. The only sound comes from the rustle of old tamarind trees outside. This church is 109 years old and its foundation stone was laid by Bishop Gell in 1898. “The budget was set at ₹6000 then,” says J P Jacob, Secretary. They went over budget by ₹3,000 and the construction was completed in 1910 at a cost of ₹9000. “The building was Gothic, had a sloped tiled roof and was supported by four stone pillars. The altar had an eight-foot tall stained glass donated by a family in Norway, depicting Jesus Christ.” The church had 100 members then. “Most were grocery merchants from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.” Over the years, the number of Christians in the city increased and the church was reconstructed in 1998. “This Tamil church is the zero point of the city. We maintained the same plan and only made the structure bigger. We preserved the stained glass art. It decorates the back portion of the church,” he says.

The bell tower is 100 feet tall. “It is the tallest in the city,” he claims. A clinic functions in the church premises. “The medicines and consultation are free of cost,” adds Jacob. For over the past 60 years the church has been offering one English mass in December. “This year, for one of the Christmas Masses, we switched off all the lights and the mass was held with 1000 candles. It was magical.”

CSI All Souls Church, Race Course

A faint smell of old wood lingers in the air at All Soul’s Church that was originally an Anglican Chapel for the East India Company. In 1872, it was converted into a church. Much of the structure remains as it did then. “The only change have been to replace the old tile roof with metal sheets,” says Rev N Charles Samraj, Chairman and Presbyter. T B Fenn, a church member says that they had plans to renovate the church in the 1990s. “But the architects were not sure if they would be able to do any alterations without changing its look. So, we decided to extend the church with a temporary set up at the entrance with metal sheets.”

The first members of the church were English and Anglo-Indians. “The number of Indians increased post Independence. But even then, the first five rows were always occupied by the Britishers and and Anglo Indians. Till a few years ago, we had elders who would refuse to sit on the front seats,” says Prakash Bhoopal, another church member.

The church had only English priests until the late 1980s. “That ended with Roy Martin. After him, we only had Indian priests,” says Fenn. The church is getting ready to celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2022. “We have plans to bring out a stamp with the church’s picture then. The formalities take two years and it has started,” says Rev Charles.

Christmas is one of the most important occasions of the church. “We had a candlelight mass. Our carol team has been practising for a month. We visit the homes of people whose health does not allow them to come to church,” says Rev Charles.

St Mark’s CSI Church, Podanur

The little metal name plate that hangs on the exterior wall of the church is rusted and the letters are barely visible. Not surprising, as it is 100 years old. This English church was blessed in 1919 for the railway officials in Podanur. “But there are birth and baptism records with dates from before that time. This means that the congregation is much older,” says Mini Fowler, secretary.

Mini’s father-in-law, Rev H O Fowler, was the church priest from 1959 to 1984. “Podanur was not this populated then. The only people who lived there were officials from the railways. Women would attend the mass with hats and gloves and men in suits. Things have changed a lot over the years. Most Britishers have returned to their country and many Anglo-Indians have joined other churches.”

The church is built in the Neo-Tudor church style with laterite bricks from Kerala. It has terracotta flooring and a tiled roof. “We have preserved the building as such. The workmanship then was excellent and the walls are still strong,” she says. The stained glass that decorates the altar is from England and shows Jesus with a soldier. It was created in memory of the soldiers who died in World War I.

“The church bell was once stolen and people searched for days. The thief had left it in a well and it was damaged when recovered. Rev JJ Jesudasan (who succeeded Rev H O Fowler), took it to bell makers at Tirunelveli and, in a few weeks, it was back where it belonged,” says Mini.

Now, there are about 40 families who are members. “The youth has migrated to other countries and this has definitely made a change. Earlier we used to have pot lucks for Christmas and tours from the church. This year we had a camp-fire around which we sang. This is our way of welcoming baby Jesus,” she says.

St Michael’s Cathedral, Town hall

The church bells from St Michael’s Cathedral wake up the neighbourhood of Town Hall every morning. This 152-years-old cathedral was constructed by French missionaries in 1867. “With two train stations, the missionaries may have felt that Coimbatore would grow into a city in the future. This might be the reason why they set up the cathedral here. Now we have 72 Roman Catholic churches across Tiruppur, Erode, Karur and Coimbatore that comes under the Cathedral,” says Fr John Joseph Stanis, Vicar General, Bishop House.

The cathedral has red oxide flooring and a tiled roof. “It was in the style of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. There was a dome in the centre and two bell towers on either sides. One collapsed in 1900 in an earthquake and was later re-constructed,” he says. The bronze bells were imported from Paris. “The names Joseph, Georgeanna and Mariyaxaviour are inscribed on the bells in Latin. These may be the names of the people who contributed them,” says Fr John. The cathedral also had three paintings gifted by the then French Emperor Napoleon III. “It was destroyed by white ants in the late 1960s,” he rues.

The cathedral only had French priests till 1940. “The earliest masses were in Latin. From 1965, we had masses in Tamil. The first Tamil priest was Bernadotte Oubagaraswamy from Puducherry,” says Fr John. St Michael’s Cathedral was reconstructed three years ago. “The tiled roof of the old church was leaking and it could not accommodate more than 175 people. With the increasing number of people joining the cathedral, we needed a bigger place of worship.” The teak furniture was given away to smaller churches in the city.“We retained the old bells,” he says.

“Christmas is a happy time. The youth decorate the cathedral with Christmas trees and lights. We had a midnight mass and carol singers visited the homes of our church members,” says Fr John.

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 9:45:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/faith/a-look-at-four-of-coimbatores-oldest-churches/article30388084.ece

Next Story