A cathedral in need of restoration

WHETHER YOU believe or not in that article of faith, the tradition of St. Thomas living eight years in Old Mylapore, the church raised over a tomb, in which, legend has it that his remains were re-interred, is a much better documented part of Madras history.

That church, dating to 1608/9, was built on the site of the present cathedral, somewhat inland from the shore, and became the first cathedral of the Diocese of San Thome, established in 1606, after its first Bishop, Dom Sebastiao de San Pedro, arrived from Portugal in 1608.

Pulled down in 1894, there was raised on the same site in 1896 the soaring cathedral where worship still continues. But this magnificent bit of neo-Gothic is in a sad state today and is in urgent need of restoration.

The tiled roof, difficult to access because of the way it has been laid on timber trusses, is now leaking badly, causing decay of plaster in the church, recurring dampness of the walls, deterioration of the wooden window-and-door-frames and has even affected some of the stained glass. Falling plaster is a regular feature of the building. Indifferent maintenance over the years, improper `repairs' and `whitewashing' with cement wash slurry, have all further contributed to the rapid deterioration of this heritage landmark.

A leading firm of conservation consultants from Bombay - with a good track record of conservation work in a city much more interested in preserving its heritage - examined the Cathedral over a two-week period last year, the first proper examination of the building in decades, and reported that basic restoration of the building would cost around Rs. 60 lakhs. Without that kind of restoration, they warned, the building's condition - particularly if ad hoc solutions were restored to - would degenerate fast.

The diocese, however, is in a quandary. Much as it would like to restore a heritage landmark, particularly one that is its cathedral church and which has also been given the status of a basilica - a church that is home to some of the remains of a saint - the lack of funds to carry out the work is stalling what it would like to do. The parish priest in a recent interview spoke of the possibility of Providence intervening if it was a place of God to be saved.

But when Providence is going to make its contribution is what several parishioners, particularly those conscious of the heritage of the building and its symbolic importance on the east coast of India, wonder about.

However, in anticipation of a miracle, the church management is studying plans for a temporary metal-roofed shed to be erected in the premises of he Cathedral as a space for services, if and when restoration work gets underway.

Once that temporary structure starts coming up, may be the hoped-for miracle will occur.


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