CHURCHES OF HISTORICAL IMPORTANCE IN INDIA
CHURCHES OF HISTORICAL IMPORTANCE IN INDIA
SAN THOME CATHEDRAL, CHENNAI
The first important church associated with a prominent personality is San Thome Cathedral in Chennai (formerly Madras). It was built over the very place where St. Thomas was interred, when he attained martyrdom in 72 AD. Legend has it that St. Thomas arrived in 52 AD in Kerala, South India and later moved over to Madras on the east coast. He was the only apostle to have visited India, and the importance of this basilica is that it is closely associated with the advent of Christianity in India much before the coming of the Portuguese who brought with them the catholic faith. Built first as a small church, it was elevated to the status of a minor Basilica by Pope Pius XII in 1956. It has now become a major center of pilgrimage for many Indian Christians.
ST FRANCIS CHURCH, KOCHI
The other important church associated with a historical personality is St. Francis Church in Kochi (formerly Cochin), Kerala. Vasco da Gama who found the sea route to India in 1498 was first interred here for more than a decade after which his mortal remains were transferred to Lisbon. The Portuguese first built the church within the confines of the fort, which they established soon after their arrival. It was a wooden structure and was initially dedicated to St. Bartholomew. In 1506 the Portuguese viceroy in India, Francisco de Almeida reconstructed it and in 1516 it was rededicated to St.Anthony. This church, which is associated with the advent of the Europeans in India, saw its fortunes fluctuate like that of the European powers. When the Portuguese power waned the Protestant Dutch captured Cochin in 1663. This Roman Catholic Church soon became a government church. Interestingly when the British drove the Dutch out of Cochin it once again changed hands and became an Anglican church, which was named St. Francis. Church. It is now under the North Kerala Diocese of the Church of South India, and the Archaeological Survey of India has declared it as a protected monument.
BASCILICA OF BOM JESUS, GOA
The third church of historical importance is the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa. This first minor Basilica of India is a world heritage monument, which contains the tomb of Christianity’s great saint St. Francis Xavier. A close friend and associate of St. Ignatius Loyola who together established the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) he died en route to China on December 2, 1552. For two year his mortal remains were interred in Malacca, after which it was brought to Goa. The Bascilica of Bom Jesus, which contains his tomb, is one of the oldest churches in India. It is built in baroque style architecture and was consecrated in 1605.The basilica has marble floors, which are inlaid with precious stones. The mausoleum was a gift of Cosimo Medici III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany and the body of St. Francis Xavier is placed on a silver casket. One of the main miracles attributed to him was that the body has not decayed over time and that the saint has healing powers. People flock to this place all the year round, but once in ten years the body of St. Francis Xavier is displayed to the public, which attract people from all parts of the world. The last such public display was in 2004. There are paintings on the wall with scenes depicting various important events from the life of the saint. The Art gallery of the basilica is also noteworthy for containing paintings of surrealistic painters like Dom Martin.
ST.MARY’S CHURCH, CHENNAI
Like the Portuguese, when the English set up their trading post in Madras (present day Chennai), they constructed the first Anglican Church in India. Designed by architect Edward Foule and executed by William Dixon, the master gunner of Fort St. George (as the trading post was called), the church was dedicated to St. Mary. Being constantly under threat from the French and the local powers, the Church was built with a four feet thick bombproof roof with castellated parapets. First consecrated in 1680, other parts of the church were constructed gradually. The tower was constructed in 1701, followed by the steeple in 1710.It was only by 1795 the church in its present form took shape. By this time the sanctuary and vestry were also added.
Two historical personality’s names are connected with St.Mary’s church. It was in this church that Elihu Yale (the benefactor of Yale University) who was then the Governor of Madras married Catherine Himmers in November 1680. The other important personality was Robert Clive who established British rule over India. He married Margaret Maskelyne in 1753. There is a museum nearby which contains memorabilia associated with the beginning of British colonialism in India, the colors of Madras Fusiliers, their uniforms, and many items of historical importance can be found in the Fort Museum.
All these churches in its own way, add to the rich cultural mosaic of India’s heritage.