Milestone year for city landmark
St. Mary's Church at Fort George ... an awe-inspiring monument. Pic. by Vino John
AS YOU step into the serene and lovely precincts of the church located cheek-by-jowl to the seat-of-power, St.Mary's Church inside Fort St.George, the very floor and walls adorned with memorial tablets, the marble statues and the stained glass windows seem steeped in history of the past three centuries and more. Perhaps the most prominent landmark of Madras that is Chennai now, the church built 324 years ago without steel and cement, is even today a grand edifice that inspires awe and reverence in the visitor. This national monument is maintained by the Archaeological Department of the Government, but with no restriction on its use as a church.
The year-long celebrations to mark the 325th anniversary of what was once a Garrison church catering to the British regiments stationed inside the Fort, start on Sunday, October 24. No fewer than four Bishops - including three former CSI heads, Rt. Rev. Sundar Clarke, Rt. Rev. H.S.Thanraj and Rt. Rev.M. Azariah-- will be in attendance that morning when youngsters of the church will be Confirmed by the present Bishop Rt. Rev.V. Devasahayam.
It was under the governorship of Streynsham Master way back in 1678 that the foundation was laid on Lady's Day. This was the Annunciation Day of the Blessed Virgin and hence the church was named St. Mary's. About 40 persons contributed 805 pagodas equivalent to about 400 pounds. The Governor's contribution was 100 pagodas, which was three-fifths of his annual salary. The church construction took two years and on October 28, 1680, it was consecrated during the reign of Charles II. Additions to the church like the tower and steeple were built between 1701 and 1795.
The church records, dating from 1680, are faded and brittle, but a dynamic record of the life and times. A November 4, 1680, entry mentions the marriage of Elihu Yale to Catherine Hynmers. Yale came to India at the age of 24 and in 15 years rose from being a writer in Fort St. George to the Governor.But not many know that tragedy struck him when in India: his son David who was baptised in this church died four year later.Much has already been said of the marriage entry in the church register of Robert Clive to Margaret Maskelyne in 1753.
Elizabeth II has signed the visitors' book in 1961 and Prince Charles some 25 years later.
Plans are afoot to get the Archbishop of Canterbury to preside over the final celebrations slated for October next year. The Madras Musical Association will present excerpts from Handel's oratorio "Belshazzar", under the baton of Dr S. Grubb on November 7. Again, special music by the Korean Women's Choir and WOW will be the highlight during the visit by the members of IWA. The American composer, Randy Giles, will be coordinating music at St.Mary's for Christmas season and during Lent next year. Special lectures are planned for next year and so are outreach programmes in Indira Nagar.
Mrs Sarah Chanda, co-ordinator for the celebrations committee, says on the anniversary it is the custom to remember the church's link with St. George's Anglo-Indian Higher Secondary School and Orphanage and present grants to needy students. It will be no different this year. Every Sunday the worship service starts at 9 a.m. and Rev Ebenezer Immanuel is the padri at present. Several expatriates are there in the present congregation including descendants from 1784 of the De Penning family.
Mrs Chanda is glad that the officials of the Archaeological Department have agreed to do up the weeping walls and peeling paint and clean the marble slabs and stained glass windows. More importantly, the faded blue ceiling will be painted ivory. S. Paul, who has been the church organist since 1959, is concerned that the good work done recently on the majestic pipe organ by the English organ restorer, Christopher Gray, should not suffer during the overhaul of the premises. This is believed to be the fifth organ in this church. In 1980, the church celebrated its tricentenary with various events spread over 10 months ending with a Thanksgiving Service on October 28. Mrs Sarah Chanda was the convenor of the celebrations committee then as well.
Christian employees of the Government offices within the Fort St. George have formed the Tamil Nadu Secretariat Christian Fellowship and they meet in the church for worship during lunch hour every Friday. Noteworthy contribution to music in Chennai came from two of its erstwhile members who held senior positions in Government - Jabez Janagaraj and Samuel Abishekara.
The Mary's cemetery near Central Jail has been in a state of neglect, though of late the overgrowth has been cleared. A church committee has taken up the task of restoring this cemetery. A crying need is mending its broken wall.
The oldest Anglican church east of the Suez continues to fascinate the casual visitor and the devout with its magnificence which is timeless.
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