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The bells of St. Mary's


THE SIX bells of the Armenian Church of St. Mary's, believed to be the largest number in any church in Tamil Nadu, are rung at 9 a.m. for three minutes every Sunday by caretaker Michael Stephen to mark the church "as being alive", even if there are only two Armenians left in Madras today. But when they pealed on one recent Sunday morning, February 9, they did so for much longer and several times. It was one of those rare occasions in recent years that this bit of Madras history in Armenian Street came alive with worship being held in it. More significantly, worship was being conducted in it for the first time in nearly 10 years by an American priest who offered the dozen-strong congregation visiting from Calcutta and the dozen or so guests from the city the full grandeur of a service of the Armenian Orthodoxy.

Full-bearded and solemn of mien, the Rev. Ghevond Ghevondyan shed his black cowled vestments after the opening minutes and returned for the two-hour service in all the splendour of a priest of the Orthodoxy, duly crowned in crimson velvet embellished with gold and robed in crimson with all-over gold brocade. And as he sang and chanted in a rich baritone, I couldn't help thinking that the Eastern Orthodoxy very likely chose its priests on the timbre of their voices. Counterpoint was provided by two young girls and a small boy from Calcutta led by their choirmaster in melodious choral accompaniment. The three and the altar-boy were from the hundred or so children from Armenia who, having lost at least one parent, have come to Calcutta and helped revive the Armenian School there and who, over the next couple of years, are likely to be joined by a couple of hundred more. And may be then, the Armenian Church Committee, Calcutta, which has just restored its church and school, will start a school here too; restoration of the church here has already been decided on.

Playing a major role in all these activities is Sonia John of Calcutta, who organised the recent service here as a memorial to her paternal ancestor, the Rev. Harathun Shumavonian, who died in Madras on 9-2-1824 and is buried in the cemetery that is part of the Church garden. The Rev. Shumavonian, the pastor of the church for 40 years, had started a printing press in 1789 and from 1794 to 1796 brought out from it the world's first Armenian newspaper, Azdarar, casting the type for it himself and making his own paper. In one of those rare coincidences, that only ever so often shows how small a place the world really is, my two Mar Thoman guests at the service, both brothers, recognised in Sonia John the young beauty they had admired on the train when, during the War, the Calcutta La Martiniere students were being evacuated to La Martiniere, Lucknow. Exchanging reminiscences with her, they recalled the days when she was a champion athlete, hockey player and basketballer in Calcutta.

While the teens were being natteringly relived, I was discovering a bit of history 200 years and more older. And I'm not referring to the church itself, which I've written about on other occasions. What was new was the tales the bells of St. Mary's had to tell through Michael Stephen's research. These bells are of different dates, have different notes, and are of different sizes, 21-26 inches in height, 24-28 inches in diameter and each weighing about 150 kg.


One bell has an Armenian inscription dating it to 1754. That it was recast in 1808 by Arulappan's foundry is recorded on it in Tamil. Another is inscribed with the date 1778. Two others bear the date 1790 and were given to the Church in memory of 19-year-old Eliazar Shawmier, who lies buried in the church garden, and who was the youngest son of the one of the leading merchants of Madras, Aga Shawmier Soothanoomian, on whose private chapel grounds was raised the present church in 1772. The last two bells date to 1837 and are inscribed `Thomas Mears, Founder, London'.

Thomas Mears was the master founder of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, which still exists and is the oldest surviving bell foundry in the world, and the oldest surviving British manufacturing company, dating to 1570 under the present name and 1420 beginnings. The heritage building in which it is located in the heart of London dates to 1670. And among its most famous contributions to the world are the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia (1751), the Great Bell of Montreal, Big Ben (1858) - the biggest foundry ever made, being nine feet in diameter, 7 feet in height and weighing 13 tons! - the Bow Bells, the bells of St. Mary le Bow and St. Clement Danes immortalised in the `Oranges and Lemons' rhyme, and the bells of Westminster Abbey. It's a bit of history that Madras's Armenian Church is most appropriately a part of, given the contribution the Armenians and others in Madras made to the growth of commercial Britain.

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