St. Mary’s Church – The first Anglican Church East of Suez

Srinivasan Balakrishnan

The 339-year-old St. Mary’s Church in Chennai, the first Anglican Church East of Suez, is not only India’s first Anglican Church but also of Asia’s! For the uninitiated (like myself), Anglican Church relates to or denotes the Church of England or any Church in communion with it. To this day, St Mary’s Church is also the oldest surviving Anglican Church in the East, and is also called as the 'Westminster Abbey of the East'.

Built by Sir Streynsham Master, East India Company's Agent at Madras between 1678 and 1681, it was consecrated in 1680. Designed by Edward Fowle, the architect was probably William Dixon, the Master Gunner of the Fort St. George of Madras; the church is situated within the Fort itself, the first British settlement in India. The fort was constructed in the early 1640 by the British East India Company (EIC) as its headquarters on the Coromandel Coast and marked the foundation of Madras and, later, the colonial British India – by tricks & treats.

However, St. Mary’s church is not the first church of Madras (Chennai). Even before the British landed on the Coromandel Coast, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the French had landed and raised churches in Madras and Pulicat (near Madras), which preceded Madras as a vantage trading point along the east coast. There was also a Capuchin St. Andrew church in Chennai. Capuchin church means – again for the information of uninitiated, including self  – a branch of the Franciscan order that observes a strict rule drawn up in 1529.

Before St. Mary’s church was even thought of, religious services were conducted in the dining room of the Factory House within the Fort Complex, since 1640. But it was only in 1647 that a Chaplain of merchant fleet of the EIC came ashore to celebrate Holy Communion in a temporary chapel in the Fort St. George. Therefore, Streynsham Master took an initiative, even without the sanction of Directors of EIC, for subscription to construct a church.  With a total of 805 pagodas (equalled 400 pounds at the then prevailing rates of exchange) collected from about 38 English inhabiting Fort St. George, construction started on 25th March 1678. The highest contributor was, you guessed it right, Streynsham Master with 100 pagodas.  ‘It will be 80 feet long, 50 feet broad and built with 3 aisles arched with brick and stone’, according to the book The Church in the Fort, A History of St. Mary's, published by St. Mary's Church, Church of South India. March 25 was Our Lady’s Day, commemorating announcement/annunciation of Archangel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she would give birth to Jesus. Hence the church was named St. Mary’s.

St. Mary’s Church has many beautiful statues, plaques, tablets as memorials and commemorative inscriptions, besides 104 tombstones dating back to even earlier period than that of the church itself, inscribed in Latin/Portuguese of Roman Catholic faith! These were preserved here by the British from the church/cemetery of other faiths, during developmental activities of Madras. At that time St. Mary’s was the only structure with a bomb-proof (cannonball) roof; the four-feet-thick wagon-like curved roof was designed to bounce off the cannon balls of enemies. Hence, on two occasions, the church was used as a barrack and granary during French and Hyder Ali attacks.  The walls are 3 to 4 ft. thick, to withstand cyclonic storms. Silk-smooth finishing was obtained with a touch of polished lime. The interior has fine wooden furnishings, while the windows have decorative stained glass. While some of the archival material and antiques/curios are preserved in the church itself, rest are with the ASI’s Museum within the St. George Fort complex itself. The tower was completed in 1701, a steeple added in 1710, and the obelisk spire, designed by Colonel Gent, in 1795. In fact, the tower was a separate structure that was later attached to the church.

The altar piece, a depiction of the Last Supper, is unsigned but is said to betray obvious signs of the Raphaelite school, and it is supposed that Raphael himself painted the central figures. [Raphael -Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino- was an Italian painter/architect of the High Renaissance period.] The altar piece was brought to Madras as part of the spoils of war by the British troops who stormed Pondicherry (Puducherry, the French domain) in 1761.

St. Mary’s Church was consecrated on 28 October 1680, two and a half years since work started, by Chaplain Rev. Richard Portman, marked by firing of small arms and cannon by fort's garrison. Thus came established the presence of the non-Roman Catholic Church in Madras (i.e., the Protestant Church) under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London.  The Chaplain’s House, which lies behind the church, is now a military station headquarters. “We’ve had 112 pastors here so far and there were eight before the church was built” when services were conducted in the dining hall.  The next 150 years saw the growth of the Christian population in Madras. It became obvious that this small 80’x50’ St. Mary's Church in the Fort cannot serve the growing and spread-out Christian population. So, in 1815, the Church of St. George was built on the arterial road (now called Cathedral Road) linking St. Thomas Mount and Fort St. George. On October 28, 1835 Daniel Corrie, the Archdeacon of Calcutta, was consecrated Bishop and installed in the Church of St. George; it marked both the coming into being of the Diocese of Madras and the elevation of the parish Church on the Choultry Plain to the dignity of a Cathedral, further leading to the formation of Church of South India.

According to the marriage register maintained in the St. Mary’s Church, marriages of some prominent officials of EIC were solemnized here. These include the first marriage that took place in the church on November 4, 1680, that of Elihu Yale, after whom the Yale University in the U.S. is named, to Catherine Himmers. Robert Clive, who laid the foundation of the British Empire in India, married Margaret Maskelyne on February 18, 1753 here. On August 16, 1689, Mary, Elizabeth and Katherine, daughters of Job Charnock, founder of Calcutta, were baptised in this church. Their mother was a beautiful Hindu widow who Charnock rescued from a `sati' fire and whom he later took along with him to Calcutta.

One of the oldest photographs of St. Mary’s Church, Madras, was taken by Frederick Fiebig in c.1851. This photograph is one of a series of hand-coloured salt print. Salt print! Oh, let us leave aside the technicalities and enjoy this antique photo from British Library’s Collection.

This little Church may not be as old as the 800-year-old Notre-Dame Cathedral of Paris that went up in flames on 15th March; yet, this 339-year-old St. Mary’s Church has its own many credits and merits making it a must-visit site in Chennai, aka the Old Madras, with both their birth & history intertwined.