The St. Francis Church is not only the oldest Christian church in India, it is also the oldest church built by a European colonial power in Asia. It was from here, even earlier than in Goa, that Christianity and Roman Catholicism began its long spread throughout the Subcontinent. Its history includes brushes with famous European explorers as well as numerous colonial wars. Interestingly, this first European Christian community in India was established not too far from where the first Jewish community had settled over two thousand years earlier. Formerly a Roman Catholic then Dutch Reform then finallay an Anglican institution, the St. Francis Church is arguably the most historic pan-Christian religious building in India.
Christian missionaries from Europe were active in India as early as the 14th century, but it wasn’t until the arrival of Portuguese explorerers and merchants over a hundred years later that missionary efforts in India began in earnest. In 1500, a Portuguese fleet led by famed explorer Vasco da Gama arrived off the coast of Kerala, bringing with him a number of priests to begin establishing a Christian community.
Within a few years the first Roman Catholic churches were established in and around the city of Cochin, including the St. Francis Church, which was completed in 1503 (and rebuilt in 1506). It was run by priests of the Franciscan order. In 1524, Vasco da Gama died while visiting Cochin, and his body was interred at ths St. Francis Church for a time.
By the 1530s Christian communities along the southwest coast of India were consolidated into an archdiocese, and a major base for missionaries working their way further east into Asia, among whom was Francis Xavier. It remained an important Catholic site until 1663 when the Portuguese lost their colony to the Dutch. The Dutch subsequently burned down most of the Catholic churches in the region, sparing the St. Francis Church for use as a Dutch Reformed Church.
In 1795 the colony changed from Dutch hands to British, and in 1804 the St. Francis Church became part of the Church of England. Now part of the Anglican Church of South India, the St. Francis Church is revered by many Christian denominations as the defacto Mother Church of India. Together with the nearby Paradesi Synagogue it makes Cochin one of the most important Judeo-Christian communities in Asia.
The St. Francis Church is a standard example of Iberian colonial religious architecture similar to that which can be found in former Spanish and Portuguese colonies around the world. A somewhat larger than average size colonial church, it bears a plain but distinctive white façade with a single entrance above which is a public clock (one of the oldest in India) and bell tower. A great stone marker commemorating the church stands directly before the entrance.
The church interior has been renovated many times over the centuries to accommodate its changing role Most traces of the original Roman Catholic décor are long gone in favor of more austere Protestant appointments. The beauty of the church is somewhat marred by the large exposed steel beams which were installed due to structural and electrical needs. The original tomb where Vasco da Gama was buried in the floor is still on display.
The St. Francis Church is located on the northern tip of the peninsula where the original city of Cochin was built, about 400 miles south along the coast from Goa. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.stfranciscsichurch.org (official website).
Other than St. Francis, most of Cochin’s earliest churches are now long gone. However, Cochin is also home to the Paradesi Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in India.