Chennai, Tamil Nadu
St. Mary’s Church is the oldest purpose-built Anglican church building in India. A part of the first British settlement in the Subcontinent, it is for all intents and purposes the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion in the Far East. Constructed to withstand the hard realities of the wars of the colonial era, St. Mary’s has survived virtually intact to the present day. Its antiquity and its graveyard, with a number of interesting burials, has earned it the nickname the Westminster Abbey of the East, though this is perhaps a bit of an overstatement. Nevertheless St. Mary’s is arguably the most important and most popular non-Catholic Christian pilgrimage site in India.
British explorers and colonists did not arrive in India until the early 17th century, more than a hundred years after the Portuguese. Their first major settlement was not established until 1639, when the British East India Company acquired a small bit of territory along the southeastern coast, founding what would become the city of Madras. From this humble beginning, the British Empire would ultimately go on to swallow up the entire Asian Subcontinent.
While the East India Company quickly established mercantile buildings and Fort St. George to protect its interests, it was slower to address matters of the faith, either for the colonists or for the locals. They were certainly slower than the Portuguese, who established Roman Catholicism in their colonies almost as quickly as they planted their flags.
For nearly four decades, the practice of Anglican Protestantism, such as it was, took place in a warehouse dining room. It wasn’t until 1678 that the East India Company finally decided to build a church for the colony. Ever practical, the church was constructed so as to resist military attacks, and subsequently doubled as a barracks during a siege by France. Interestingly, the British were forced to move the church cemetery as its gravestones were used to provide cover for French troops.
Throughout the history of British rule in India, St. Mary’s Church continued to have periodic moments in the spotlight. Elihu Yale, who served as governor of the province in the early 18th century, provided a major endowment with which Yale University was founded (Yale now supports the church with funds). A large number of British statesman and military leaders who served in India are buried here, making its graveyard an interesting historic site.
St. Mary’s Church is a surprisingly imposing church for its relatively small size. A beautiful white colonial era structure surrounded by thick greenery, this seemingly innocent church has walls four feet thick to protect it against gun fire. The church’s defining feature is its bell tower and spire, which was not added until the 18th century.
Because of its strong masonry construction, the church interior is less reminiscent of a traditional Anglican structure and more of a catholic-style building. This is enhanced by the fact that some of the church appointments, including the altar, had come from Catholic churches which had been ransacked. The graveyard, which was restored to its original location in the 19th century, boasts numerous burials of local British interest, including famed artist Elizabeth Gwilim.
St. Mary’s Church is located next to the grounds of Fort St. George just east of the city center of Chennai, approximately 1,000 miles south of New Delhi. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.chennai.org.uk/religious-places (official tourism website of Chennai).
The city of Chennai is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in Asia, a group which claims to have been founded directly by the Apostle Thomas. There are a number of Thomas-related sites in Chennai, notably the Basilica of St. Thomas, where the apostle was interred for a time.