Armenian Church of Chennai - lack of enough funds is a problem to maintain it


St. Mary Armenian Church, George Town,  Chennai.

Very much close to the once popular Gokhale Hall  (now in ruins) built by Theosophist and educationist  late Annie Besant in 1915 on the same congested and traffic ridden chaotic Armenian street in George Town, Chennai, lies one of the oldest churches in Asia with a belfry of six bells (a rare feature among the churches) - - Armenian Church.  Also known as the Armenian Church of Virgin Mary, it is quite disturbing  this  historic  landmark monument  is not well taken care of  and needs to be preserved for the next generation of people. The church is not a functional now. The problem is funds and the Armenian Apostolic Church of Kolkata  is helping it out as much as it can.  Armenian churches in West Bengal face the same problem nd the Armenian community has declined to a trickle. 

 I understand now the service is held once a year on the day of Christmas  and the priest has to come all the way from Kolkata.  Way back the services  used to be 6 times a year  by a group of Armenian priests from Calcutta.  First built in 1772 by the early settlers from Armenia and Persia, the church  was active in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1600s the Armenians began arriving in Madras, many engaged in trade and some joined the English company.  The presence of   Armenians in Madras can be traced  a bit earlier - all the way back to 1512. “There are records of Armenians informing the Portuguese of the grave of St Thomas that was found in Madras,” says Niveditha Louis, a history enthusiast. Obviously this church is a testimony to the  legacy of Armenians who once formed a  small, but active  business community in this city.   

1905 Armenian church, Chennai

St. Mary Armenian Church, Chennai, TN.

Above image:  Since some of the Armenians had a close rapport with the East India company, Madras, the  company   granted them land near the High Court to build a church to fulfill their spiritual needs. Besides  EIC allowed them to have  a priest for a grant of £50 a year...............

Armenian church, Chennai. Verandah.

The original church  having been destroyed  during the French occupation of  Madras between 1746 and '49  according to the historian  one Narasiah,  “Aga Shawmier Sultan succeeded Uscan as leader of the Armenians and this church was built (and consecrated in 1772) in his chapel grounds.” The  Shawmier's room there was built in his wife's memory.  

Built in orthodox tradition, the church is not a big one and could accommodate about 130 people at a time  and a choir in its gallery. The church came up on the graves of about 350 Armenians (most of them date back to 1740) and the exact date of the church is a subject of debate. According to one Michel Stephen, a  former caretaker,  the  stepped wooden altar inlaid  with rare  and fine oval paintings depicting various episodes  from  the life of Christ.  According to Judy Johnson , care taker ' the altar inside the church is also special for having a portrait of Virgin Mary taking Jesus to heaven. You don’t find this anywhere else in the country.  A visitor to the service  one Michael said, ''The first draft constitution for Armenia was also put together here around 1780s.'',  ''Armenia, a land-locked nation in West Asia was the first country to make Christianity their official religion in 301 AD. The Armenians celebrate Christmas on 6th January and not on 25th December as other Christians do.''

Under the guidance of INTACH - the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, this church underwent   renovation in 2007. The cost of  Rs. 1.5 crore was borne through a grant from the  the Armenian Church Trust in Kolkata.  The church has a fine dome and a spacious verandah.  Under the Armenian Church Committee in Calcutta, the church is being  maintained and funded by Armenian Apostolic Church. The going is tough for them. 

The Armenian Church, Chennai carved stone book.

Above image:  The church grave yard has 350 graves and one grave has  a unique gravestone,  a stone  carved book, a tribute to ''Azdarar'', first Armenian Newspaper / periodical . It is the  grave of Rev Harutiun Shmavonian (born Shiraz-1750, died Madras-1824) who  started the first printing press  and in October 1794  brought out the first Armenian Newspaper / periodical called Azdarar (intellectual).  ''The stone epitaphs also bear testament to the lives of Armenian   merchants, being embedded with grapes, quills, grain, ships, etc and  the last burial here was in 1850, after which our burial ground was moved to a spot close to the Chennai Central Railway Station.” according to caretaker  Johnson ................

Armenian church, 

Above image: Old image of the Armenian church, Chennai,  poorly kept belfry. 

Verandah, Armenian church, 

Above image; Old image. Long corridor/ verandah, Armenian church St. Mary, George Town, Chennai. 

.Belfry Armenian church, Chennai.

Above image: A rare feature of the  Armenian church is  the Belfry with 6 different bells of different sizes (from 21-26 inches), each  weighing  around 150 kg. Two bells, dated 1837, were cast in London's Whitechapel Bell Foundry (then known as Mears & Stain bank, with inscriptions reading "Thomas Mears, Founder, London")   which made the bells for Big Ben and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, USA. One with Armenian inscription dates to 1754, was recast in 1808 and has  Tamil inscription; another dates to 1778. From the  inscriptions on two bells  we infer that   they were  donated to the Church in memory of 19-year-old Eliazar Shawmier, buried in the garden.  It is said the six large bells   are rung every Sunday at 9:30 am by the caretaker to remind us that the old heritage  church is being taken care of regularly, not withstanding the fact that there are no Church services, prayers, etc. Another  implication is every Sunday morning the once popular church chimes  as if  not to forget the  link the early Armenian settlers had with this place and their glorious days..................................   

St. Mary Armenian church, Chennai.

Giant bible, Armenian church, Chennai 

This church is in proud possession of a massive Bible, printed in 1686, in fine Armenian script with woodcut prints, which is used on certain occasions, according to the Church keeper Michael Stephen. As the Armenian of Chennai dwindled long ago, the church has poor attendance. 

This church  has not been repaired periodically and needs to be preserved  considering its link with early Armenian merchants who moved into the city in the late 16 and early 17th centuries.,_Chennai