Armenian church (1712 CE) of Chennai is slowly dying - needs urgent conservation

Armenian church, Chennai St.

Belfry, Armenian church, Chennai.

The 308  plus year old Armenian church on the busy Armenian street of George Town, Chennai is a government declared heritage structure with Burma teak wood and a belfry that houses six antique bells.  Bearing testimony to  the legacy of the once prosperous Armenian community that lived here during the colonial days  from the 16th to early 19th century, this structure was restored in the early 2000s. Since then, as of to day, it has not undergone any regular maintenance work  due to lack of funds. The Armenian Apostolic Church of Calcutta, with great difficulty, is providing basic funds to run the church which is not functional. No private funds are available as the church does not have patrons to support. The church, is opened for tourists, from 9 am to 2 pm and I under stand, they are allowed to see certain parts.

Armenian church, Chennai.

In the midst of financial difficulties, the very old church is wilting  due to aging of the structure which is further affected by ravages of seasonal changes and weather. In the past decades  the church somehow survived  the onslaught of NE monsoon seasons. However, in January 2017 in the wake of retreating NE Monsoon, the powerful cyclone   Vardah  did not leave it unaffected; it  made a  dent on the monument.

St. Mary Armenian church, Chennai.

In the absence of  sufficient funds and public interest,  some  portions of the church such as its famous bell tower, overhead pews and wooden rafters built with Burmese wood   need major  repair and restoration. As  these parts have become unsafe, they are cordoned off  and the people are not allowed to go near them. 

In the last few decades, services have become very much restricted  and a mass is being conducted annually on the day of Christmas by a high priest.   Rest of the years, no masses and no prayers. The  quiet interiors  and the unrepaired parts of the church shed gloom and melancholy on the new visitors to the church..

, Armenian church, chennai.

corridors, Armenian church, 

Though Chennai has a blend of various rich cultures and many places of worship -  mosques, catholic churches, protestant churches, etc., this church built by the Armenians of the past era has poor attendance. With the departure of the Armenian community after independence in 1947,  other church goers do not patronize this church.  So there is no income from the patrons or  from others. The church is quiet and serene inside but for  a few visitors you hardly see people walking into the church for prayer.  

And its relative solitude was reflected during the cyclone, when trees near the church  got uprooted and the plaster got dented.  Its isolation   was very much highlighted during the cyclone. When the church was messy with uprooted trees (many of them were pretty old), dented plaster  and fallen debris, the state  or city authorities never took any interest in this heritage monument and its survival.  Tis kind of apathy on the part of the officials concerned was very much deplorable and the responsibility of carrying out major repairs fell  squarely on the Armenian Church of Calcutta. The crux of the matter is the Calcutta Armenian church authorities had the same problem of poor funds and  low attendance. The church authorities being in a fix, the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India)  or the heritage department of the government can lend support and see to it the church is back to its old glory by way of doing urgent repairs.

Armenian church, Chennai.

The unique belfry  is barricaded and is out of reach for the public.  Because of  sustained apathy and lethargy on the part of  authorities the  wooden staircase leading to the upper levels has become weak  and creaky, and is unfit for regular use. No  cleaning was done  for a long time  leaving the wooden structure to die slowly.  The public can not access it as this part is weak. 

Though the  motifs of the church  that  are  predominately Mediterranean   and the wooden (Burma teak wood)  altar and pews  appear to be fairly in good condition, they need special care.

As the structure is more than three centuries old (first built in 1712; then rebuilt in 1772) we can notrule  out possible damages to the wooden structures.  Thick wooden rafters and the upper pews show signs of damages due to  ravages of time plus vagaries of weather in a tropical place. This resulted in the peeling of plaster  and paint in many places. According to Judy Johnson, care taker,  the age-old wood work has become weak and the plaster on the walls falls off in some places.  Judy Johnson is of the opinion  a  little restoration work on the slowly dying church will give it a  new lease of life  and  help the church get back its old splendor.

Unlike other churches, this one is built on the grave of 350  Armenians (mostly merchants) who won't build a separate graveyard. To them death is part of life. That is why the stone epithets are embedded with grains, grapes, quills, ships, etc.


The Etchmiadzin Cathedral in  ancient Armenia is believed to be the  first and oldest  cathedra in the world.  The Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth of Calcutta (Kolkata) is the oldest Armenian church in India,  first built in the year 1688. It was rebuilt in 1724 on the old cemetery of the Armenian community, and the credit goes to one  Agha Nazar  who toiled to rebuild the church after the original wooden structure perished in a freak  fire mishap  in 1707.