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Travel: St Mary’s Church, Fort George, Madras (now Chennai)

October 11, 2015 1 comment

This is the first English Church built in India. It is the oldest English Church east of Suez.

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Clive of India was married in the church, as was Elihu Yale, an early founder of Yale University.

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The barracks were built in 1687 but St Mary’s was begun in 1678. It was consecrated (controversially) by Richard Portman in October 1680. The organ was installed in 1687. The spire was added in 1710.

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The walls are 4ft thick, it was built to withstand siege and cyclone and had a blast-proof roof of solid masonry. The brickwork is 2ft thick.

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The building could accommodate 500 people. The distinctive black granite baptismal font dates from 1680.

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My journal entry (October 2014):

St Mary’s – the oldest English church east of the Suez. So many similarities with St Andrew’s cathedral in Singapore, just not as big. So many brass memorial plaques to those who died, often of sickness and disease, many very young. We strolled in the heat of the beautiful sunlit church garden. A peaceful place. Butterflies. Odd how a mercantile and mercenary Raj took the Church with it as part and parcel of Empire. It was obvious you would think, wasn’t it? Well, as the years have unfolded, no – it was a bad idea!  Felt a little strange that Grandad would have known this church. Presumably as a bandsman, he may even have set foot inside. At the back of the building, I saw an old fading photo of George Town at the time (1905) he would have been there, so very different to today’s Chennai’.

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The great Lutheran Pietist missionary, exemplar and intermediary, Christian Friedrich Schwartz (born 1726) arrived in India in 1750. He is remembered in India fondly and in the stirring epitaph at the base of the large white marble sculpture in St Mary’s (by John Bacon Jr, 1807).

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Schwartz was truly the first Protestant missionary to India, not William Carey as often supposed. Carey arrived in India two years after Schwartz’s death at Tanjore in 1798. Schwartz died a rich man but he left all his wealth to the SPCK for its work in India.

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