Armenian church in Chennai rots away due to neglect & calamities

The Armenian church in Chennai, built in 1712, has weathered many a storm in the last 300 years, but cyclone Vardah managed to leave its mark on this landmark monument in Chennai, the Times of India reports.

With insufficient funds and lack of public interest, certain portions of the church such as its famous bell tower, housing 26-inch wide bells, overhead pews and wooden rafters — built with Burmese wood — need massive repair. These portions have been cordoned off for the general public as they are unsafe for use.

In the last few decades, services have become a rarity in the 304-year-old church with mass being served only on Christmas by a high priest, who comes down from the Armenian Apostolic Church in Kolkata. “This is one of Chennai’s most beautiful and unique institutions. When the cyclone hit, we lost a lot of ancient trees. The woodwork has weakened and the plaster is falling off in places,” said Jude Johnson, caretaker of the Armenian church aka Church of Holy Virgin Mother Mary.

The church, which is opened for tourists, from 9am to 2pm every day, is nestled in the busy hub of Parrys. The Armenian Street — named after the church — has banks, corporate establishments, schools, shops, eateries, clothing retailers and a host of other establishments. Yet visitors to the church number few and far between.

“Once in a while, we get Armenian families, who have heard about the church. But weeks can go by without us seeing anyone. For them the attraction is tracing their ancestors. The church’s flagstones are inlaid with the graves of about 350 Armenians. For the Armenians, death was as much a part of life and they did not believe in erecting separate graveyards. The stone epitaphs also bear testament to the lives of Armenian merchants, being embedded with grapes, quills, grain, ships, etc,” said Johnson.

Chennai, which has always been a melting pot of cultures has a richness of culture and value systems unrivalled by other cities. The city has its own rich blend of mosques, rubbing shoulders with temples and churches. But while the city’s Roman Catholic, Protestant, Syrian Christian, Marthoma churches, and those other denominations see a steady stream of church attendants and visitors — for instance St Mary’s Church, St Thomas Basilica, Kurks and St George’s Cathedral — the Armenian church is solitary in its inclusiveness.

And its relative solitude was reflected during the cyclone, when trees got uprooted and the plaster got dented. With the state authorities taking little to no interest in this heritage monument, it has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the Armenian Church in Kolkata — which also suffers from the same lack of church attendance and interest — to maintain the premises.

The magnificent belfry, which houses six large bells weighing more than 150kg, today is out of bounds for the commoner. The wooden stairwell, which leads upto its narrow upper climbs has become too weak for regular use. Uniquely cast, the first bell was handcast in 1754, while the last two bells were added nearly a century later in 1837. Shipped in from London, the bells still bear the inscriptions “Thomas Mears, founder, London.” The church bells, each of which differ in size and were added decades and centuries apart, are rung only on Sundays by the caretaker at 9am.

For the rest of the week, the bells remain silent as does the church, which is testament to the Armenians’ skills as merchants of silk, spices and gems. The motifs of the church are predominately Mediterranean, with the altar and pews made of Burmese wood in mint condition.
The wooden rafters and the upper pews, however, have not escaped the ravages of time. The creaky wooden stairwell and the upper beams in the main church structure have become so weak that visitors are not allowed and even cleaning is done occasionally. The church’s plaster is chipped in multiple places with the paint peeling off. “Given its solid structure and the fact that it has weathered centuries, a little restoration will go a long way to bringing it back to its former glory,” Johnson added.
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