CHENNAI –The Armenian church of Chennai (Formarly Madras), built in 1712, has weathered many a storm in the last 300 years, but cyclone Vardah (December 2016) managed to leave its mark on this landmark monument in Chennai, 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.
Chennai, which has always been a melting pot of cultures, has a richness of culture and value systems unrivaled 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, the Armenian church is solitary in its inclusiveness.
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 up to its narrow upper climbs has become too weak for regular use. Uniquely cast, the first bell was hand cast 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 differs in size and were added decades and centuries apart, are rung only on Sundays by the caretaker at 9am.
The church compound houses the grave of Father Harutyun Shmavonyan (1750 – 1824) founder of Azdarar the first Armenian language newspaper ever published. It was established on October 16, 1794 in Chennai. It is also first non English newspaper to be published in India.