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Madraspatnam's first church
Work is going on apace in St. Mary's in the Fort, as the Archaeological Survey of India hastens with its restoration so that the 325th anniversary of the Church can be celebrated in it around Easter this year. St. Mary's, the first church built by the British in Asia, was consecrated on October 28, 1680, as the Company Church, with the Rev. Richard Portman officiating. The 325th anniversary celebrations should have started last October, but it is the restoration that was started and the celebrations await its completion.
Few, however, realise that there was a church in the Fort that predated St. Mary's. Of it, there is no trace today, but the year it opened its doors, 1642, is commemorated in its successor institution, St. Mary's on Armenian Street, the Roman Catholic co-cathedral.
This first church in the Fort was raised by a Frenchman, a Capuchin missionary, who arrived shortly after Andrew Cogan and his colleagues established Fort St. George. For whatever unexplained reason, Father Ephraim de Nevers named as St. Andrew's the small timber-shed-chapel that Cogan permitted him to establish a little north of `The Castle' (the core of today's Secretariat). The church was located between what the Army now calls Fort Houseand the new tower block, in what was called Portuguese Square.
Father de Nevers, a worthy subject for research, has been described as a scholar, linguist, skilful arbitrator and a man of saintly nature. I would go further and say he was a pioneer of ecumenism as well as English education in India. He not only conducted Catholic services but also opened the doors to Christians of all denominations for special services at which he preached. He also started in the church the first school in the country teaching in the English medium.
In 1675, having got permission from Governor William Langhorne to build a bigger and more permanent church, a new St. Andrew's was consecrated on the same site. This church survived in the Fort till 1752, when the British, after the French occupation of Fort St. George and its restoration, decided to oust the Catholics from the Fort.
The Capuchins now led their flock to the site where St. Mary's Co-Cathedral is today, but which had been granted to de Nevers in 1658 to build a second church, for his Indian and mestizo followers.
This church was rebuilt as a more permanent structure by de Nevers shortly before he died in 1694 after 53 years in the service of Madras. Several reconstructions in the 18th and 19th Centuries later, it became a cathedral church in 1886. At its entrance is inscribed the date 1642, the only memorial to de Nevers in the city - provided you know what the date means, the year the first church was built in the town called Madraspatnam.
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