Kombai S Anwar, Published in The Hindu, dated 28th October 2022 with minor addition

Birds eyeview of St. Mary's Church, Fort St George, Chennai

“Westminster Abbey is considered to be the mother church of Anglicans in England. So this (St. Mary’s Church) is considered as the mother church of the (Protestant) Christians in the east.” says Church Historian Dr. Arthur Jayakumar, in the recently released documentary film ‘Westminster Abbey of the East’. While the comparison might sound exaggerated, there is no denial of the fact that St Mary’s is the oldest Anglican church outside the United Kingdom. And because of its strategic location within Fort St George, then the seat of power, it was associated with many important historical personalities, “who went on to create modern India”, according to S Muthiah, the chronicler of Madras.

With the Directors of the East India Company not so keen about encouraging religious activities, a little over four decades after Francis Day and Andrew Cogan founded Madras, it was left to the ingenuity of Streynsham Master, the Company’s Agent at Madras to initiate the construction of the Anglican church. With funds collected from more amenable members of the Governing Council at Fort St. George, Master had the St.Mary’s Church consecrated on 28th October, 1680. Probably this led Master being recalled to London soon thereafter by the Company Directors. (Streynsham Master’s descendent is Jeremy Hunt, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer of UK).

It was at St.Mary’s Church that Elihu Yale got married and so did Robert Clive. While Yale’s gift, post his retirement, that led to the establishment of the Yale University is well known, not so known is his equally significant contribution along with the church to the third hospital to be built in Madras, which has now evolved into the Rajiv Gandhi Government Hospital. Later there were accusations of him profiteering from Slave Trade, which was forbidden by the Mughals. Throwing light on such unknown facts, the film scripted by Rev. Dr. Krubha Lily Elizabeth, who was presbyter at the church (2011 to may, 2017), weaves a fascinating picture of the church history, with the help of Church registry and material strewn all over the church, as tombstones, memorials, and gifts to the church, in its’ aisle, the walls and the courtyard. Not stopping with that, it travels across the land, to Masulipatnam, Calcutta, Bombay and Surat, talking to people, to give us a better understanding of the people associated with the Church and their lasting influence.

As the film progresses, and speaks of the finely chiseled marble memorials on either side of the inner walls, one understands as to why the St Mary’s church is known as the ‘Westminster Abbey of the East.’ The memorials in St Mary’s were chiselled in London by the sculptors, such as John Bacon and John Flaxman, whose works also adorn the Westminster Abbey at London. Interestingly the film reveals another curious coincidence between the two Anglican churches, that of their association with Freemasonry. With many British monarchs, East India Company officials and Governors being Freemasons, and Richard Hall Kerr, the chaplain at St Mary’s who was also the worship master at Freemason Lodge, it comes as no surprise to see freemason symbols on some of the sculptures in the Church. This refreshing honesty to speak about the Church and its congregations past is what makes the film endearing.

In a matter of one hour and forty minutes, the film glides through some of the important contribution the Church and its members have made to the Madras Presidency, be it the education system, healthcare or translation of Thirukural into English, and much more. The documentary film made with the encouragement of Rt. Rev. Dr. J. George Stephen, Bishop in Madras, and Kattiyakkari Productions is a valuable addition to our understanding of the history of the region and the forces that shaped us.

Pics courtesy: Rev. Dr. Krubha Lily Elizabeth.