‘Westminster Abbey of the East’ is what people call the St. Mary’s Church in Fort St. George of Chennai. Historically known as White Town, Fort St. George is the first British fortress in India.
The East India Company started the construction of a fort and harbor in the area and was completed on April 23, 1644, which was also the day of the Feast of St. George in England. Because of this, they named the new settlement as Georgetown. St. Mary’s Church was built within the fort’s six-meter high walls by architects Edward Foule and William Dixon. It was designed to withstand bombings and attacks which explains the four feet thick roof of the church. Laid down on the Annunciation day of the Virgin Mary, thus the name, the church construction was completed after two years and was consecrated by Rev. Richard Portman in 1679.
The building is the first English church and India’s’ oldest surviving British establishment in the city of Chennai. Surrounding the religious building is the churchyard where a large number of Roman Catholic tombstones can be seen. The church building itself has evolved in terms of design over the years. Although the building was completed 1678, the tower was not constructed until 1701 and the steeple in 1710. The church took its present form only by 1795 while the sanctuary and vestry were added also around this time.
The building, which stands on a good 5,400 square feet in area, is covered with a curved roof that looks like a dome. The walls, built with bricks and lime are lighted naturally by the sunlight filtering in through the glass windows. Walking inside the Church, you will see different wooden and glass designs adding to the ambience of serenity and solemnity. This then brings a feeling of solace and peace to the visitors.
There are several interesting parts of the church aside from the architectural design itself. One is the beautiful altarpiece, which has been a part of the church since the 18th century. You will also see the famous painting that depicts the Last Supper. It is believed that Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino painted the central figures himself. The painting was then brought to Madras or Chennai City as part of the loot taken by the British soldiers from Pondicherry. Other important artifacts are the 1660 bible and silver plates.
An interesting fact about the church is that because of its structure to hold against bombs, the church functioned as a military barracks during the second carnatic war and other invasions attempted in Madras. The Archaeological Survey of India currently protects the St. Mary’s Church of Chennai, which holds the earliest registries of baptisms, burials, and weddings in India. Today however, the church offers a vast knowledge of how the settlement evolved to its present state.
Getting to this famous landmark is easy because it is just about 3.1 km away from the Chennai Railway Station providing easy access to tourists and visitors. This prominent white edifice of St. Mary’s Church then continues to be an important place of worship in Chennai up to this day.