Thursday, November 1, 2018

Armenian Church, George Town – History

Armenian Church, George Town – History
Armenia was the first country in the world that adopted Christianity as its official religion in 301 AD. There are churches from fourth century AD in Armenia. The presence of the Armenians in Madras can be traced all the way back to 1512. There are records of Armenians informing the Portuguese of the grave of St Thomas that was found in Madras.
The most famous Armenian in Madras was Coja Petrus Uscan, who is remembered for constructing or donating to the many remaining Armenian relics in the city. He was the heir of a family that had trade relations with the East for generations. But he settled in Madras only in 1723, on his return from Manila. A philanthropist, he contributed to several religious institutions in Madras.
There’s also the story of Coja Petrus Uscan draping the Armenian Street in silk to welcome the Nawabs of Carnatic when they visited Madras. Petrus Uscan built the first bridge across the Adyar River in 1728, the Marmalong Bridge – now the Marai Malai Adigal Bridge in Saidapet – and also the steps leading to the shrine atop St Thomas Mount.
It is believed that Armenians came to Chennai city in the 16th century CE for the purpose of trade and they settled down in the city slowly. The Armenian church or the Church of Virgin Mary was constructed by the Armenian community. The Armenians were once a rich community that made significant contributions, economic and cultural, to the Chennai city. Now there are only 275 registered Armenians in India. Michael Stephen was the caretaker of the Church until 2004; as of 2010 the caretaker of the Church was Trevor Alexander.
The first Armenian Church in Chennai was built in 1712 in the Esplanade of the city. The second Armenian church, dedicated to the Holy Virgin Mary was built in 1772 at the site of the old Armenian burial ground on which stood a chapel where services were conducted, while the present church was being built. The ground belonged to Agah Shameer.
The first church was built of timber in the present High Court area with permission from the East India Company. The Armenians were given 50 pounds to manage the expenses of the church. This encouraged more traders to settle in and around the area. Vestiges of Old Madras by H.D. Love points out that the earliest Armenian church, situated in Old Black Town, as shown in Thomas Pitt’s map, was probably built shortly after the Company entered into a covenant with the Armenian residents in India.
The new church, however, was consecrated in Aga Shawmier’s chapel grounds in George Town. The street on which the church is situated continues to be called the Armenian Street, where the settlers once lived. The first Armenian journal, Azdarar, was published here in Madras in 1794 by Rev. Haruthiun Shmavonian. There’s still a copy of it preserved in Armenia today. There’s also the hand-embroidered altar curtain that was presented by the Madras Armenians around 1780, which is still intact and used during the services in the Etchmiadzin Cathedral (holy cathedral) in Armenia.
The first draft constitution for Armenia was also put together here around 1780s. In April 1904 Mesrovb Seth paid his first visit to the church. In November 9, 2008 His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, reconsecrated the church.

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