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Chapter 9: Roman Catholic, Madras

When the English first came to Madras, there were numerous Roman Catholic churches in the neighbouring Portuguese settlement of San Thomé, but there were none within the tract of land that Mr. Francis Day acquired in the Company's behalf. When, therefore, at the Company's invitation, a number of Portuguese from San Thomé, both pure-blooded and mixed, came and settled down in the Company's White Town, they were necessarily compelled to resort to the ministrations of Portuguese priests who belonged to the San Thomé Mission; and within a year of the foundation of Fort St. George, the Portuguese missionaries built a church in the outskirts of the British settlement. This was the Church of the Assumption, which stands in what is still called 'Portuguese Street' in Georgetown, and is therefore a building of historic note. To the Company's representatives the ministrations of Portuguese priests to residents of Madras were objectionable; for the relations between Madras and San Thomé were by no means friendly. It is true that when Mr. Francis Day was treating for the acquisition of a site, the Portuguese at Mylapore had furthered his efforts; but such a mark of apparent good will was no more than the outcome of Portuguese hostility to the Dutch; for they hoped that the English at Madras would be powerful allies with themselves against the aggressive Hollanders. As soon, however, as Madras had begun to be built and English trade to be actively pushed, jealousies arose and disagreements occurred; and the Company's representatives chafed at the idea that Portuguese priests should be the spiritual advisers of residents of Madras.

In 1642, when Madras was in its third year, a certain Father Ephraim, a French Capuchin, chanced to set foot in Madras. Father Ephraim had been sent out from Paris as a missionary to Pegu; and he had travelled across India from Surat to Masulipatam, where, according to his instructions, he was to have secured a passage to Pegu in one of the Company's ships. His information was out of date; for the Agency had lately been transferred from Masulipatam to Madras, and the Company's ships for Pegu were sailing now from Madras instead of from Masulipatam; so Father Ephraim journeyed southward from Masulipatam to look for a vessel at the new settlement. At Madras no vessel was starting immediately, and Father Ephraim had to bide his time. Meanwhile he made himself useful by ministering to the Roman Catholics of the place. Official and other documents show that Father Ephraim was a very devout and a very able man. He was 'an earnest Christian,' 'a polished linguist,' able to converse in English, Portuguese and Dutch, besides his own French, and he was conversant with Persian and Arabic. He had the charm of attractive friendliness, which is so common with Frenchmen, and he captivated all with whom he conversed. The Portuguese and other Roman Catholic inhabitants of Madras, to whom the Company's disapproval of the ministrations of Portuguese priests had been a frequent source of trouble, formally petitioned Father Ephraim to settle down in the city; and the Governor in Council, greatly preferring a French priest to a Portuguese and thoroughly approving of Father Ephraim personally, supported the petition with a formal order that, if the priest would stay, a site would be provided on which he might build a church for his flock. Father Ephraim himself was not unwilling to stay, but he was under orders for Pegu, and, furthermore, Madras was within the diocese of San Thomé, and the Bishop was not likely to approve of a scheme in which the ministrations of his own priests would be set at naught in favour of a stranger. The Company, however, was influential. A reference was made to Father Ephraim's Capuchin superiors in Paris, and they approved of his remaining in Madras; another reference was made to Rome, asking that the British territory of Madras should be ecclesiastically separated from the Portuguese diocese of Mylapore, and the Pope issued a decree to that effect.

A site for a church, as also for a priest's house, was provided in White Town, within the Fort St. George of to-day, and a small church, dedicated to St. Andrew, was built; and for a good many years it was the only church of any kind in the settlement.

The Portuguese ecclesiastics of Mylapore were never reconciled to this ecclesiastical separation of Madras, and when Father Ephraim went by invitation to Mylapore to discuss certain ecclesiastical business, he was forthwith arrested, clapped in irons, and shipped off to Goa and lodged in the prison of the Inquisition. The Governor of Fort St. George took the matter in hand, but Father Ephraim was in prison more than two years before he was eventually released and sent back to Madras.

Later, Father Ephraim rebuilt St. Andrew's Church on a larger plan, and the building was opened with ceremony; and Master Patrick Warner, the Company's Protestant Chaplain at Fort St. George, complained indignantly to the Directors in England that Governor Langhorn had celebrated the popish occasion with the 'firing of great guns' and with 'volleys of small shot by all the soldiers in garrison.'

Father Ephraim had already built a church in old Black Town, which seems to have stood somewhere within what is now the site of the High Court. Another French Capuchin had meanwhile come to Madras to help him in his ministrations to his ever-increasing flock; so the church in Black Town had its regular pastor.

After more than fifty years of self-sacrificing work in Madras, Father Ephraim died of old age, sincerely esteemed by all who knew him.

Some years after his death St. Andrew's was again rebuilt, and it was now a large edifice, with a high bell-tower, and a small churchyard around. In the suburban district of Muthialpet there was also a 'Portuguese Burying Place,' which is now the 'compound' of the Roman Catholic Cathedral and its associated buildings in Armenian Street; and a small church stood within this enclosure. Adjoining the Portuguese Burying Place was the 'Armenian Burying Place,' which is now the enclosure of the Armenian church; and it was the Armenian Burying Place that gave the name to the street.

When Madras was captured by the French, there were people who said that the French priests in Madras had given information to their countrymen; and three years later, when Madras was restored to the Company, the Governor in Council confiscated St. Andrew's church. A reference to the Directors in England as to what they were to do with the confiscated building brought back the very decisive reply that they were "immediately on the receipt of this, without fail to demolish the Portuguese Church in the White Town at Madras, and not suffer it to stand." The church was demolished accordingly, as also a Roman Catholic chapel in Vepery. The church in old Black Town had already been demolished by the French when they destroyed the greater part of old Black Town itself; and, in accordance with another edict of the Directors in England, by which the Company's representatives in Madras were "absolutely forbid suffering any Romish Church within the bounds, or even to suffer the public profession of the Romish religion," Roman Catholicism was altogether scouted in Madras.

Twenty-five years later, the English troops, after defeating the French in various engagements, captured Pondicherry and demolished its fortifications; and the peace of Paris left the French in India powerless. With the danger of French aggression removed for good, the Company were less intolerant of the religion which Frenchmen professed; and a few years later they paid the Capuchin priests some Rs. 50,000 as compensation for the destruction of the church in White Town and of the chapel in Vepery.

With funds thus in their hands, the Capuchin fathers set about building a new church in the 'Burying Place.' This new church, which they built in 1775, was the edifice which is now the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Armenian Street. On the gate-posts appears the date 1642, but this was the year in which the Company made a grant of the land for a Roman Catholic Cemetery and in which Father Ephraim arrived and the Madras Mission began, and is not the date of the building of the present church or of its predecessor. The Capuchin missionaries continued in charge of Roman Catholic affairs in Madras until 1832, in which year they were put under episcopal jurisdiction.

Reference has been made in this chapter and elsewhere to the churches that were already in existence in Mylapore when the English first settled in Madras. According to local tradition, the Apostle St. Thomas made his way to the East, and, after preaching in various parts of India, settled down in the ancient Hindu town of Mylapore, where he made numerous converts. The Hindu priests, indignant at the loss of so many of their clients, sought the missionary's life. The Apostle, according to the tradition, lived in a small cave on a small hill--the 'Little Mount'--fed by birds and drinking the water of a spring that bubbled up miraculously within the cave. Driven from the cave, he fled to another hill, a mile or so away--'St. Thomas's Mount'--where he was killed with a lance. The dead body was buried at Mylapore. Such is the story; and in the present-day church on the Little Mount the visitor is shown a cave which is said to have been the Apostle's hiding-place; and within the nave of the cathedral at Mylapore he is shown a hole in the ground--now lined with marble--in which the Martyr's remains are said to have been buried.

When the Portuguese came to Mylapore in the early part of the sixteenth century, they built a church upon the ruins of an ancient church that had enclosed the tomb; and the new church became eventually the Cathedral of San Thomé. The sixteenth century building was pulled down in 1893, and the present Cathedral--a handsome Gothic structure--was built. Mylapore is now a suburb of Madras, and is within British dominion; but the bishopric, which was originally supported by the King of Portugal, who had the right of nominating the bishop, is still supported by the Portuguese Government.

Mylapore has a history of its own that is outside the scope of the 'Story of Madras;' but a few words about the glories of a city that is now a suburb of Madras will not be out of place.

Mylapore and Madras, standing side by side, are a conjunction of the old and the young. Mylapore, or Meliapore, the 'Peacock City' of the ancient Hindu world, has existed for twenty centuries, and perhaps a great many more; Madras has existed less than three. It was at Mylapore that, according to tradition, the body of the martyred Apostle St. Thomas was buried; Mylapore was the birth-place of Tiruvalluvar, an old and illustrious Tamil author who belonged to the down-trodden class, and of Peyalvar, an eminent Vaishnavite saint and writer; it was here that a company of Saivaite saints, Appar and his fellows, assembled together and wrote their well-known hymns; and it was here also that Mastan, a renowned Mohammedan scholar, lived and wrote and died.

Of the ancient glories of Mylapore no vestige remains; but several of the churches of the Mylapore diocese belong to the sixteenth century, including the celebrated 'Luz' Church, the Church of the Madre-de-Deus at San Thomé and the little Church of Our Lady of Refuge between Mylapore and Saidapet, besides the churches at the Little Mount and St. Thomas's Mount, of which the latter is a sixteenth-century development of an old chapel that existed there before the coming of the Portuguese.

It is of interest to note that there are those who say that a Mylapore church gave its name to the city of Madras. They say--not, I believe, without evidence--that the rural village of Madraspatam, where Mr. Francis Day selected a site for the Company's settlement, had been colonized by fisherfolk from the parish of the Madre-de-Deus Church--the Church of the Mother of God--and that the emigrant fisherfolk called their village by the name of their parish, and that the name was eventually corrupted into 'Madras.' The origin of the name 'Madras' is uncertain; and the explanation is at any rate interesting and not unlikely to be true.