Neglected and Endangered 304 Year Old Armenian Church

When and where was the 1st Armenian Newspaper ever published?? It was established at the Armenian Church of Virgin Mary, on October 16, 1794 in the city of Madras (now Chennai) in India by Father Harutyun Shmavonyan. It is also the first non English newspaper published in India.
“Azdarar” continued for a year and a half until March 1796. During that period, Father Shmavonian published 18 issues, 965 pages in total.

The Armenian Church of Virgin Mary, located on “the Armenian Street”, famous for its belfry of six, is one of the oldest churches of the Indian subcontinent, that was constructed in Parrys, Chennai, Madras, in 1712 and reconstructed in 1772. Most recently it was restored by the Armenian Community of Calcutta. In November 2008, His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians visited the church according to TNN: “In the last few decades, services have become a rarity in the 304-year-old church with mass being served only on Christmas by a high priest, who comes down from the Armenian Apostolic Church in Kolkata.”

The church is opened from 9 am to 2 pm every day since it attracts tourists and every once in a few months, few families of Armenian Origin show up either for tourism or tracing their ancestors in the graveyard next to the church whose flagstones are inlaid with the graves of about 350 Armenians.” The stone epitaphs also bear testament to the lives of Armenian merchants, being embedded with grapes, quills, grain, ships, etc,” said Jude Johnson, caretaker of the Armenian church aka Church of Holy Virgin Mother Mary.

The six bells are all of different sizes, varying from 21 to 26 inches, and weigh around 150 kg each, They are believed to be the largest and heaviest bells of Chennai. One bell, with Armenian inscription dates to 1754. This was recast in 1808 and also bears Tamil inscription.
One bell’s inscription indicates that it dates to 1778.
Inscriptions on two bells indicate that they were given to the Church in memory of 19 year Eliazar Shawmier, buried in the Church’s garden. Shawmier was the youngest son of a leading Armenian merchant of the city of Madras (now Chennai) on whose private chapel ground the present Church stands.
The remaining two bells date to 1837 and were cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, then known as Mears & Stainbank, with inscriptions reading “Thomas Mears, Founder, London”. (WIKI)

TNN‘s Rachel Chitral reports : “With insufficient funds and lack of public interest, certain portions of the church such as its famous bell tower, housing 26-inch wide bells, overhead pews and wooden rafters- built with Burmese wood- need massive repair. These portions have been cordoned off for the general public as they are unsafe for use.”

Acoording to TNN ” The city has its own rich blend of mosques, rubbing shoulders with temples and churches. But while the city’s Roman Catholic, Protestant, Syrian Christian, Marthoma churches, and those other denominations see a steady stream of church attendants and visitors… the Armenian church is solitary in its inclusiveness.”

We are a proud nation, but does our pride and conscience forgive us if we leave our churches in such a poor condition? Is this the future of the churches that we attend nowadays? Why isn’t there an Armenian Caretaker for starters, why are there no Armenian priests present? No wonder how easy it is nowadays to shut down Schools and cut the nerves of the still breathing Armenians in the Diaspora who have survived because of these institutions and churches who once were the shelter and inception of The Armenian Diaspora Continuance and survival.

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