St Marks Church, George Town, Chennai

Strictly speaking, this structure is not lost for it still stands. But figuratively it is, for chances are that nobody in the George (formerly Black) Town area will have any idea as to where it is. That is so even if you enquire about it with the name that is current – St. Mark’s Church. But be of good cheer – for you now have it – to reach the place you need to go the northern end of Broadway, look out for the last cutting on the left, which was once known as George Town Chapel Church Street and is now known as Cheppal Church Street. To make it plainer, this is the street that divides the properties of the Bharathi Women’s College and Bishop Corrie Higher Secondary School. The whole area is also known as B.R. Thottam, which originally stood for Bundar Rama Garden. As to who Bundar Rama was, I have no clue.

Reaching the end of Chapel Church Street, you take a right and look to your right and that is where the Church is, set in the middle of a fairly large compound. Hemming it in on all sides are later constructions – a kindergarten school on the left and the house of the pastor on the right. The church’s façade and much of its interiors have been modernised, but then it is still standing, which is something.

The Chapel owes its existence to Dr. Richard Hall Kerr. Born in Dublin, on February 3, 1769 as the elder son of the Rev. Lewis Kerr, he came from a family that had a long ecclesiastical connection. He graduated from Trinity College, Dublin in 1788 and after a brief but unsuccessful journey to America, he returned home to be ordained as a Deacon in 1789. He then embarked for India, arriving in Bombay on June 5, 1790. A couple of years later, he desired to return to Ireland, in particular to obtain priestly ordination, for which he was under age when he had originally left home. Having embarked on board the ship Perseverance, he found himself offloaded in Madras owing to his having contracted a fever. Recuperating at St. Thomas’ Mount, he befriended the Hon. Basil Cochrane (he of Cochrane’s Canal fame) and at the latter’s advice began work on establishing a seminary “on a respectable and extensive scale” in Black Town. This was successful and he came to the notice of Sir Charles Oakley, Governor, who appointed him a chaplain of the East India Company, to be stationed with the 4th battalion of European Infantry at Ellore.

Arriving in Ellore, Kerr was to discover that the residents of the place did not have a building for worship and set about collecting money for the same. Within a short while, a considerable sum was collected and to this the Government assured him an addition of 1,000 pagodas. Buoyed by this, Kerr set about the construction of a church. In the interim, he married Miss Eliza Falconer of Madras, on August 16, 1794. The next year brought several difficulties – the Board of Directors in London suspended his appointment, chiefly on the grounds that a Governor of Madras did not have the powers to issue such orders. This was, however, appealed against by the then incumbent, Lord Hobart. In the meanwhile, Mrs Kerr fell seriously ill and even while she was recuperating came orders that the troops were to leave Ellore and so work on the church was to be stopped immediately. This was to leave Kerr considerably embarrassed financially. But he was saved by an anonymous letter that contained a gift of 500 pagodas together with the instruction that he ought not to search for the donor but acknowledge receipt by means of thanks published in the Madras Courier!

That almost Dumas-esque episode was to be a turning point. In 1796 came the gratifying news that Dr. Andrew Bell was leaving Madras and the Government had appointed Kerr to succeed him as the Superintendent of the Male Orphan Asylum in Egmore. Shortly thereafter came the news that the Board of Directors in London had relented and agreed to confirming his chaplaincy. In September 1796, Kerr was appointed Junior Chaplain of Fort St. George. But the Asylum remained his first love and there, in 1798, he introduced at his expense, a printing press complete with types and other equipment. The orphans were trained in this technology and, by 1799, the Orphan Asylum Press was sufficiently well established for the Government to begin using it. By 1812, long after Kerr was dead, it was estimated that the Government saved 4,000 pounds annually by contracting its printing requirements to the Press. A better known product of the press was the Madras Almanac, a veritable compendium on the Presidency that it brought out for years. Many years later the Government acquired the press which moved to Mount Road, where it functioned for a long time. The Department of Industries put up its offices on land fronting the press and that is today the Poompuhar building. The premises of the erstwhile press were demolished recently to make way for Metro Rail development.

To get back to Kerr, it was in 1796 that he first mooted the idea that a chapel ought to be built in Black Town. This coincided with a petition sent in by 100 Christian residents of the area asking for a Protestant Chapel to be built in the area. Kerr volunteered his assistance and further requested the Government that its 1,000 pagodas, committed to the Ellore Church but lying unspent, together with construction materials that he had collected, be utilised for the proposed chapel in Black Town. The Government was more than willing and there remained the matter of selecting a suitable site for the construction. It was Kerr who went about scouting for land and it was he who eventually zeroed in on the spot where the chapel now stands.

Continued here

This article is part of a series on Lost/vanishing/surviving Landmarks of Chennai. You can read the earlier instalments here