Continued from here
Even though the Government had readily agreed to part funding a chapel in Black Town, there were some murmurs that the salary of a regular pastor would be a continuing charge. Kerr allayed these fears stating that he would minister to the parish free of cost and that this would be in addition to the time he spent at the Church of St. Mary’s in the Fort. John Goldingham, Government Astronomer, who would later design the Banqueting (Rajaji) Hall, planned the church and work began in 1798. It was completed a year later and on the first Sunday of 1800, the Rev. Kerr delivered the first sermon there. He would minister to the devout here every evening thereafter until his passing, except when he was away from the city or was unwell.
In 1802, Kerr proceeded to England to formally receive priest’s orders from the Archbishop. Returning to Madras in 1803 with a doctorate that he received from his alma mater in Dublin, Dr. Kerr, as he now was to be known, formally consecrated the Black Town chapel on February 5, 1804. He had received a special sanction from the Archbishop of Canterbury for this. It is interesting to note that there is a black stone plaque on the church’s gate post today that claims consecration to have been done in 1805!
Dr. Kerr became the senior chaplain of Madras in 1805 and from then on was a pillar of the church, with his influence being felt in Mysore, Malabar and elsewhere in Madras Presidency. He repeatedly petitioned the Government on matters ecclesiastical and also busied himself printing several Christian tracts, all of which were churned out by the press in the Asylum. He also interested himself in Freemasonry, joining the Lodge Perfect Unanimity, which, founded in 1786, is today the oldest surviving entity of its kind in South India. His career in that Order is not very edifying for he along with a few brothers from the same Lodge practically hijacked the workings of the Provincial Grand Lodge, the umbrella body in a Masonic District to which all Lodges are subordinate.
But it was entirely due to his efforts that the Freemasons of the city began to donate generously to the Male Orphan Asylum. Long after his death, the Masons of Madras in 1823 would contribute to a building for the Asylum in Egmore. They also kept up the practice of awarding scholarships to deserving students from the Asylum and continued with it long after the institution was absorbed into the St. George’s School and Orphanage on Poonamallee High Road. It is noteworthy that plaques commemorating various donations by the Freemasons still survive within the school premises. Masonic interest in St. George’s would cease only in the 1980s. Reverting to Dr. Kerr, he was laid low by a fever in 1808 and died the same year, on April 15, which happened to be Good Friday. He was laid to rest in the Black Town chapel.
And so we come to the present. Of parishioners, the Church has very few and services are conducted only on Sunday mornings. Its best years were clearly in the 19th Century. John Gantz, who left behind many views of Madras and who ran his famed lithographic press in Vyasarpadi, was one of the members of this church and also served as its trustee.
The chapel is very well maintained inside. The Rev. Dr. Kerr’s last resting place is right in the middle of the aisle and cannot be missed. Of considerable beauty is a monument to him on one of the walls of the church. This features a black obelisk on which some books are resting. The records of St. Mary’s Church in the Fort state that an organ was sent from there to this chapel sometime in the 1890s. That is nowhere to be seen now.
If the Rev. Kerr’s monument is majestic because of its size, that of the Rev. Morgan Davis, which adorns the opposite wall, is of white marble, small and very elegant. He became the pastor of St. Mark’s in 1810 and died at the Cape of Good Hope. The parishioners of St. Mark’s then erected this memorial to him. There are a couple of other plaques within the church. Reading some of them you realise that being chaplain of St. Mark’s also meant being Superintendent of the Civil Male Orphan Asylum, at least until 1880 or so, when it merged with its military counterpart and migrated elsewhere.
St. Mark’s is a church well worth a visit. The pastor is extremely friendly and is quite happy to get the caretaker to open the normally locked building and allow people to take a look around.
The content of this article has relied heavily on The Christian Observer of 1813, Vol 11, which carries details on Dr Kerr’s life and the construction of the church. It also refers to my own original research for the book Brotherhood & Benevolence, History of English Freemasonry on the Coromandel Coast, co-authored with Karthik A Bhatt and published by the District Grand Lodge, Madras in 2017
This article is part of a series on forgotten Landmarks of Chennai. You can read the others here