Santhome Church History

Great care has been taken before presenting this history in public domain. Several days of intensive reading, reference of most available literatures across ages, geographies, traditions and cultures have gone into the presentation of this content. Efforts have been taken to present most acceptable, acknowledged, logical and validated information gathered from various resources. However we invite readers to let us know of any inclusions or exclusions along with valuable justifications to keep this all important Historic content closest possible to logical truth.

Brief summary of Saint Thomas in India in Chronological order

EVENTS                                                                                                                   YEAR
Saint Thomas the Apostle at King Gondaphares in North India.                  40 AD
Saint Thomas the Apostle lands at Cranganore.                                               52 AD
Saint Thomas the Apostle builds churches or communities
(Palayoor, Kodungaloor, Parur, Kokamangalam, Niranam,
Nilackal, Kollam).                                                                                                    52-68 AD
Martyrdom of  Saint Thomas the Apostle at
Mylapore, India July 3rd.                                                                                        68-72  AD

Nearly 2000 years ago a reluctant apostle was sent to an unknown destination to spread the word of God and this particular apostle who plays a significant role in bringing to reality the resurrection of our Lord was none other than Thomas Didymus. Thomas is mentioned as one of the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus himself in Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15. Though he was called “Thomas the twin” there is no credible mention about whose twin he was. 

Although little is known about his lineage, Thomas ‘s presence in the Gospel is finely etched. His loyalty and steadfastness is portrayed in John 11:16 when he says “Let us all go, that we may die with him” his humility, clean hearted and straight forward approach is portrayed in John 14:5 when after failing to understand Jesus’s teaching about his death and resurrection he raises a doubt “We do not know wither though goest. How can we know the way? Leading to Jesus’s concise revelation “I am the way, The Truth and the Life”. Finally in being the only disciple who was absent when the risen Jesus appeared before his co-disciples, he became the chosen one by divine providence to ratify the resurrection of Jesus, by representing every common man in insisting with childish persistence that his belief lay in his touching the wounds of Christ. Jesus’s response to this universal doubt addressed to all doubting Thomases in John 20: 27 “Put your finger here and look at my hands, Then stretch out your hand and put it in my side. Stop doubting and believe” put to rest all speculations about his resurrection.  That was not all, what followed provided the much needed comfort to future believers when Jesus said “How happy are those who believe without seeing me”. Thomas confessed his faith “My Lord and My God” and lived to fulfill it to the last word by his martyrdom. Thomas is also mentioned as being present at another resurrection appearance of Jesus – at the miraculous catch of fish on lake Tiberias.

A vast majority of early writings point to thomas’s apostolic ministry in India specifically Cranganore along the Malabar coast from 52 A.D to 68 A.D. His journey through Kerala resulted in numerous conversions. After spending 10 years on the Malabar coast he is said to have traveled Eastwards across the Deccan Plateau, Arriving in Mylapore in 68 A.D. The cave at little mount used to be his favourite preaching spot. A 2000 years old never drying, miraculous stream of water on rock face is a shining example of the apostle’s divine (overtures) exploits. Thomas, is said to have struck the dry mountain rock and water trickled out as a small stream. 2000 years have passed by and even unto this day this infinite source of water is quenching the thirst and curing illness of millions of faithful pilgrims and devotees. The church atop St. Thomas mount was built by Portuguese in 1547 to mark the spot here. It was on this St. Thomas mount that the apostle was killed by a lance which pierced through his backside. A blood stained cross which the apostle is said to have been clutching during his martyrdom would bleed annually on 18th day of December commencing 1551 through the years to 1704.

His mortal remains were buried in the location over which the present day Santhome Cathedral Basilica stands. Sometime in the 10th century AD a group of Nestorian Christians from Persia founded the Christian village of San Thome and proceeded to build a church over the burial site of St. Thomas. This structure fell to ruins between 14th and 15th century. In 1522 the Portuguese moved the apostle’s remains to a new tomb and church which attained the status of Cathedral in 1606.

Pope Pius XII honored the Cathedral Church of the Archdiocese of Madras- Mylapore raising her to the dignity and rank of Minor Basilica by apostolic brief dated 16th March 1956. Massive following and immense devotion of people to a very ancient image of the Blessed Virgin also known as “Our Lady of Mylapore” was among the motives that prompted the Pope to bestow this honor.

There was 118 years of insecurity and uncertainty from the time the Golconda’s occupied San Thome in 1662 to 1780 when Hyder Ali khan invaded it. No considerable changes happened to the original structure of the church built in 1523. It was only in 1893 that his Excellency Dom Henrique Jose Reed da Silva, Bishop of Mylapore resolved to build a new church with the tomb of the apostle in the centre. The second small tower in the centre of the existing cathedral points to the exact place where the apostle was buried. Golden Jubilee day of episcopal consecration of his Holiness Pope Leo XIII was aptly chosen to lay the foundation to this Most Holy monument of international eminence. The present Gothic style church was completed in 1896 and duly consecrated by Rt. Rev. Dom Henrique Jose Reed da Silva, the first Bishop of the diocese. In 1956 the church was elevated to the status of a Minor Basilica. The new bell was consecrated by the Bishop of Dacca and the architect of the cathedral Captain Power helped to ring the first merry chime.

Nearly 2000 years have gone by and with it the several invasions, devastations caused by nature and humans reducing it to mere stone and mortar, this holy structure has seen it all.

On December 12th, 2004 our very own Santhome Cathedral so redolent with Christian traditions and antiquities, rose like a phoenix from the time worn, lifeless state towering into the skies majestically, dressed like a bride in virgin white robes, beckoning like a beacon of hope, our Basilica proclaims the Glory of God through his beloved Apostle St. Thomas.

History of Saint Thomas or San Thome Cathedral Basilica cannot not be complete without mentioning two other places in Chennai that stand out as monuments of honour, speaking aloud about the presence, activities and the martyrdom of St. Thomas, the Apostle of india. They are

  • Little Mount – Shrine of Our lady of Good Health – Chinna Malai
  • St Thomas Mount

  • Little Mount – Shrine of Our lady of Good Health – Chinna Malai (History) This Holy Shrine may be said to have had its origin in about the year 68A.D. when the Holy Apostle received the first stroke of Martyrdom. Tradition confirms and the ancient writers from the first century give testimony of this fact. This place was precious in the sight of those who had a great devotion towards the glory of our Lord Jesus. This unfailing veneration was rooted in the heart of the ancient Rajahs and great men of this country. Before the Portuguese held sway over this part of the country the early Rajahs and Nawabs of the Place were sympathetic protectors of this Holy Shrine. The Portuguese first settled in the neighbourhood in 1503 A.D. when Albuquerque founded a settlement at Mylapore. At that period the whole of this part of the country was subject to the Hindu King of Vijayanagar whose capital after 1556 A.D. was at Chandragiri, 70 miles. The Little Mount and its suburb lands were outside English territory in 1646 A.D. which is proved by the conditions offered by the French after their capture of Madras. At this period of Nawab of Carnatic was the ruler of this part who had also acknowledged the possession by the mission of the Hill and adjacent lands. This acknowledgement was influenced by an Armenian merchant Sulamier who was living till after 1767 A.D. Just after the treaty of Paris in the year 1763 the East India Company acquired a jaghir consisting of a large extent of land near Madras from the Nawab of Arcot. The Church authorities held in possession, however, long before the East India Company acquired the Jaghir from Nawab of Arcot, extensive lands besides the Hill at Little Mount. On this consideration Lord Clive, the then Governor of Madras recognized the possession of the Hill at Little Mount and suburb lands by the mission by the official Grant No.933 dated 28th October, 1803; in favour of the Right Reverend Fr.Jose de piedade Ag, Bishop of Mylapore as religious endowment under the classification of religious service Inam without any restriction whatever. The situation of the Inam land as given in the above said Grant No,933 of 1803 is the following. North bounded by Saidapet Road, South bounded by Venkatapuram Road, East bounded by Venkatapuram Road. West bounded by the Bridge (containing the whole) It was, as the tradition tells us, the place where St. Thomas preached frequently. In spite of what has been said to give an earlier origin to the Church at Little Mount, it does not seem to have been built earlier than 1551. Fr.Guy Yachard, S.J. who was in Mylapore and Little Mount in 1710 writes. “From the Church of Our Lady one climbs to the top of the mount, where our Fathers have erected a small building. It is built on the rock, which needed much labour to level in order to make this small hermitage somewhat comfortable. At the southern end of the hermitage, which is squarebuilt, is the Church of the Resurrection. A cross, one foot high, is to be seen there, in a small hollow made in the rock, on which the altar of the Church rests. This little cross, which is in relief and cut in the hollow of the rock, entirely resembles that of Great Mount except in size… About 1551, Little Mount, which was till then only a steep rocky elevation, began to be cleared and levelled for the convenience of the pilgrims. The fact is stated on a big stone, which has been fixed at the top of the steps towards the north of the hill. The Church of Our Lady was built the small hermitage which is on the top of the rock, and the Church of the Resurrection, where the cross engraved on the rock is to be found. Fr. Tachard also mentions two other monuments at Little Mount. One is the cave and the other is the miraculous spring. Of the cave he writes: Seven or eight steps lead to the altar, beneath which there is cave about 14 feet broad and 15 or 16 feet long…One enters it with some difficulty through a crevice in the rock… It has not been thought fit to embellish this entrance, or even to change anything in the whole cave, because it is believed that St. Thomas often retired into this solitary place to pray. Our Missionaries have put up an altar at the eastern end of the cave. There is a tradition among the people that a sort of window on the southern end of about 2 feet, which throws a very dim light into the cave, was miraculously made and that it was through this opening that St. Thomas escaped. Of the miraculous spring Fr. Tachard has left us this record. This is called St. Thomas fountain. There is a rather common Tradition in the country that the Holy Apostle who lived at Little Mount, being moved to see that the people who came in crowds to hear his preaching suffered much from thirst, as water could be had only at a great distance on the plain, knelt in prayer on the highest part of the hill, struck the rock with his stick, and instantly there gushed forth a spring of clear water, which cured the sick when they drank of it trusting in the intercession of the Saint. The stream which now runs at the foot of Little Mount appeared only at the beginning of last century. It was formed by the overflowing and bursting of a distant tank owing to heavy rain. This formed the little canal which in times of drought contains saltish water, because at 2 leagues from Little Mount it communicates with the sea. There are yet people alive who affirm that more than fifty years ago (Fr. Tachard was writing in 1711) they saw this hole in the rock just as I have presently described it, and they add that, heretical women having thrown dirt therein to oppose, they said, the superstition of the populace, the water receded immediately, and that these women died that very day of an extraordinary colic in punishment of their audacity. The water is continually being taken and drunk. Missionaries and Christians affirm that it produces sudden cures even to the present day. Fr. Tachard also speaks of the devotion in which these two Mounts were held, “ I must say, Reverend Father, that this Little Mount is a regular sanctuary of devotion. Everything there breathes of recollection and piety, and it would be impossible to go over its monuments without having one’s heart touched with ardent desire to give oneself to God… During the two months that I spent at Little Mount last year, a day hardly passed by without my seeing horsemen, carriages, and palanquins going to Great Mount and returning, and I was told, that, when the steamers for Europe have left Madras, almost half of the wealthy people of that great city go and spend entire months at that rural place”. On the occasion of the 19th centenary of St. Thomas in 1972, a big (round) church was built and consecrated, for the benefit of the increasing parishioners and pilgrims.
  • St Thomas Mount is a Holy place of international prominence, historical eminence, religious glory and tourist attraction.The ancient Church on the top of St. Thomas Mount has served as the light house for the Portuguese and Armenian ships and vessels in theBay of Bengal in the 16th and 17th centuries. Interestingly, it is said, when sailors sighted the Church they offered prayers for a safe Voyage and then discharged from their artillery in salutation. Preserving its glorious antiquity, this five century old Shrine Chapel has been renovated and restored in the recent times. The Mount of Saint Thomas is easily accessed by the devotees who make the vowed climb through the 134 granite steps as an act of penance and sacrifice. An ornate arch with an imposing elegance remains an attraction to all those who happen to glimpse it with a note of the year of its construction, 1726. The Armenian merchants of old were great benefactors of many Catholic Churches in and near Madras. Petrus Uscan was the greatest among them. He built a brick paved road with granite steps at intervals flanked by a double wall leading from the road below to the top of the mount. In his foresightedness, he also left a sum of money with the Administrator-General of Madras for the upkeep of these steps. To make possible for modern vehicular traffic the accessibility to the historic Shrine, the late Archbishop Louis Mathias (the last of the European Bishops) had a 3.5 meters (12 feet) wide fully asphalted road laid by the military from the south- western base of the hill right upto the top in 1962. This imposing welcoming arch serves as the main entrance to the Hill Shrine. According to tradition, the Cross chiselled on a stone of this hill by St Thomas himself and used by him for his personal prayer gave strength to him when he was pierced from behind with a lance as he was praying before it. It is believed that the Cross should have been stained with the blood of the Martyr. This Cross was accidentally discovered later by the Portuguese when they dug the foundations for the new Church in 1547. According to ancient records, this Cross sweated blood during the Holy Mass celebrated by Fr. Gasper Coelho on the 18th December 1558. In the early years, this Cross used to sweat blood every year, then every two or three years and, later, at longer intervals. The last occasion on which it was found sweating blood was in 1704. Popular faith says that innumerable miracles of cures were attributed to this sacred stone cross through mere contact with it in faith and it has roused the conversion of many unbelievers. Even today the natural dampness on its surface is a perennial factor of surprise and devotion. The image of the Cross itself is unique It was in 1908 after much disputation that the inscription around the cross was deciphered as: "Through the Cross, the Messiah borught salvation to the world". As per tradition, the oil painting of the Madonna of the Blessed Virgin was painted by St Luke the Evangelist on wood and was brought here by St Thomas and used by him for prayer. Hence it is popularly known as the "Scapular of St Thomas.". In "Tombs and Descriptions in the Madras Presidency" ( A Government Publication ), Mr. J. J. Cotton says : "This is a picture painted by St Luke who was an artist. The Virgin died when Thomas was away and on his return he had the tomb opened in order that he might once more look upon her. It was found that the body had been miraculously removed and Thomas was so disturbed that St. Luke offered to paint him a portrait of the Virgin as a consolation. This portrait St. Thomas carried with him on all his wanderings". The first written account of this painting is made in 1559 when the King of Bisnaga took it to his Court in Chandragiri and later returned it in a palanquin to the Mount. The wear and the warp of this sacred species are explained by the efforts of the people down the ages to bury and hide it in order to protect it from the onslaught of the invading enemies. However the Madonna is considered to be one of the oldest and most venerated paintings in India and countless favors and blessings have been recorded by devotees who have stood and prayed before it. The fifteen Stations of the Cross adorn the sides of the steps. The minute precision with which the figures have been moulded and the heaviness of the rare metal used in them add colour and life to the scenes of the Stations of the Cross along the steps of the Mount.They are spots of inspiration and they spiritually dispose the pilgrims who climb the steps for an eventual spiritual experience on the hill top Every year during Lent thousands of people flock the hill to make their Stations of the Cross with the help of these depictions. The annual mammoth gathering of people for the Mass celebrated by the Bishop on the Palm Sunday evening is the culmination of their Lenten pilgrimage. Fr.Gaspar Coelho, Vicar of the Church in Mylapore in 1545 records that one Diego Fernandes, a Portuguese, built a small oratory on top of the hill over the foundation of a very ancient church in 1523 AD. The spot was already a place of pilgrimage. Since this oratory dedicated to the Mother of God was very small and since the number of pilgrimage was increasing, Fr. Coelho laid the foundation for a bigger church on March 23, 1547 and completed the existing church within a year. It was then known as the Church of Our Lady of the Mount. Since it was just a week before the birth of Jesus that the extraordinary event of bleeding of the Cross is said to have happened, Mary is honored as the Mother of Expectation in her throes and the Church that entombs the stone cross and the sacred spot of the Apostle's martyrdom was dedicated to Our Lady of Expectation as the peak structure of the Hill. Every year the 18th December has become the Annual Feast Day of this Shrine Chapel, which is celebrated with unction and devotion. Fr. Gaspar Coelho, who had built the church was buried in it and there is an inscription over his grave at the very entrance of the church. The welcoming gate of the Hill Shrine with its Indian lamp conveys the message that Jesus Christ is the Light of the World. The two lampstands with seven wicks each symbolize the witnessing life and death (Rev 11:4) of the Prophet Martyrs like StThomas. An osmosis of light at the entrance reminds us that a city built on the hill top cannot be hidden (Mt 5:14) but that it will shine. The facade of the Shrine Chapel is beautifully ornamented and highlighted by the Portuguese coat of arms engraved in rich granite and it serves as an official signature of the Portuguese who were the architects of this historical place of worship. The shell patterned roof of the Chapel is a tunnel of spiritual energy leading thousands of pilgrims in fervent prayer to the cave of their hearts. The stone inscription on the top of the outer side wall reads in Portuguese that the frontal extension of the original chapel and the massive main wooden doors were "ordered to be done by Zacharias in the year 1707." An Arch inside the church bears the title in Portuguese: "Senhora da Expectacao" (Our Lady of Expectation) with the year of its construction 1523. The shrine church entombs a piece of the Bone of St Thomas casketed in a beautifully ornamentedmonstrance. People have witnessed to many miracles that have been effected through the efficacy of this holy relic. This Sanctuary is said to be the spot where St Thomas was martyred. Any one standing on this surface will certainly feel the vibrations of the hidden current that floods this main altar area. The excellent artistic background elevates the inner soul. The framed oil painting of St Thomas being pierced with a lance from behind in his praying posture on the wall behind the high altar is the high point of awe and devotion for all who climb the hill to reach this sanctuary. The artistic finale exhibited in the attractive wooden podium of the fifteenth century is a monumental piece of ancient art. It bespeaks the importance attached to the Breaking of the Word in the liturgy of the early centuries. The ornamental wood carving in unison with the main altar is a banquet for the eyes of the beholder. This is another gift of Petrus Uscan. The votive shrine that shelters the colourful Statue of Our Lady in the sitting posture is of a later fashioning and it exhibits a graceful look and maternal benevolence. The huge framed paintings of antiquity screening before us the images of the twelve Apostles and that of Christ and of St. Paul are marvelous treasures of art and faith. They not only adorn the church but they also elevate our spirits. Though such pictures of the Apostles are common in the great Basilicas of the West, the uniqueness of these consists in their miniature picturesque information about the way in which each of the Apostles glorified their Master in their final offering. The renovation process of the Shrine Chapel has given a new face lift to the northern side With the enticing arch door inviting people for a personal encounter with the Eucharistic Lord. The silence and stillness of the Eucharistic Adoration Chapel provides the best of the atmosphere for one's contemplation and deep prayer. The Italian marble laying, the dim lighting effects, the antique hanging lamp, and the Portuguese styled ancient altar add to the serenity of the place and the sanctity of the Chapel. Hundreds of pilgrims choose to come to the Hill just to spend some quiet time in the gripping presence of the Eucharistic Lord. This Adoration Chapel is kept open everyday from 7.00 a.m to 7.00 p.m The enveloping presence of the divine is made an experience to all by the very appearance and structure of the Adoration Altar. The Tabernacle door depicts the conjunction of three hands – God's own hand in unconditional giving, my own hand of selfless giving and the hand of my neighbour's solidarity – the three basics of a wholesome spirituality with the cross at the background. The absorbing and scintillating Monstrance with golden rays of wheat grass and fine art touch on the base, the adorning cherubs in oxidized silver holding aloft the base plate are all a rare combination to evoke lasting throbs of the divine. This marvellous piece is a generous gift of one Mr. Vincent from Chicago. The enchanting atmosphere on the hill top is being further enhanced by the imposing Calvary depicting in life size images the scene of Calvary, with a huge Crucifix and a tall black and white obelisk in the background. This monumental piece overlooking the city of Chennai is a striking landmark visible for miles around. It is a masterpiece commemorating the Sacerdotal Golder Jubilee of His Grace Archbishop Louis Mathias dating back to 1963. The devotion with which devotees kneel or stand before the Calvary in prayer evokes our inner self. The majestically overlooking Bell Tower of the Hill Shrine provides an exquisite sight of grandeur. Besides a chiming bell and a Station of the Cross, the tower houses a historical monument commemorating with gratitude the heroic martyrdom of Mr. Jacob, the Manger of the Shrine who was killed by a fanatic while defending the Christian ownership of this holy hill on the 26th November 2006. Though the Mount is a proud heritage of the Christians, it has remained the attraction of tourists from within the country as well as abroad. The open air stage meant for public worship and the grilled open space provide an exquisite sight of the whole city of Chennai, especially with its illumination far and wide, a panoramic view which is a gift unique to this spot alone. The presence of a huge banyan tree and a green peepul/ pipal tree on the Hill is a natural gift to the seekers since both the trees are a rare sacred species in the Indian context.