is holy ground one which contains the tomb
of St. Thomas, one of the twelve Apostles (that
is, closest associates) of Jesus Christ. He came
to India in the year 52 AD, preached on the West
Coast and Chennai(formerly Madras), died in this
city in 72 AD, and was buried in Santhome, This
Shrine, stands over his tomb. In fact, the Basilica
is so constructed that the smaller of its two
towers stands exactly over the tomb of St. Thomas.
This is also the shrine where the next most famous
missionary to India, St. Francis Xavier (whose
body is venerated in Goa), spent four months in
the year 1545, and used to pray before the statue
of Our Lady of Mylapore. Thousand
of pilgrims and visitors have been coming here
for nearly two thousand years. That group includes
history-makers like Marco Polo (thirteenth century)
and millions of ordinary men and women from around
his many followers, Jesus chose twelve to be his
close collaborators and gave them power to preach
and to heal. These twelve are called Apostles.
St. Thomas is one of them. He is mentioned four
times in the New Testament of the Bible (Gospel
according to St. John). Of these accounts, the
most quoted is the one of Jesus apparition
to the other eleven after His Resurrection, when
St. Thomas was absent, St. Thomas refused to believe
that Jesus had appeared to them. He insisted:
Unless I see the marks of the nails in his
hands, and put my hand into the wound in his side,
I will not believe. During his next apparition,
Jesus called St.
Thomas to him and invited him to check his wounds.
St. Thomas burst into an
act of faith, My Lord and My God!
The Apostles dispersed to preach the Good News
in different parts of the world, St. Thomas left
for Parthia and India. His stay and preaching
in North and South India are mentioned in two
well-known third century books. The Acts of Thomas
(Acta Thomae) and The Teaching of the Apostles
The great Christian writers of the fourth century,
like St. Ephraem, St. Greogory Nazianzen, St.
Ambrose and St. Jerome, unhestitatingly affirm
the apostolic activity of St. Thomas in India.
The Syrian Christians of Kerala strongly maintain
the tradition, handed down from generation to
generation in their churches and families, that
their forefathers were converts of this apostle.
According to this tradition, the apostle landed
in Kodungallur (Crangnore) in Kerala around the
middle of the first century of the Christian era
(probably 52 A.D.) and founded Christian communities
at several places, like Kodungallur (Cranganore),
Niranam, Kollam (Quilon), Palyur etc. Then he
travelled to the eastern partrs of the country
as far as far as China. On returning to Kerala,
he appointed some of his converts as leaders of
the communities that he had founded earlier. Proceding
once again to the eastern parts of South India,
he was killed somewhere near Mylapore and buried
in that town in 72 A.D. Although the community
known as St. Thomas Christians is
found mostly in Kerala, they too have always held
that the Apostle was martyred and buried in Mylapore.
are two other sacred sports associated with Thomas
in the city of Chennai: SAINT THOMAS MOUNT on
the outskirts of the city, where he suffered martydom,
and LITTLE MOUNT near Saidapet, which has a cave,
where according to tradition, the Apostle used
to hide and pray.)
Tomb of St.Thomas
tomb itself was officially opened four times,
according to written records we have: (1) As St.
Gregory of Tour mentions in his book, De Miraculis
Sancti Thomae, it was opened the first time to
cure the son of a certain king, Raja Mahadevan.
(2) The second opening took place between 1222
and 1225, when most of the Saints relics
were removed from Madras to Ortona in Italy, where
they are preserved even today. (3) The tomb was
opened a third time in 1523 by the Portugese,
when they rebuit the ruined church. (4) In 1729,
Dom Jose Pinharno, then Bishop of Mylapore, opened
the tomb to distribute to pilgrims the earth from
the tomb. On that occasion, a bright light is
said to have emanated from the tomb.
Church that became the Basilica
for the church, that too has much history behind
it. Theodore, a sixth century visitor from Europe,
spoke of the Shrine as a church of striking
dimensions, elaborately adorned and designed.
from England, sent by King Alfred, seem to have
visited it in the year 883.
world-renowed traveler from Italy, Marco Polo,
traveled here in 1292 AD and speaks of it in his
journals. We have reports of this Shrine by Oderic
of Pordenone (Papal legate) in 1325, by John de
Marignolli in 1349, Nicolo deconti, another Italian
visitor, between 1425 and 1430. A certain Joseph,
a Christian from Crangnore, went to Italy and
Portugal in 1501. After seeing the splendid churches
of Venice, he said that the Santhome Shrine was
comparable in splendour to the Church of St. John
and St. Paul in Venice.
when the Portuguese arrived in Mylapore in 1517,
and again in 1521, they found the Santhome Shrine
in ruins, except for the small chapel which contained
the tomb of St. Thomas. They rebuilt the church,
but on a small scale, in 1523. This church became
a Parish in 1524. It lasted up to the end of the
nineteenth century. Four hundred years of wear
and tear took their toll. The small church built
by the Portuguese needed to be repaired or replaced.
In 1893, under Bishop Henrique Jose Red De Silva
of Mylapore, this structure was demolished, and
the present church built, keeping the tomb of
St. Thomas at the heart of the structure. The
smaller tower is exactly over the tomb.
This magnificent edifice owed much to the competent
and free services of Captain J.A. Power, a retired
officer of the Royal Engineers and a parishioner
of Santhome. The structure is what is known as
Gothic, like the most famous Cathedrals
of Europe (Cologne, in Germany, for instance,
or the great Cathedrals of France).
Gothic churches are known for their tall spires.
(Universities like Oxford have also used this
architectural style.) The nave is 112 feet long
and 33 feet wide. The steeple is 155 feet high.
The sanctuary (the most important part of a church,
where the altar is kept and divine services are
conducted) is 62 feet long and 33 feet wide. The
ceiling is 36.1/2 feet high over the nave and
41.1/2 feet high over the sanctuary. The nave
has 36 windows. The arches are 36 feet high. Around
the arches we see vine leaves carved in high relief.
These were designed and executed by Captain Power.
particular importance are the stained glass windows
of this magnificent church. On the Eastern wall,
facing the worshippers as they come to pray, are
three windows with stained glass picture of Jesus
appearing to St. Thomas. The panel above has the
picture of an angel with the words of Christ to
St. Thomas, Be not faithless, but believe.
There are more stained windows on the side walls.
These stained glass pictures were produced in
Germany, by Mayer and Company of Munich.
blessing of the church took place on April 1,
1896. Bishop A.S. Valente, Patriarch of the East
Indies, consecrated the main altar. The church
was declared a Minor Basilica in 1956. (Basilica
is an honorific title given to some important
churches. There are four major basilicas,
all in Rome, and several minor ones.
The Santhome church belongs to this latter group.)
The Catholic Bishops Conference of India(CBCI)
has declared Santhome Cathedral Basilica on February
7th, 2006 as National Shrine of St.Thomas.
Lady of Mylapore
valuable work of art kept in the Shrine is an
ancient statue of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, in
front of which another world-famous missionary,
St. Francis Xavier, whose body is exposed for
veneration in Goa, used to pray. He spent several
months in Santhome in the year 1545.
fact, this particular representation of Mary,
about three feet high, is called Mylai Matha in
Tamil, or Our Lady of Mylapore in English. Many
devotees throng to pray in front of this statue.
Shrine of St Thomas - Restored
important, historical shrine was in a dangerous
physical condition, and needed immediate attention.
The roof leaked, the walls needed repair, and
the whole structure needed major renovation, given
the corrosive impact of two natural enemies it
has to battle the sea breeze and the emissions
from the traffic on a busy thoroughfare. Hence
a thorough restoration work was done in 2002-2004.
What you see now is the restored Shrine. The paint
covering the wooden ceiling has been carefully
scraped off, making the original teak work visible.
The flooring has been re-laid, with quality marble.
The stained glass windows have been restored with
exquisite care by experts.
work included the following major projects:
The restoration of the whole Shrine, from the
roof and ceiling to the floor. This is the most
important and most delicate part of the restoration
The construction of a Tomb Chapel below the Shrine.
The reason for constructing such a chapel is simple.
Being both a unique National Shrine and a tourist
attraction, the Basilica is visited by both devotees
and crowds of tourists. The new underground chapel,
with a separate access outside the church structure,
allows pilgrims to pray at the tomb and tourists
to visit it, without disturbing the sacred functions
in the church. Most visitors tend to come on Sundays,
which is precisely the day when Masses are going
on in the Shrine. All those who have seen the
underground chapel are in high praise of its beauty,
simplicity and prayerful atmosphere. Groups have
started booking it for Masses. There is a well-attended
Mass in this chapel every morning at 11:00.
Th Museum and Mini-theatre have been built, to
cater to pilgrims and tourists. The museum exhibits
artifacts connected with St. Thomas and the Basilica,
and a short video on the life of the Apostle is
screened int the mini Theatre.
who has witnessed the extent and the thoroughness
of the restoration cannot but marvel at the meticulous
and gigantic nature of the enterprise. It is completed
now, and in a far better position to welcome the
thousands of faithful who attend Mass and other
services there, and the many pilgrims
and tourists who flock there regularly.