KOCHI: The majestic St Francis CSI Church in Fort Kochi has witnessed conquests and victories, life and death, joy and sorrow in equal measure. It has seen a city grow, blossom and flourish. The oldest European church in Kochi (built in 1503), the St Francis Church owes its origin to the Portuguese Franciscan Friars, who reached our shores along with Portuguese navigator Pedro Alvarez Cabral — the second European explorer to arrive in India.
The Kochi Rajah had permitted the Viceroy Alphonso Alburquerque (from 1509 to 1515) to set up a church for the Portuguese settlers, who had arrived with Vasco da Gama. Notably, da Gama was buried in the church in 1524. Twenty-four years later, his body was exhumed and shipped back to Portugal. St Francis Church is one of the few Catholic churches to survive the Protestant-Catholic conflict that raged through the world in the early 1600s.
Situated in the middle of a fort, the church assumed importance as years rolled by. It became the nerve centre for the development of the port, and later for the city. The lofty structure with a gabled timber-framed roof, covered with tiles, is an architectural spectacle. A stepped pinnacle on both sides of the facade was initially made of palm leaves and mud dedicated to St Bartholomew.
According to old records, it was a thatched-roof structure later renovated by the Dutch who arrived in the 1660s. After the Dutch takeover of Cochin, the church was expanded and renamed according to ‘Reformed Christian’ doctrines. It was under Dutch possession till 1795.
Later, with the arrival of the British, the church saw another round of refurbishing. And they named it St Francis Church. The interior provides a magnificent view of the altar. The choir is positioned on the altar and the vicar outside at a higher platform, says Rev Shinu John Chacko, who currently heads the church. While leaving India, the British had handed it over to the Church of South India. Even today, the traditional architecture and vintage hand-operated ‘pankhas’ are well-maintained.
“The tablets on the wall have blessings inscribed in Portuguese and Dutch,” says a travel guide. According to the Vicar, however, these granite epitaphs were placed on the coffins of high-ranking Portuguese officials, who were buried in the church compound. Later, the Dutch excavated these tablets and preserved them.
During the reign of the British, the church started to follow the Anglican culture. The English treated the choir and scriptures with equal importance. Unlike other altars, this church has no idol. It houses scriptures engraved on stone tablets.
Rev Shinu points to a memory stone laid by the Britishers in honour of WW-I martyrs, including native soldiers. There is a war memorial, too, outside the church, he adds. Officers from the Indian Navy, the Kochi mayor, and local representatives pay homage at the war memorial in the first week of December, which marks the beginning of Cochin Carnival every year, notes Rev Shinu.