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Tuticorin Chinna Koil and it's connection to Vembar

Sacred Hearts Cathedral, Tuticorin

How this church is connected to Vembar ?

The history (given below) will tell you how Jesuit priests of french mission built this wonderful church. Vyagula Motha from Vembar owned a big area of land in Tuticorin wherein today's railway station is present. When the Jesuit priests from French mission wanted to build a church, Vyagula Motha donated more than 60 acres of land which he owned. On this sprawling land stands today's Tuticorin Diocese's headquarters along with the cathedral.

This church was built long after the Snows church in Tuticorin and  has a “French connection”. This cathedral acts as the Tuticorin diocese headquarters, having the Tuticorin Bishop’s residence. Most of the coastal villages surrounding Tuticorin (Vembar, Alanthalai, Vaipar, Veerapandiapatinam, Manappad etc.) fall under Tuticorin diocese. Let’s look at the history and finer details of this beautiful church:

Why is it called "Chinna Koil”?

Till independence there were only 2 parishes that existed in Tuticorin – “Our Lady of Snows” and “Sacred Hearts”. Sacred Hearts cathedral is much bigger than Our Lady of Snows Basilica, but ironically this church is called as the "Chinna Koil" (meaning small church in Tamil). Snows church is called as the "Periya Koil" (big church in Tamil). The naming came because Snows was built much ahead of Sacred Hearts and it received a wider recognition from the people. In order to distinguish between these 2 popular churches people started calling the earlier one (Snows church) as big church and the latter one (Sacred Hearts) as small church. In no way this term depicts the size of the churches.

Though Tuticorin town has several churches, Snows church and Sacred Hearts church are the 2 most famous. We should note that the first church is elevated to the status of “Basilica” and the second to the status of “Cathedral” by Roman Catholicism.

On 12th June 1923 when Tuticorin diocese was created, Sacred Hearts church was elevated to the status of "Cathedral". This church became the headquarters for Tuticorin diocese and in 1923 Rev. Roche became the first Bishop for this diocese. Subsequently Sacred Hearts cathedral was established as the Bishop House of the diocese.

History of the church

Goa Mission vs. French Mission

Going back to the early 16th century when Christianity spread in India there were only 4 dioceses in India. These dioceses were under the direct control of Portuguese kingdom. The Portuguese king with Pope's permission had established these 4 dioceses in India. These 4 were Goa (Headquarters), Cochin (Kerala), Cranganore (Kerala) and Mylapore (Tamil Nadu). The coastal villages which I’m referring in Tamil Nadu came under the diocese of Cochin.

In 1658 Dutch had conquered Tuticorin and other villages by defeating the Portuguese. Years passed and all the churches in and around this area were governed by Jesuit (Society of Jesus) priests. On July 21 1773 Pope Clement XIV "de-recognised" or "suppressed" the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits took over again after the "Society of Jesus" was restored by Pope Pius VII on 7th August 1814. On the 8th of July 1836, Pope Gregory XVI made Madurai an Apostolic Province. Madurai became the centre of Christianity in Tamil Nadu and was handed over to Jesuit priests from France. Pearl fishery coast (all coastal villages from Vembar to Kanyakumari) came under this new province and was entrusted to the Jesuit Missionaries of Toulouse Province in France. So this was also called as the "French Mission".

The French mission tried to get back all the parishes that were under the influence of Goan priests (Portuguese supported) which caused riots and confusion. Portuguese influence never left coastal towns and villages of Tamil Nadu. Two factions namely “Goa Mission” (Padroado priests) and “French Mission” (Jesuit priests) prevailed during that time. The fight between the priests of Portuguese mission and French mission grew to a fight between two nations, Portugal and France. In view of solving this problem, Pope Leo XIII in 1886, made a concordat (agreement) with the Portugal government, and put the dioceses of Goa and Mylapore under Padroado. At the same time Tiruchirapalli (Tamil Nadu) was declared a separate diocese and the Pearl Fishery Coast came under this. 

Church’s construction

In 1839 when Tuticorin was controlled by Madurai mission (Jesuits from France) the local villagers supported the establishment of Goa Mission (Portuguese mission). For this the head of villages ousted the Jesuit priest Fr. Martin from Our Lady of Snows and handed it to the Goa mission. Since Jesuit priests in Madurai mission lost control over the snows church they wanted to construct a separate church in Tuticorin. After waiting for nearly 9 years the Jesuit priests in Madurai decided to construct a church in Tuticorin. The construction of Chinna Koil started in 1848 under the supervision of Jesuit priests from Madurai.

The construction began in 1848 by Fr. Piccinelli and a small church was blessed open on January 5th of 1849. Rev. Fr. Kanos who was the bishop of Madurai Apostolic Province blessed the new church. Construction of a bigger church was going on simultaneously around this small church which was completed after 15 years in 1864.

After 45 years in 1909 the church's side wings were extended. The towers which we see in the front were built in 1948 and were considered to be a great achievement during those times. Limestone was used to build these towers which were churned by the bulls during those times. Today this church stands as one of the finest French architectural church in India.

Why "Sacred Hearts”?

In 1849 when this church's construction was completed it was dedicated to the sacred hearts of both Jesus and mother Mary. Hence this church is called as "Sacred Hearts" rather than "Sacred Heart" church which we usually come across. 

Tuticorin Diocese

Tuticorin was created as a diocese and entrusted to the diocesan clergy in 1923. St. Francis Xavier and St. Theresa of Child Jesus were held as the patron saints of the diocese. On April 4, 1930 the five parishes of Kooduthalai, Manapad (Holy Ghost Church), Punnaikayal, Tuticorin (Our Lady of Snows Church) and Vaippar were amalgamated into the diocese.

Today Tuticorin, Vallioor, Kallikulam, Uvari, Manapad, Alanthalai, Vadakankulam, Idinthakarai, Kootapuli, Vembar, Virapandiapatinam etc. fall in the Tuticorin diocese. 

Grottos in the parish

There are 4 Grottos ("Keby") in this church's premise, they are:
  •  Our Lady of Lourdes
  •  St. Joseph
  •  St. Theresa
  •  St. Francis Xavier

Special features of the church

  • Inner wooden architecture and paintings in stained glasses reflect the French architecture.
  • There is a statue of Jesus Christ in the cross wherein one of his hands embraces St. Francis of Assisi.
  • Finest wooden crafts, not just in the altar but everywhere around the church.
  • The Eucharistic tabernacle is designed as a Pearl, symbolising Pearly city Tuticorin.
  • The inside of central dome has paintings depicting Jesus Christ, Mother Mary, Angels etc.

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