This Basilica Cathedral is one of three Basilicas built over the tombs of apostles of Jesus Christ. The other two are the Basilica of St. Peter, built over the tomb of St. Peter in Rome (St.Peter’s Basilica) and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela built over the tomb of St. James in Spain.
Standing tall against the Chennai skyline, with the azure blue of the ocean as the backdrop, the Santhome Basilica Cathedral is indeed an imposing structure. On entering the church you are filled with a strange sense of peace. You forget the hustle and bustle that awaits you outside. In the cool, dark interior there is a calm that is all pervasive. Built in the Gothic style the spire rises to a height of about 155 feet.
According to tradition, it is believed that St. Thomas came to India in the year 52 A.D. He worked initially along the West Coast and then traveled to Madras. He suffered martyrdom at St. Thomas’ Mount and his disciples buried him in Santhome over which the present Cathedral stands. Marco Polo, during his travels also visited India. He records: “It is in this province (Malabar) which is styled the Greater India, at the gulf between Ceylon and the mainland that the body of Messer , St. Thomas lies at a certain town having no great population; it is a place not very accessible”. When the Portuguese arrived at Mylapore in 1517, they were surprised to find a shrine there. But the shrine itself was almost in ruins. The Portuguese took it upon themselves to rebuild the church in 1523. This church became a parish in 1524.
But over the centuries, the elements took their toll on this small church and it was in dire need of repair. In 1893, this structure was demolished and the present church was built. The tomb of the saint was placed at the heart of the structure. A retired officer of the Royal Engineers who happened to be a parishioner volunteered to take on the job. The predominant feature of a Gothic structure is its tall spires. At the Santhome Basilica Cathedral, what strikes you immediately is the first spire. The second, and shorter one is constructed directly above the tomb of the saint. The tomb of the saint could now be accessed from within the church and pilgrims the world over comes to worship here. It was in 1956 that the church was declared a minor Basilica.
In 2002, extensive renovation and restoration work was carried out. The access to the tomb from within the cathedral was closed and an alternate and more convenient access was provided from the outside. Now pilgrims and tourists can visit the tomb and spend a few minutes of quiet without disturbing the service and devotion of the faithful. A museum has also been constructed and all the memorabilia of St. Thomas and of that period arranged interestingly. Also on display is the spear that killed the saint. Stories on stones tell one of the deeds of St. Thomas and also the two postage stamps that were released. In the mini theatre visitors can view a short film on the Life of St.Thomas. Recently this Santhome Basilica Cathedral celebrates its 400 years of the Diocese of Mylapore.
Church will be opened from 6.00am to 8.00pm.