Fort Cochin (presently Fort Kochi) is the oldest European settlement in India and St. Francis Church is the first European Church that was built in India. The History of this Church reflects the colonial struggle of European powers in India from the 15th to 20th centuries.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to discover the sea route to India when Vasco da Gama landed at Calicut in 1498. Two years later, on 24th December 1500, Portuguese ships, under the command of Admiral Cabral, visited Cochin and the Rajah of Cochin permitted them to engage in trade. In 1503 Alphonso Albuquerque was given permission by the Rajah to build a fort at the mouth of the river which was constructed mainly of the stems of coconut trees bound with iron bands, whilst the rampart of stones and sand formed the inner defence. Within the fort they erected a church made of wood which was dedicated to St. Bartholomew and that stood on the exact place where the more spacious existing structure of the Franciscans later arose. In 1506 Dom Francisco Almeyda, the Viceroy, was given permission by the Rajah of Cochin to build a new city using mortar and stone and building roofed with titles (a privilege hitherto been confined only to the palace of the local prince and to the temples in which he performed puja). The Portuguese vowed that apart from the fortifications, the first permanent erection would be a church for divine worship. Accordingly, the wooden structure was replaced with one made of mortar and bricks. The new church was completed in 1516 and dedicated to St. Antony.
Towards the end of 1524 Vasco Da Gama returned to Cochin (his first visit was in 1502) where he died on the Christmas eve of that year and was buried in this Church. Fourteen years later, his remains were shipped to Portugal and deposited at Vidigveria where they remained until 1872 when they were removed to the monastery of Jeronimos in Lisbon, its present abode.
The Church remained in the Order of St. Francis until the arrival of the Dutch in 1663. One of the first acts of the Dutch was to order all European Catholic priests to quit their territory, after which they demolished all the convents and churches of the place, except the Church of the Franciscans, which they reconditioned and converted into their Government Church. On 8th January 1664 they celebrated their first service with a parade of all arms on the anniversary of their entry into the city. During the reconditioning, the stone altar and the wiring guilded screens were removed and taken to the Church of Vypeen, which the Dutch permitted the Roman Catholics to build in 1665, and the communion table and the rostrum furniture were installed in their stead. A tablet over the west door indicates that the Church was renovated in 1779.
The Dutch cemetery here is one of the oldest cemeteries in India. Hundreds of Europeans left their homeland on a mission to expand their colonial empires. The tombstones in this cemetery are the most authentic record of these Europeans who changed the course of history of this land. The cemetery was consecrated in the year 1724. It is owned and maintained by St. Francis C.S.I. Church.
When the British captured Cochin from the Dutch in 1795, they permitted the Dutch to retain possession of the Church for a time. In 1804 the Dutch voluntarily surrendered the Church to the Anglican Communion when it was passed to the Ecclesiastical Department of the Government of India. But when Rev. Thomas Norton came to Cochin in 1816 on his way to Alleppey to inaugurate the work of the Church Missionary Society, he found that the Church was just bare walls, the interior was very dilapidated and part of the roof had fallen in. Later, the building was sufficiently restored to enable Bishop Middleton, the Metropolitan, to use it for a confirmation service during his Episcopal visit to the Malabar Coast.
The change of name of the patron saint was presumably due to the Anglicans, for it was not until 1870 that any reference was made to St. Francis Church. The gravestones laid on the walls of the Church were taken from the floor of the grave in 1886. On the northern sidewall Portuguese gravestones can be seen and the Dutch gravestones on the southern wall. The Vasco da Gama stone is on the ground at the southern side. A table inside the building over the west door shows that it was "repaired by the Government of Madras in 1887, being the fiftieth year of the reign of Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India".
The Church possesses an interesting link with the past in the form of the 'Doop Book', the old baptism and marriage register from 1751-1804, which may be accessed in the vestry. It was maintained for 40 years in the handwriting of Predikant Cornelies and was sent to London in 1932 for getting the leaves repaired by experts. It was then rebound in the original style. A Photostat copy takes the place of the original for scrutiny by visitors.
The Church became a protected monument in April 1923 under the Protected Monuments Act 1904. The Cenotaph in memory of the residents of Cochin who fell in the First Great War erected in 1920 and was unveiled by the Governor of Madras on 21st October of that year. The boundary walls were erected in 1924.
The Clock on this Church was erected in the year 1923 in memory of Hal Harrison Jones, a former Managing Director of Aspinwall & Company.
The Pankhas or Fans found in the Church are a reminder of the British opulence of that period.
A few memorial brass plates and marble slabs were erected in memory of very important persons who had dedicated their own lives to this Church and the society. The present furniture were installed when it was under the Anglican order of worship.
The Church of South India (C.S.I), spreading as 22 dioceses throughout the four states in the southern part of India, and in Sri Lanka, owns the Church. There is regular worship service in this Church on all Sundays and commemorative days. On weekdays it is kept open for visitors and tourists.
The Church of South India (C.S.I) – the second largest Christian community in India-is an ecumenical church since 1947.