Tirunelveli, just like the rest of India, is a very religious district. It is mainly dominated by Hinduism. Many magnificent temples and shrines have been raised in honour and worship of the Hindu gods. In the district are other religions like Islam and Christianity. Despite the different religious sects, the land enjoys true religious harmony and peace.
The district has one of the nicest churches, “St. Mary’s Church”, which attracts a lot of tourists due to its architecturally unique design and coastal siting. How did Christianity reach the South Indian district? How long has it been around? Does the religion have a history? According to Dyron B. Daughrity, for at least 150 years, the district has been the centre for Christian missionary work in South India. The exact time Christianity cropped up there cannot be clarified, but the churches believe it started in the 1st century with Apostle Thomas. Many Indians attest to this and there are relics and monuments proving it.
Among the missionaries who visited the district, Catholic missionaries who were mostly Franciscans were the first. This was in the early to middle 16th century. They worked among the Paravas of the Western Coast of Tamil Nadu baptising many of them. The leader of this group was Father Michael Vaz. According to Jayakumar, in 1542, another Catholic missionary, Xavier, arrived in India and converted about 15000 to 20000 people of the oppressed class (mainly Mukkuvas) within 10 years. He left the district after this and others continued.
The Protestants, who had their own issues to deal with at the time, were only able to enter the land in the 18th century. The Early Protestants to enter the land were 2 German Lutherans sent from Denmark. The two Lutherans learnt the Tamil language and translated the Scriptures (1714-1715) as well as many other texts. They set up printing presses and collected many manuscripts resting in Halle today. The growing group came under many leaders. Among them was Benjamin Schultze, during whose time the first Indian minister was ordained in December 1733. The British Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) took responsibility for Schultze’s welfare. He was one of the most successful missionaries to the district. At the time, there was a loose affiliation between SPCK and the Danish missionaries. The Christian missionaries came along with them a wave of development. They established schools, seminaries, hospitals etc.
After Schultze came Phillip Fabricius, an excellent Tamil scholar who completed the translation of the New Testament in 1750 and revised it many times until it was printed in 1766 by a donated British press. He produced hymns and other texts as well.
Frederick Swhartz, who is considered to be the greatest Christian Evangelist in India in the 18th century, came into the scene and converted many Hindus with his multilingual abilities and lifestyle. It was in his time that a large sect of the South Indian community welcomed Christianity. In his time, the Clorinda Church that stands to this day was built and consecrated.
With the entire Tirunelveli under British colony in 1801, the door was opened for other missionaries to also come in. In the 1840s, the Nadars openly accepted Christianity, being convinced it provided the opportunity for social improvement. The Christian movement grew year after year and churches were established in various places.