In 1879, in commemoration of the silver jubilee of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Fr. H. Hennessey, Parish Priest of St. Andrew’s Church, Vepary, Madras, built a chapel at Perambur. This chapel was blessed and dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes in 1880 and served the spiritual needs of the catholics then residing in the locality. In 1903, Perambur was raised to the status of an independent parish.
In 1903, with a catholic population of 5000 people and a church capable of accommodating only about 500 it was obvious that any scheme to enlarge the existing church was not at all feasible. Legionaries of Mary reported many instances of lapsed Catolics who had regularly stood-out the Sunday masses for years. It was this juncture that the first Salesian priest, Fr. Michael Murray, arrived in December 1953.
The privilege, however, of making Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine at Perambur into a famous place of pilgrimage fell to the lot of worthy sons of Don Bosco. In 1928, the Archdiocese of Madras was entrusted to the Salesian Congragation and Perambur came under their care.
Fr. Murray was a priest with a rare combination of Irish inspiration and Salesian zeal which soon had the parish humming with activities. In many other ingenious ways he brought Mary into thousands of homes and collected sufficient money to start building a new church. It was Fr Murray who launched the idea of making Perambur a national shrine and place of pilgrimage.
The late Archbishop of Madras, Mgr. Louis Mathias, Whole-heartedly approved of this project and encouraged it. He in fact, evinced keen interest in every detail of the design of the shrine, Desirous of erecting a shrine worthy of the Mother of God and of making it a place of national pilgrimage; he engaged the services of Chevalier Davies KSG, the architect of the mighty Catholic Centre, Madras. The Archbishop wanted him to design a magnificent shrine which would resemble the great Basilica at Lourdes.
Meanwhile negotiations had already begun for the purchase of a suitable plot of ground for the new shrine at Perambur. As the land was vested in different owners, the negotiations to acquire the entire plot dragged on for some years.
The advent of Fr. Alfred Maiotta as parish priest in 1947 signaled a period of silent but intense activity. Though Fr. Mariotta used up as much energy as Fr. Murray, he gave off noticeable less heat! Hailing from the Alpine heights of Switzerland he has the dogged tenacity of the mountaineer, as well as the taciturnity of a man accustomed to silent communion with nature.
His first achievement was the acquisition of the site for the new shrine. But with what process of cajolery, reasoning, bargaining or persuasion he secured the different slices of land, no one will ever know! Suffice it to mention that the devoted clients of Mary woke up one morning to find the site ready, under their very noses.
The land was ceremonially blessed by Archbishop Louis Mathias and shortly afterwards, on September 8, 1951 the foundation stone of the new shrine was blessed and laid. A dream was coming true.
Then began, the long uphill task of raising funds. Donations, however small, were welcomed. Fund raising campaigns by way of ‘Brick cards’ and many other ingenious methods were initiated.
The lower church was completed first and on February 22, 1953 amidst scenes of great joy and splendor, Archbishop Louis Mathias blessed and consecrated the altar. A year later, on February 2, 1954 three large bronze bells from France were blessed and christened to the memory of His Grace, to the Salesians Congregation, and to the Mariotta family who had donated them.
On January 6, Fr. Joseph Sandanam replaced Fr. Mariotta as parish priest. Always optimistic, he set about the difficult task of raising still more funds and he was confident that ‘Mary would build her shrine”. Mary stood by him. She raised benefactors from all over; nevertheless special credit should be given to the unstinting efforts of Fr.Alclde Seeber who worked hand in hand with Fr. Sandanam, toiling day in and day out to procure funds from foreign countries, especially from America.
The shrine rose gracefully, brick by brick, and slowly the dream became a reality. On February 11, 1960 the archbishop had the happiness of blessings the upper church and consecrating the altar.
In many respects this majestic shrine is a replica of the basilica of Lourdes. It consists of a church upon a church. The main altar of the lower church, or crypt, is dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, as at Lourdes. Entrance to the upper Church is by means of two imposing ramps; their graceful curves not only add beauty, but also serve as an enclosure for open-air services. The upper church with its magnificent towers has a majestic appearance. The interior is simple and beautiful and creates an atmosphere of peace and devotion.
The 14th National Pilgrimage took place on February 14, 1961 under the patronage of His Grace, Archbishop Louis Mathias. Many thousands of pilgrims and devotees of Mary flock, to this shrine throughout the year.
The 150th anniversary of the birth of Don Bosco was celebrated in a very special way; on that day the foundation stone of Don Bosco High School, Madhavaram, was blessed by Rt. Rev. Mgr. Francis Carvalho, the Auxiliary Bishop of Madras – Mylapore.
At a solemn and impressive ceremony on June 21, 1967, Fr.John McFerran was officially installed as parish priest of Perambur. This dynamic priest is an ardent admirer and lover of youth, and his presence in the parish gave an impetus to youth work. On July 2, 1967 the St. Vincent Technical Training Institute was inaugurated by Fr. Mcferran; this institute trains boys of the parish in motor mechanics. The Don Bosco Youth Centre, under the presidentship of Fr. Mcferran, conducted a youth festival for the first time in this parish. It was a resounding success.
Fr. McFerran was succeeded by Fr. Anthony Hickman who took over as parish priest on May 29, 1970. Fr. Hickman and the successive parish priests worked zealously, each making his own individual contribution to the development of the parish. Fr. Paul Bosco Fernando now cares for the flock at Perambur; it totals 12,500.
Evangelization goes on apace and during the last few years there have been over 350 adult baptisms. Our Lady of Lourdes parish has the distinguished record of producing more than 100 vocations to the priesthood.