St. John’s Church

History

St John’s Church

St John’s Church is not the oldest church in Kolkata it falls much behind the Armenian Church and the Old Mission Church but what it does have is a history well woven with the birth of the city itself. St. Anne’s Church which once stood where the west wing of Writer’s Building was raised to the dust when Siraj-ud-Daulah attacked in 1756 the Old Fort William in Calcutta. 

The church bore the brunt of fury and was raised to dust at the end of the conflict. While the British forces captured back the city it was left with a ruined fort and a completely destroyed church. By now Lord Clive’s additional forces from Madras were in the city and the European population was increasing day by day.

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The company was struggling to accommodate such large population of Europeans and somehow managed to divide them according to ranks. The lower ranked officers were provided with basic thatched-roof accommodations while the senior officers had some dignity by having patched out old houses. The new Fort William saw its completion in the year 1781 and while most of the officers moved in some were also scattered around the city.

The British rule meant a strict regime which included the duty of attending Sunday church service. While the residents of Fort William attended the chapel inside the fort the huge population wanted a bigger place of worship. It is to be noted that the Sunday church service was not only a religious activity but also an important socializing opportunity for the officers and the ladies of the society.

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St John’s Church is not the oldest church in Kolkata it falls much behind the Armenian Church and the Old Mission Church but what it does have is a history well woven with the birth of the city itself. St. Anne’s Church which once stood where the west wing of Writer’s Building was raised to the dust when Siraj-ud-Daulah attacked in 1756 the Old Fort William in Calcutta. The church bore the brunt of fury and was raised to dust at the end of the conflict. While the British forces captured back the city it was left with a ruined fort and a completely destroyed church. By now Lord Clive’s additional forces from Madras were in the city and the European population was increasing day by day.

St. Johns Church Kolkata (1)
Coloured engraving of Fort William in Calcutta by Jan Van Ryne 1754 (Courtesy British Library) – The Steeple of St. Anne’s Church Can be Seen at the Distance
St. Johns Church Kolkata (7)
Robert Clive (Courtesy National Portrait Gallery) Siraj ud-Daulah (Courtesy University of California)
The company was struggling to accommodate such large population of Europeans and somehow managed to divide them according to ranks. The lower ranked officers were provided with basic thatched-roof accommodations while the senior officers had some dignity by having patched out old houses. The new Fort William saw its completion in the year 1781 and while most of the officers moved in some were also scattered around the city.

The British rule meant a strict regime which included the duty of attending Sunday church service. While the residents of Fort William attended the chapel inside the fort the huge population wanted a bigger place of worship. It is to be noted that the Sunday church service was not only a religious activity but also an important socializing opportunity for the officers and the ladies of the society.


THE CONSTRUCTION OF ST JOHNS CHURCH
To adhere to this demand General Warren Hasting headed a committee which in the month of December 1783 decided to build a new Presidency Church. This church surprisingly was not paid forth by the government but by the members of the society through a public lottery. So much so that on the very first day a fund of 35,950 Rupees was collected. By the end of the construction, the fund stood at a staggering amount of 1,70,000 Rupees. The total sum that was required for the construction was 1,84,836 Rupees.

The land for the church was selected where once the old gunpowder magazine stocks were kept under huge dome-like structures. This was situated right next to an old cemetery used by the company. The land where the gunpowders were stored did not belong to the government at that time but was sold earlier to Maharaja Nabo Kishen Bahadur but due to its requirement was gifted back by the Maharaja to the government. In my personal opinion this was no gift but since the government demanded the land back the Maharaja had to adhere.

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Tombs and Gunpowder Magazine at the Church Site (Courtesy Calcutta Faces and Places in Pre-camera Days by Wilmot Corfield)
Surprisingly the church was actually built on the old cemetery and the land donated by the Maharaja. The land donated by the Maharaja forms the courtyard on the eastern side of the church. This is the same portion which you will see to the right as you enter through the main gate. This section of the church houses a two storied building which is the official residence of the present Bishop of Calcutta Diocese.

The design of the church was done by Lieutenant James Agg of Bengal Engineers and he also supervised its construction. The design was similar to that of St Martin-in-the-Fields which is located in London and also happens to be an Anglican church similar to that of St. John’s.

St. Johns Church Kolkata (8)
St Martin-in-the-Fields (Courtesy Robert Cutts)
The church after many alterations in design had eight compass headed windows on each of the north and south side, flat roof, with doric columns inside to support the roof. The main entrance and the steeple with the clock and bell tower were towards the west. The original entrance from the west side was met with some apprehension as some congregation members objected to walking over a previous grave site thus the entrance was modified from the front next to the altar. To accommodate this change the altar side was modified with six doric columns with a portico. Another new feature was the inclined path to the entrance. This was done to facilitate the arrival of members in a palanquin (palki). Since this was a common mode of transport a palki shed was created in the southern section of the church. This portion which is now in much-dilapidated condition can be still seen next to the entrance.

St. Johns Church Kolkata (3)
James Baillie Fraser’s ‘Views of Calcutta 1826 (Courtesy British Library)
St. Johns Church Kolkata (4)
Aquatint with Etching & coloured by Thomas Daniell 1788 (Courtesy British Library)
Another set of design changes were the addition of the extension to the south and north were done, these changes can be clearly visible in the latter photographs of the church.

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Photograph by Samuel Bourne 1865 (Courtesy British Library)
The stones used for its construction were brought all the way from Chunar (near Varanasi) which was once famous for its reddish hue stones. This was something of new in Calcutta as most of the builds of that era in the city were not that of stone thus the natives referred this church as the stone church of Pathuray Girja.

Some interesting facts would be that it took nearly 15,50,000 bricks to construct the church, the church has a solid masonry of 27,260 feet and the erecting of spire itself cost 15,000 Rupees. For his contribution in designing the church and that of overseeing the construction process James Agg was paid a total of 15% of the actual cost of construction. Some historians argue about whether in the first place James Agg was the actual designer since after this he never built anything anywhere and retired to England where he leads a good life.

The church was consecrated (dedicated to the Lord which marks the beginning of service) on 24th of June 1787 (St. John The Baptist Day) and was named as St. Johns Church.

This church remained as the main presidency church just like that of the Presidency Jail, Presidency Hospital the word “Presidency” suggests that this was the main church of the government. This church became a cathedral in the year 1814 when a bishop was constituted and a diocese was formed.

Another interesting fact would be that the member of the church was expected to pay 3 Rupees per month to have a secured seat at the church. Considering the valuation of Rupees then it was a princely sum to secure a membership in the church but considering that it was the main church and the cathedral thus people did queue up.

With the increasing in European population at one time this church was not enough to accommodate all the worshippers in the city and then it was decided to build another bigger church which finally became the St. Paul’s Cathedral in the year 1847 thus bringing to an end of the prominence of the church.


ST JOHNS CHURCH NOW
The church now sits North Western side of the Raj Bhavan in the central business district of Kolkata. It is flanked by government offices from all the sides. The church has its own paid parking arrangements thus a major challenge about parking is taken off since there are no other public parking spots nearby.

As you enter you will see two very distinct set of building, one being the church of course and the other a blue and white two-storied structure. This blue and white two-storied structure is the official residence of the Bishop of Calcutta Diocese (CNI). You are not allowed towards his residence since it’s a private place.

Just to the left of the entrance, you will see several small square structures which resemble a car parking garage but these are not what you think they are. These were the palanquin (palki) resting houses custom built for the visitors to the church who would often come in them since at that time motor vehicles had not arrived yet in the city. These are distinctly small in size and would not have allowed a car to fit in. Special inclined approaches can still be seen today on both the sides but these are not used anymore as the original design to have an entrance from the altar side has now been closed off.

This heritage structure has a distinct light yellow and off white paint and is mostly plastered except that of the spire which has been constructed with Chunar red stones. On the southern and northern section, there is a veranda with the northern one having the memorial of Charlotte Canning.

As you come to the entrance a surprise awaits you if you look at the two benches placed at the entrance you will see a white marble bench which actually is a cover of a tomb which once belonged to someone named Peter Pan. It’s just a coincidence with the fictional character but something you can say jokingly that you have seen the grave of Peter Pan.

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Peter Pan’s Tomb Stone

WHAT TO SEE INSIDE ST JOHNS CHURCH
If you turn towards the entrance you will see a wide staircase leading towards the main door. If you see towards your right you will see the tablet stone which was placed after the complete restoration of the church in 2007. You will find two more stone tablets at the right of the main door one which says that the Maharaja Nabo Kishen Bahadur had donated the land for the church to the church committee and the tablet on the right mentions the first stone laying ceremony in presence of the then Governor General Warren Hastings on 6th of June 1784.

Before proceeding to the room to your right you can look at some of the stone and brass tablets that have been placed in this section of the church. Keep an eye for the brass tablet which is very special since this was placed not after someone had died but to thank the Lord for bringing back someone’s sons from a war. If you look up you will find two black stone tablets with the Lord’s Prayer, Apostles’ Creed and verses from Exodus (The Ten Commandments).


At present this room is the church office but once this room was used by the congregation as a change room, one thing you will notice is that the court hangers which are numbered can still be seen. These are no ordinary court hangers but the white balls that you see are made of porcelain and the metal hangers are all carved. Note that this is an office room thus entry is restricted.


ST JOHNS CHURCH – ROOM TO THE RIGHT (VESTRY)
As you enter the room to your right you will find a large center table with chairs placed all around. The most important things to pay attention are the chair of Warren Hastings, the mantle clock and perhaps the most prized possession hangs on the wall which is a portrait of Warren Hastings which bears his original signature. Other important artifacts include the construction diagram of the church, a handwritten note by John Evans, a small portrait of Johan Zoffany. Apart from these, there are several old photograph and hand sketches of bishops and church bearers.


ST JOHNS CHURCH – MAIN SEATING AREA
Coming back to towards the entrance you will finally enter the main church. As you would see that in size this is rather a small church and the need to have a larger cathedral was justified. There are fourteen visible doric columns that support the roof. What you would see in front would be center seating section with and set of seating sections to the left and to the right. Initially, there was galleries in the left (north) and right (south) section which did not face the altar but face each other. The seating arrangements of the church were also divided depending on your rank in the society. The center of the left gallery was occupied by the governor general and his family along with other members of the council, the women of this society sat behind. The right gallery was for the judges of the Supreme Court and other gentlemen of the society. The center section which did not have a gallery but simple benches were for the poor members of the community. The seating behind the pipe organ was reserved for the members of the chaplain family and pews of churchwardens. The choir sat opposite to that of the church pipe organ.

Church Court of Arms – Auspicio Regis Et Senatus Angliae (The senate under the auspices of the King of England)
Church Court of Arms – Auspicio Regis Et Senatus Angliae (The senate under the auspices of the King of England)
St. Johns Church Kolkata (43)
Main Seating Area with Ten Doric Columns With The View Of Altar In Front
St. Johns Church Kolkata (44)
The Seating On Left Reserved For The Members Of The Chaplain And Pews of Church Wardens. The Right Section Is For The Choir.


ST JOHNS CHURCH – MAIN ALTAR
This section is present under a semi-circular dome with blue walls. The color blue is usually not used in Anglican churches and is more common in Roman Catholic churches so this is something very different from the rest. As to the norms of most Anglican churches, the altar has a simple cross but the dome has three beautiful painting. The one in the center is the Birth of Christ, the one on the left is that of Jesus Preaching to the masses and the one on the right is the scene where Jesus is Missing from his tomb after the crucifixion. These three together forms the three most important stages of the life of Jesus, his birth, his ministry and that of his resurrection.

ST JOHNS CHURCH – TOMB OF BISHOP MIDDLETON
This is perhaps the only church in the whole of the city that has someone buried under the church altar. Thomas Fanshaw Middleton the then Bishop of Calcutta had died on 8th of July 1822 due to a heat stroke. He wanted to be buried in the chapel of Bishop’s College but the chapel was not consecrated thus with a special one of a kind permission from the government he was buried at the altar of the church with full state honor and a gun salute from Fort William. The word “D.D.” stands for Doctorate of Divinity (Pastors of the church needs to study Divinity and Theology as to qualify to be part of the Church clergy).

ST JOHNS CHURCH – SIDE ALTAR
The old entrance from the South- Eastern side which now has been closed is now a small altar with stained glass in the background. The most remarkable object of this section probably is the large painting of Jesus (Salvator Mundi) that you see on the north wall. This painting is very unique and personally, for me, this painting connects to me somehow. Another interesting thing in this section is the only colored stone tablet that I have ever seen.

ST JOHNS CHURCH – BALCONY
There used to be two balconies at the North and the South section but none of these are visible now. Only one (portion) is visible is the South-Western one. A section of the balconies had collapsed when a bomb had fallen at the courtyard during the Japanese raid of Calcutta during WWII in the December of 1942. Luckily the bomb had failed to detonate thus the damages were limited.

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The Only Remaining Photograph of the Original Interiors with the Balconies Visible (Courtesy Church Archive)
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Exterior of the Church after Damages from Japanese Bombing (Courtesy British Movietone)

ST JOHNS CHURCH – PIPE ORGAN
One interesting fact you would notice are the arrays of mirrors around the pipe organ, this was done since the organ player sits with his back to the congregation thus he would not be able to see the choir master or the congregation. So with the help of mirrors, he could see the reflection and get the cue to start playing when necessary.

This pipe organ was manufactured by William Hill & Son & Norman & Beard Ltd. in England. This company was famous for manufacturing of pipe organs for movie theaters since the silent era movies required some live music to be accompanied along with the projection. Some of their famous work included the Christie in Paris and Odeon Marble Arch in London.

The organ has a console to its right and left, a combination of these stops various different tones and one needs to know the correct combination to produce a rich sound. An organ player needs to use his hands and feet to control the sound. The sound is basically produced by wind coming out of pipes of various sizes. The pitch varies depending on the length and thickness of the pipes and the keyboard along with the footboard controls the air passing through these pipes. The wind is generated by a motor which runs the bellow to generate the wind pressure. Due to this pipe organs can have a sustained sound unlike that of a piano.

ST JOHNS CHURCH – THE LAST SUPPER BY JOHANN ZOFFANY
One of the most famous artworks that are present in this church is the painting of The Last Supper by Johann Zoffany painted in the year 1787. The one that you see now has been carefully restored in the year 2010. The uniqueness of this last supper painting is that Zoffany used real life subjects for the various faces in the painting. Some of the famous subjects involved a Greek priest, Father Parthenio who was used for Jesus, W.C. Blacquiere the police magistrate of Calcutta was selected for John and infamously auctioneer William Tulloh was used for Judas.

Zoffany added some local Indian flavor to this famous painting by adding small features like the Bisti (goatskin water bag) and an Indian sword thus making it really different from the rest of the Last Supper paintings.

ST JOHNS CHURCH – WORLD WAR MEMORIAL PLAQUES
This church has some interesting collection of stone tablets, brass tablets, and cenotaphs. On the North – Western corner you will find the World War Memorial Plaques which were once a part of the Glorious Dead Cenotaph at Maidan. The plaques were removed from the cenotaph and placed at the Bengal United Service Club due to security concerns but again it was removed and transferred to the church after it closed down. Every year a special Memorial Sunday service is held at the church which is attended by all the three branches of armed force.

The Great War Memorial Plaques at the North West CornerWW Memorial PlaquesWW Memorial Plaques

ST JOHNS CHURCH – COAT OF ARMS
There are seven Coat of Arms that are placed on the north and south wall. Each of these signifies a person of great importance since coat of arms is only given to people with some importance in the society. I am trying to identify each of these and since this process can take a long till will update as and when I get to identify each one of them. At the moment I have been able to identify only one of them.

JAMES ACHILLES KIRKPATRICK MEMORIAL
James Achilles Kirkpatrick who dies in the year 1805 at the age of 41 was actually buried at North Park Street Cemetery but since it does not exist anymore so this is the only important reference that we have of him today. James Achilles Kirkpatrick became famous because of the novel The White Mughal by William Dalrymple. The tablet was installed by his father and is located on the Southern wall.

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James Achilles Kirkpatrick Memorial Tablet

JAMES PATTLE MEMORIAL
This is another memorial which has a direct connection with William Dalrymple since this was erected in the name of his great-great-grandfather. As the legend goes James Pattle actually had died in the city but as per his last will was supposed to be buried in Britain. Since the only mode of transport was with ships so the body was preserved in rum and was being transported back to Britain. During the course of the journey, his wife Adeline who was also traveling with him suffered a heart attack when she saw the body rise up from the coffin. So both the bodies were then put inside the coffin awaiting the transportation. On the way, the sailors drilled holes in the coffin to drink the rum and for some reason or the other, they go so drunk that they were unable to control the ship which hit the banks and this caused the ship to drown. So, in reality, both James and Adeline were buried at the sea.


James & Adeline Pattle Memorial

LIEUTENANT PETER LAWTIE
This is located at the end of the Southern wall and was actually meant to be placed at the Town Hall instead. He was the first British officer to lead a Nepalese Gurkha into action. This was significant since then on till date Nepalese Gurkha still continue to serve the Indian Army.

ST JOHNS CHURCH – CLOCK TOWER
The clock tower has an access from the office section and after climbing up circular stairs first you will reach the terrace then to the base of the spire. From here you have to climb spiral wooden stairs to the bell tower. The pendulum has been enclosed in a box so as to prevent it from damaging any wooden structure if it comes loose. The massive bell is the only piece of the clock that you can see from this level. The inscription on this metal bell reads:


ST JOHNS CHURCH – LADY CANNING MEMORIAL
People of Kolkata are very familiar with the sweet meat called Ladycanie which is actually derived from the word Lady Canning whose actual name was Charlotte Canning the wife of Charles Canning the Governor General and Viceroy of India. Unfortunately, she died of malaria and was buried at Barrackpore but a memorial was built at the northern veranda of the church. Before her arrival to the city, the chef of a prominent sweet meat shop was called and was asked to invent a new dessert in the honor of Lady Canning so the chef invented what we now know as Ladycanie.

SECOND ROHILLA WAR MEMORIAL
Once you come out of the church and walk north you will first see Second Rohilla War Memorial. This memorial was constructed to commemorate the war between the Rohilla’s and the Nawab of Oudh. The war happened in a region that we now know as Rohilkhand which is in north-western Uttar Pradesh. Rohilla’s were a Pashtun tribe who had settled in this region and a conflict with the local Nawab led to the first war in 1773–1774 followed by the second in 1794. The British were backing the Nawab and in the second conflict, the British under the command of General Sir Robert Abercromby defeated the Rohilla’s thus this memorial with twelve pillars were erected. This memorial had twelve columns with a round tomb on top.


MAUSOLEUM OF JOB CHARNOCK
Walking past Second Rohilla War Memorial you will find a small concrete path, follow that and you will come to the northern most section of the church compound where you will find the Mausoleum of Job Charnock. Before you reach the mausoleum you will find four memorials to the right.

The white colored mausoleum is octagonal in shape and inside the epitaph is placed on the western wall with entrance from all the three sides. It is to be noted that the mausoleum also contains the remains of other people most notable amongst them are his wife. The epitaph is written in Latin. Outside the mausoleum, on every side of the octagonal shape on the floor, you will find tomb stones.

Some call him the founder of the city of Calcutta when he combined the three villages of Sutanuti, Govindopur & Kolikata to form what we now call Kolkata around 1690. However this was much smaller to what Kolkata is today, it was more or less concentrated to the northern and central section of the present city.

GRAVE OF FRANCIS (BEGUM) JOHNSON
On the left of the Mausoleum of Job Charnock is the Grave of Francis (Begum) Johnson (1725–1812). The epitaph tells one that she was married four times and thus sometimes referred to as the character of Ruskin Bond’s short story named Susanna’s Seven Husbands but in reality, this was not the case. Her last husband was Rev. William Johnson who was the Chaplain of St. John’s Church. Even though Rev. Johnson returned to England she decided to stay back in India and thus was buried at the church compound.

CALCUTTA BLACK HOLE MONUMENT
On the western part opposite to the main entrance is the famous or rather we should say infamous Black Hole of Calcutta Monument. This was not the original place of the monument well for that matter this is not the original monument in the first place also. A memorial was built by John Holwell at the site of the black hole where is was said that Siraj–ud–Daulah had taken 146 prisoners and locked them overnight in 14 feet by 8 feet cell. Due to the heat and cramped up space, only 23 had survived and John Holwell was one of them. He later became the governor of Bengal are erected a monument at the spot of the original (debated) black hole of Calcutta. This was right next to the present day GPO.

For some reason, this monument had vanished from the face of the earth in 1822 and was somehow brought back to public view by Lord Curzon in the year 1901 at a new spot located between Writer’s Building and GPO on the north-western section. This again became a point of contention during the freedom movement of the 1940’s so as a compromise it was shifted inside the compound of St. John’s Church.

The monument has names of all the victims but these are also debated since names of not all of them were recorded thus it was collected from memory and later additions from multiple sources.

Black Hole Monument at the West Wing of Writer’s Building (Courtesy Calcutta Faces and Places in Pre-camera Days by Wilmot Corfield)
Black Hole Monument at the West Wing of Writer’s Building (Courtesy Calcutta Faces and Places in Pre-camera Days by Wilmot Corfield)
Black Hole Monument inside the Church Compound – Different Faces


ST JOHNS CHURCH – FIVE TOMBS
On the left of the Black Hole of Monument, there are five graves or tombs of wardens their families and some other people. It was not uncommon to be buried in the church yard but these are very few in numbers as most of the burials were already taking place at the four cemeteries at Park Street.

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Five Tombs at the Church Compound (Memory of William Ravenswood Cowpar Jew)
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(Top Left) Memory of Sir Benjamin Heath Mailkin (Top Right) Memory of Sir Christopher Puller (Bottom Left) Memory of Sir Robert Henry Blosse (Bottom Right) Memory of Rt Rev John Mathias Turner

TOMB OF LORD BRABOURNE
The tomb is located right behind the entrance and a pathway has been built for easy access. Michael Herbert Rudolf Knatchbull, 5th Baron Brabourne was the governor of Bengal untill the year 1939 (death).