The Sunday Statesman Magazine – Sunday December 11, 1955.

The fourth Sunday of Advent marks the anniversary of Kiernander’s Old Mission Church at Calcutta, and almost every year at Christmastime such a write-up as that below was to be found in  what was then Calcutta’s leading broadsheet, The Statesman.  This article appeared over fifty years ago in the Sunday magazine of that newspaper and, though there are one or two factual errors, it serves as a very good potted history. 

The clipping itself was taken by Benjamin Kiernander and has been kept in the family.  It somewhat resembles an ancient papyrus, and small fragments have been lost.  I have scanned the article and reproduced  the surviving text in the hope of preserving it.

The final image is of a recently acquired photograph showing the Old Mission Church still reflected in the waters of Lal Dighi, before the final loss the spire, and the erection of tall buildings around the Great Tank.

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The Sunday Statesman Magazine – Sunday December 11, 1955.

“The Mission Church in Calcutta – 185 years of History”

By a Special Correspondent.

The Old or Mission Church, next Sunday celebrates its 185th anniversary, and it is of interest now to recall some of the history of this church, built almost entirely at the expense of a single individual, seized by creditors to meet their demands, never consecrated, and which saw the birth of a famous Protestant evangelical organization, the Church Missionary Society.

The story starts in Sweden in December 1710 with the birth of John Zacharias Kiernander, destined to become the first Protestant missionary to Bengal.  After being educated at the University of Halle, he was accepted as a missionary of the Society for promoting Christian Knowledge and arrived in Madras in August 1740 to take charge of the Society’s Mission at Cuddalore.  He worked there till May 1758, when the town was captured by the French under Count Lally.  In the siege the Mission was destroyed and the surrender of the place crushed Kiernander as to further efforts there.

But, unbeknown to him, the way was being prepared for his coming to Bengal.  Clive was then busy consolidating British rule in Bengal following the defeat of Siraj-ud-Dowlah at Plassey, and when the news reached him of the Cuddalore disaster, he is said to have invited Kiernander to come north and found a mission, evidently regarding this as a sure means for the pacification of the country.

185-years-b-e1420041983226He arrived on Sept 29, 1758, and was received with marked favour by Lord Clive and the members of the Bengal Board.  A house was assigned to him rent-free and a subscription was raised for his proposed school by the Rev Henry Butler and the Rev John Cape, the two Presidency Chaplains in the service of the East India Company, who showed him much sympathy.

On Dec 1 Kiernander opened a school in the Murghihatta quarter, which both European and Indian boys attended.  Within a year he had 174 pupils and the work of his mission grew and prospered.  Thus early did Kiernander open the doors of European education to the youth of India.

Meanwhile Sunday services were held in a room lent by the Government and several converts were made, among them the first Brahmin converted in Bengal.  Kiernander preached in Swedish, Portuguese and English to the Europeans and in the local tongue to the Indians.

In 1761 a terrible cholera epidemic broke out which claimed, among other victims , Kiernander’s first wife, Wendela, and his friends, the two English chaplains.  He himself narrowly escaped death, having no less than six relapses.  Thus Kiernander was left alone for a short time to minister to the needs of the English community in Calcutta in addition to his own duties.

In February the next year Kiernander married again, this time a wealthy widow, Mrs Ann Wolley, “to whose soft glances,” according to Asiaticus, “the good padre fell a victim so that he succumbed to the silken embraces of opulent beauty”.  But perhaps this may be as much a libel on the lady as it was undoubtedly a libel that credited Kiernander with driving about Calcutta in a carriage and four.  The latter story seems to have emanated from his playfully calling his palanquin and his four bearers “my coach and four”.  Nevertheless, after his marriage to Mrs Wolley he was regarded as one of the wealthiest men in Calcutta – an important point, as will be seen later.

In 1767 he conceived the idea of building a permanent church.  A site was purchased and in May he laid the foundation of the Mission Church, which he called “Beth Tephillah”, the Hebrew for House of Prayer.

It was completed in three and a half years later, and dedicated on the fourth Sunday in advent 1770 – 17 years before St. John’s Church.  The building cost Rs 68,000, the expense being greater than at first estimated, owing to an alteration in the size of the building after it was commenced.  Kiernander was personally responsible for nearly the whole of this sum, as his Society was unable to provide more than his salary, which amounted to the extremely modest sum of £50 a year.  Only Rs.1,818 was given to him by friends for the building of the church.

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It was no small thing that he did, and that also at his own expense, for he erected a church where no church was and thus restored to the English inhabitants of the city the long-forfeited privilege of worshipping in a proper placed, for no church had been built after St. Anne’s had been destroyed when Suraj-ud-Dowlah sacked the city.

The architect of the church, a Dane named Bontout de Melvill, died before the work was completed, and this may account for the fact that when the church “loomed out in its full proportions it was at best an ugly edifice, somewhat uncouth in form and glaring in colour.  Its colour was red, for the front was faced with slabs of red cement, pointed with white between the slabs.”

The original church, as Kiernander built it, appears to have been an oblong building, extending from the west door to the semi-circular chancel in the east.  This chancel was, however, a later addition.

The reason in the long delay in building the church appears to have been that Kiernander has his hands full with other matters, for at this time he lived in his garden house, soon to form the Central Block of the Presidency General Hospital.  In April 1768 the Council decided to buy this house with additions for Rs 98,900 for the purpose of a hospital, and Kiernander undertook to supervise the building of the east and west blocks.  Apparently the contractors failed to supply him with chunam, and he has to use material supplied for the church.  The hospital was completed in April 1770, after which he was able to push on with the building of his church.

In 1787 occurred an event which nearly put an end to the history of the Mission Church as a …{LOST}…stood surety for a mortgage deed executed by his son, Robert, the go-son of Clive, and through the failure of building operations in which his son was engaged , the father was called upon to fulfil his suretyship.  The creditors became importunate and looked to his property, no matter of what kind, for the discharge of their claims.

Kiernander, probably owing to his extreme liberality, had n ot the ready cash to meet their demands, and the whole of his property was attached.  “The seal of the Sheriff of Calcutta was clapped even on the Sanctury.  The Magistrate must obey the law of which he is only the servant: doubtless that officer with trembling hands closed the gates of Beth Tephillah.”

But one man stepped forward to the rescue, Charles Grant.  He paid for the church Rs 10,000 at which it was appraised, and on the last day of October 1787 the property was transferred to three trustees – the Rev. David Brown, Mr William Chambers and Mr Charles Grant.

185-years-c-e1420045399131For Kiernander, this was the end of his mission and his closing days presented a pathetic picture.  In 1778 his eyes began to fail, and in 1782 both were operated on with some success.  But with approaching old age his vision again failed.  When he was declared bankrupt again in 1787 he retired to Chinsurah, where he lived several years.  He was present at the opening of the new chancel in 1793.

At Chinsurah he acted as chaplain to the Dutch Settlement from 1787 to 1795, when he returned to Calcutta.  He died in 1799 at the advanced age of 88.

The nest “Father of the Old Mission Church” was the Rev David Brown, who, as we have seen, was appointed one of the trustees in 1787 when the church was bought by Grant.  From that time the conduct of the services fell on him and for 25 years he was mainly responsible for the well-being of the church.

When the Mission Church came into his care it was in a very different style from what it is now.  In 1787 it was a clumsy unplasters brick edifice, of small dimensions, and choked up with old houses, and because of its red colour was known as Lal Girja (the Red Church).  Within it was exceedingly uncouth, with a brick pulpit built against a wall, and its aisle of rough uncovered tiling.  A few rude benches and pews of unpainted plank formed its general seating, with a small number of chairs for the gentry; and it was calculated to accommodate about 200 persons.  It was indeed most comfortless, and was pronounced by the then society of Calcutta to be utterly unsuitable for the reception of an European congregation.  Yet it was strongly built of good masonry and lofty, and appeared worthy of being made more attractive to much larger assembly.

In the hands of the trustees the church began to prosper and the congregation to increase, so that it was thought needful to enlarge it.  Brown started to collect money for this purpose and, “encouraged by the fine taste and scientific ability of his respected friend,” Mr William Chambers (a trustee), he determined to improve and enlarge the building.  Accordingly the semi-circular chancel was built at the east end and, as has already been mentioned, was opened on Dec 29, 1793.  About 1801 further structural alterations were made, some pillars being removed and a number of additional seats put in to accommodate the still further increased congregation.

In 1804-05 the church was further enlarged, the rest of the pillars being reluctantly removed.  To preserve the proportions as well as enlarge the space, extensive bows were thrown out in the centre, and galleries erected at the extremities.  The extent of the bows appears from the north bow in which the choir now sits.  The south bow was apparently of an equal size.

It was at this time that the Marquiss Wellesley and his already distinguished brother, later to become Duke of Wellington, worshipped in the Mission Church, while the Presidency Church of St. John’s was under repairs.

Perhaps Brown’s greatest achievement was the starting of the Church Missionary Society for he is undoubtedly the father of this organization and first conceived the idea when less than a month in India.  He was fortunate in being able to interest many eminent men in England including the famous Evangelical clergyman the Rev Charles Simeon.  And if Brown is the father of the C.M.S. then the Old Mission Church is truly its birthplace and for many years the Society appointed the clergyman of this church.

Brown died in 1812 and in 1815 there came from England Bishop Middleton as first Bishop of Calcutta.  His diocese comprised the whole of British India, Ceylon, Burma, the Straits and even Australia.  He was asked to consecrate the Old Mission Church but refused to do so on the extraordinary grounds the church vested in private individuals and not in the East India Company – the Government.

Seventeen years later another Bishop – Daniel Wilson, first Metropolitan Bishop of India – also refused to consecrate the church, but on totally different grounds.  His reason was that it was unnecessary to consecrate it now, as it had already been abundantly consecrated by the prayers and worship of God’s people for two generations, and by the ministry of sainted men of God.  Thus the church has never been consecrated.

In 1895, Mr G.H. Kiernander, a great-grandson of the founder of the church, made several large donations including one of Rs 3,000for a stained glass window for the new chancel.  This beautiful window is marred by an error in the inscription which states the church was built in 1772 instead of 1770.

June 1897 was marked by the severest earthquake shock ever felt in Calcutta.  It is generally spoken of as the Shillong earthquake, for that place was destroyed by it, being near the centre of disturbance.  Every spire in Calcutta was lopped off for a distance of several feet, as was that of the Old Mission also.  On further examination it was found that the lower arches of the tower of the church had been so seriously damaged that it would be not only unsafe to rebuild the spire, but necessary to pull down the tower.

The tower was no doubt the original built by Kiernander, but the spire was perhaps the third that had adorned it   The original spire of Kiernander’s was almost a cube, asshown in the picture by Daniels, which is said to be of the date 1787, when the church was but 17 years old.  The second spire of 1805 somewhat improved the appearance of the church, but it was still square or pyramidal.  The stages of the tower were also square with a pinnacle in each corner, as seen in the picture of that time.

St. Andrew's Kirk (1818) and Kiernander's Old Mission Church (1770) reflected in the waters of Lal Dighi, at a yet unverified date, sometime before June 1897.

St. Andrew’s Kirk (1818) and Kiernander’s Old Mission Church (1770) reflected in the waters of Lal Dighi, at a yet unverified date, sometime before June 1897.

The third spire, built it is believed in 1835 was by far the most elegant and finished of the three.  The two upper stages of the tower were altered in shape and the spire was octagonal.  It stood alone, the insignificant pinnacles having been removed.

This historic church has seen the baptism of many Indians.  The most famous of these was Michael Madhusudan Dutt, then a young student of Hindu College.  Michael was baptized on Feb 9, 1843, by Archdeacon Dealtry.

Two famous Indian Christian missionaries who were closely connected with the Old Mission Church were Rev K.M. Banerjee and the Rev Jani Alli.  Banerjee was the first Pastor of Christ Church, Cornwallis Square.  This church was built by the trustees of the Evangelical Fund, which had been started by David Brown, and to this day the church is still known as “Krishto Mohan Banerjee’s Girja.”

Jani Alli was a Muslim convert from Noble College, Masulipatam.  He graduated at Cambridge, was ordained and came out to India as a Church Missionary Society missionary to work among the muslims.  He built the Garden Reach School, conducted Hindusthani services in the Old Church Room, and sometimes preached in the church.

This then is the story of the Old (Continued on Page III)… {LOST}…

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