A couple of years ago I came across this page from The Gentleman’s Magazine (Feb. 1824) for sale online. It is a reproduction of an engraving made by G. Hall in 1774, and is the earliest known illustration of Kiernander’s Church at Calcutta. An original print from 1774 can be found at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
Johann Zachariah Kiernander was a Swedish Lutheran, who was dispatched from London to India in 1740 as a missionary under the auspices of the S.P.C.K.. After eighteen years labour in the south, he was invited to Bengal by Lord Clive, victor of the Battle of Plassey, 1757. In a house given rent free by the Governor, Kiernander established his Mission Church.
In 1767 he resolved to purchase ground and build a church at his own expense, and the present church was completed, after many setbacks, in 1770. Kiernander himself called it Beth Tephillah (Hebrew: House of Prayer), but it was known to many as Lal Girja, or the Red Church, as it at that time dominated Lal Dighi, or the Red Pool, of Tank Square around which old Calcutta was centred.
This is most clearly seen (below) in Thomas Daniell’s 1786 coloured aquatint etching Part of the Old Tank, a copy of which can be found at the British Library.
Kiernander’s Mission was the city’s sole Protestant place of worship from 1758 until the completion of St. John’s Church in 1787. Subsequently became commonly known as the Old Church, or Old Mission Chuch, while St. John’s was often referred to as the New Chuch, or sometimes Pathure Girja, the Stone Church.
An article in The Telegraph in 2003 refered to Kiernander’s church as the Swedish Church, and this name has recently acquired some currency, but it is rather misleading. Though Kiernander never lost his Swedish accent, he never preached in that language – though he did in Portuguese, English and German. He laboured as a missionary for the English S.P.C.K., and to all intents and purposes saw himself as English, to the extent of refering to England as “Home”. Ironically, he had spent less than a year in England. Almost sixty years of his 88 years were spent in India; more than forty of those were spent in Calcutta.
Kiernander’s church continued to dominate central Calcutta after his death in 1799 (above). Gradually, however, it retreated behind a row of new commercial buildings which sprung up as Calcutta wrested its status as second city of the British Empire in the nineteenth century (below).
Photographs show that by the 1880s and 1890s Kiernander’s Mission Chuch had become a quite magnificent, being well maintained, extended and restored (below). J.Z. Kiernander’s great-grandson, George Henry Kiernander, made several large donations, including one for a stained glass window for the new chancel.
But the church continued to function, and its history is recorded in Westcott’s One Hundred and Seventy-Five Years at the Old or Mission Church, Calcutta (1945).
In 1948, on account “of the ravages of time and white ants” what was unsafe roof was removed and replaced, allowing in the process for the church to be enlarged. No steeple was added at this time, and the church to this day remains without.
A recent article: Kolkata churches stay away from decoration in pandemic year (Dec 24, 2020)
rangandattaJune 17, 2012
Dear Sir thanks for the post. I am from Calcutta and a independent researcher working on the churches of Calcutta.
The church is popularly known as Mission Church or Old Church. It was previously known as the Lal Girja (Red Church) for its brick red facade (it no longer exists today). It was probably Lal Dighi (Tank Square) derived its name from Lal Girja, because of the reflection.
Here are some relevant links from my Blog:
1. St. John’s Church (http://rangandatta.wordpress.com/2011/06/17/st-johns-church-calcutta-kolkata/)
2. St. James’ Church (Jora Girja) (http://rangandatta.wordpress.com/2012/04/27/st-james-church-jora-girja-calcutta-kolkata-2/)
3. St. Mary’s Church (Bengali Cathedral) (http://rangandatta.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/st-marys-church-banglai-cathedral-kolkata-calcutta/)
AsiaticusJune 18, 2012
Thank you! I enjoyed reading your blog posts, and I look forward to one on Kiernander’s Church! Happy blogging!
Cecil TimothyDecember 2, 2012
Thanks for the historical insights about the Old Mission Church. Just attended a Carol Service, was delighted to listen to the pipe organ.
AsiaticusDecember 12, 2012
Thank you Cecil. If you have any photographs of the church or the service I would very much like to see them!
Richard HolladayJanuary 16, 2017
I posted the following on puronokolkata and have some helpful response but I am still trying to home in on my request as to whom the Authorities are that control the Old Mission Church (see below) and also from ANYONE who can gain access to ALL PARTS of the CHURCH to establish as to whether the Portrait to which I refer to is still there & if someone can take a video or images of it I would be most grateful and cover expenses.
I also posted this on Rangan Datta’s site but as yet I have no further information – I gather he lives “the other side of town!!” I have reproduced my posting below and would be pleased to hear of any useful information.
I should like also to hear as to how I can contact the Old Misson Church authorities (it must belong to someone!) either a POSTAL or EMAIL Address – is it a Social Centre ? or Museum ? or is it still connected with the “Church authorities” – if so who are they – all help welcomed – thanks to all. Richard Holladay
June 4, 2016 at 3:52 PM
Dr Charles Newton Lovely is referred to in the link above. He is my Maternal Grandfather and I am creating a Powerpoint presentation on his life. He was the son of Rev George Lovely and was born in Calcutta in 1864. Hi father was appointed Chaplain at the Old / Mission Church in about 1863 and “George Lovely left India in January 1869 after a total service of 13 years at the Old Church. He was very popular at the Old Church, and a portrait of him was hung in the Old Church Room.”
Does the Portrait still exist and might I have a colour image of it if this is possible.
Richard Holladay, Chudleigh, Devon, UK
Aidan KiernanderJuly 9, 2020
Apologies for my show response. Do please email me on email@example.com – I may be able to put you in contact with someone on the ground who can help.
ANJALI SIKDERNovember 28, 2019
Very interesting viewing. It is indeed a great honor and privilege to be a part of Old Mission Church – born and brought up on the premises since March 1963 and still actively involved in the church. This year we are celebrating 250th anniversary and the inaugural program will be held on Sunday, 29th December 2019 at 9:00 a.m. All are welcome to join in to celebrate and thank God for His faithfulness all these years. ANJALI SIKDER
Aidan KiernanderJuly 9, 2020
Apologies for my slow response. Many thanks for your kind words. Do please feel free to email me on firstname.lastname@example.org with anything you can share about the church. I haven’t yet visited.
Aidan (in chilly London!)
Saify LanewalaSeptember 5, 2020
How fascinating! I was just thinking about Old Mission Church (I went to Welland Gouldsmith School from 1957-1962) and fondly remember the teachers there. I believe the pastor at the time was Howland (sp?) but I am not 100% certain. Used to walk by there frequently to and from the mosque on Brabourne Rd.
adminSeptember 14, 2020
Thank you, Saify! The Welland Gouldsmith School grew out of Kiernander’s original Charity School, and I hope to write about it soon! At least one member of my close family was educated there, in the 1930s. Are you much in contact with your alma mater?
Kamal Kumar BandyopadhyayOctober 8, 2020
What a interesting trail of discussion on old Calcutta. What I understand that after the construction of the St. Johns Church, it used to referred as Old or Mission Church. The name was never Old Mission Church.
Thanks and regards
Independent heritage researcher
adminOctober 8, 2020
Quite correct. First known as The Mission Church, Kiernander’s Church became The Old Chuch when St John’s was being built. At that time, and for sometime onwards, St. John’s was called The New Church. The Old or Mission Church has often been shortened to The Old Mission Church. A church of many names!