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.
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 DETAILS
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 gun powders 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.