The Church That Was Auctioned
The ancient lane opposite Lalbazar Police headquarters was known as Rope Walk in eighteenth century– for no fancy reason but because a flourishing business of making ropes out of jute and coconut fibre existed in the area. It had witnessed fierce fighting during the siege of Calcutta, between the Nawab’s forces and the British, leading to the burning down of the city’s first play house. Later, the road came to be known as the Mission Row, since it houses one of the oldest churches of the city, even older than the St John’s Church.
The church has other claims to fame, namely it was said to be responsible for the naming of Tank Square as Lal Dighi by the natives and it was the same one where the student of Hindu College and Derozian Madhusudan Dutta was baptised as Michael Madhusudan Dutta. But on the weird side too this was a church that ended up in auction. As a place of Christian worship it is only second to the Armenian Church and came up 17 years before the St John’s Church which was the Parish as well as Presidency Church. Once the “new” St John’s Church came up the Mission Church came to be known as the old church and as chronicler, Radharaman Mitra pointed out the term Old Mission Church was a misnomer, spread undoubtedly due to an error in the marble tablet. It should read old or Mission Church.
In those days East India Company was not too keen to allow missionaries in its jurisdiction. Thanks to his friendship with Robert Clive which dated back to their days in Fort St David in Cuddalore, John Zachariah Kiernander, a Swedish Missionary was invited and heartily welcomed when he arrived at Calcutta as its first Protestant missionary and proceeded to convert the Roman Catholics and the heathens. A free house was assigned to him and on November, 1758 a son was born to him. Robert Clive and his wife and William Watts, second in Council and his wife (later more famous as Begum Johnson) became his god parents. Soon Kiernander established a Mission School in Murgihatta (the Brown town inhabited by non English foreigners) and Sunday services were held at a room provided by the government for those he converted which even included a Brahmin.
In 1763 he sought a plot from the Company for a convenient place for a Portuguese Protestant Church. Kiernander set out to build a church on his own and estimated it would cost around Rs 20,000 but ended up spending Rs 68,000 because of alteration in size and he himself paid no less than Rs 65,000. Kiernander’s first wife Wendela, had considerable wealth and following her death due to cholera in 1761 the church was built, primarily from this wealth. He again married a wealthy widow, Mrs Ann Woolley and came to be considered to be among the wealthiest in the colony.
The church was consecrated on December 23, 1770 and named Beth Tephillah, the Hebrew for the House of Prayer. The architect was a Dane, Boutant de Mevell who died during construction. The church was very different from the one we see today. HEA Cotton described it to be “clumsy, unplastered brick edifice, of small dimensions,” and surrounded by old houses. It was a plain oblong building extending from the west porch till the beginning of the semi circular chancel in the east. Inside “it had a brick pulpit, an aisle of rough uncovered tiling. A few rude benches and pews of unpainted plank formed the general seats, with a small number of chairs without pews for the gentry.” It could hold around two hundred people but was thought to be unfit for a European congregation which didn’t have a parish church after St Anne was destroyed by cannon fire during the siege of 1756.
It was due to the reddish tint of the bricks that natives started calling it ‘Lal Girja’ and its reflection in the waters of the Great Tank supposed to have earned it the sobriquet ‘Lal Dighi’. Upon the death of his second wife who had bequeathed her jewels to Beth Tephillah Kiernander used Rs 6,000 from the sale to build a school and parsonage.
In 1778 Kiernander’s sight failed him and for three years he was totally blind from cataract and during this time his son, Robert was in charge of his affairs. Apparently, he launched several extravagant speculations. There was a house of the Kiernanders at Camac Street and another garden house in Bhawanipore (where SSKM Hospital now stands). In 1781 though Kiernander had regained his sight he faced fresh troubles since he had injudiciously signed some bonds for his son and though the liabilities could have been covered by his assets the creditors were alarmed and the church and adjoining properties were brought under the hammer. Kiernander, meanwhile, went to the Dutch settlement of Chinsurah where he was appointed as chaplain on a salary of Rs 50.
In a bid to resolve the crisis brought on by the irresponsible son, Charles Grant who made his fortune from silk manufacturing in Malda and went on to become the chairman of East India Company stepped in to restore the church to its religious use. He paid the sum of Rs 10,000 at which it was appraised and transferred the church, school and burying grounds at Park Street to three trustees, including the next chaplain David Brown who began alterations to the “uncouth” building as the congregation grew. When Chinsurah was captured by the British in 1795 Kiernander was taken prisoner of war and returned to Calcutta to stay with his son’s widow before dying in 1799 at the ripe age of 88.
The church witnessed many baptism of Indians, key among them was Madhusudan Dutta who was baptised in 1843 by Archdeacon Dealtry. Later chaplains also took interest in education and their labours were realised in the establishment of the Welland Gouldsmith School, which came up in a property bequeathed by Kiernander’s descendants.