St. John’s Church, located on 2/2, Council House Street, at the North-Western corner of the majestic Raj Bhawan, is the third oldest church in Calcutta, following the Armenian and the Mission Church.
In the early days of Calcutta, the residents of Fort William used to attend the St. Peter's Church, inside the compound of the old Fort William. But, a bigger place of worship was badly needed for the growing English population of the city. To meet the demand, a committee headed by Warren Hastings decided in December 1783, to build a new Presidency church. That was the beginning of St John’s Church in Calcutta. The church is known to be one among the first public buildings that were constructed by the British East India Company, after Calcutta became the capital of British India. Though initially it was a chapel, St. John’s Church served as the main Anglican Cathedral in Calcutta, till St. Paul’s Cathedral was consecrated in 1847.
Thomas Daniell 1788 (Courtesy British Library)
St John’s Church, etching & coloured by Thomas Daniell 1788 (Courtesy British Library)
It was an old burial ground, closed since 1767, on which St John’s Church was built. The property belonged to Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Shobhabazar, who was persuaded by Warren Hastings in 1767 to sell it to him in his private capacity. The church was built entirely on the site of the old burial ground where Job Charnock was buried with his family. Among the old mausoleums, only those of Charnock and Admiral Waton were left untouched. A fund of Rs. 30,000/ was raised by public lottery for the construction of the building, which finally reached to Rs 170,000/ by the end of the construction. The foundation stone was laid by Warren Hastings, the then Governor General of India, on the 6th day of April 1784 and the construction was completed in 1787. It was consecrated 24 June 1787 and became a cathedral in the year 1814, when a bishop was constituted and a diocese was formed. Still today, there are two separate marble plaques at the entrance of the church, commemorating the memory of the said two significant events.
Built by architect James Agg of Bengal Engineers, St John’s Church in Calcutta was modelled on St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, which is also an Anglican church. It is a large square shaped structure with the neoclassical look and was built with a combination of brick and stone. The church has a solid masonry of 27,260 feet and it took nearly 1,550,000 bricks to construct the church.
The reddish stones used for its construction were brought from Chunar, near Varanasi, since stones were rarely used as building material in Bengal. However, it is believed that, the blocks and the bricks were also robbed from the medieval structures of Gaur in North Bengal, and were shipped by big boats to Calcutta through the Hoogly River, which is testified in the minute book of the church. The 174 feet tall neoclassical clock tower of the church was also built with stone blocks. Since a structure made of stones is something new in Calcutta, the locals used to call the church as ‘Pathurey Girja’ or stony church.
Just to the left of the entrance, there are several small square structures which were once used to accommodate the waiting palanquins or ‘palkis’ of the visitors. The building of the church is framed by towering columns, both from inside and outside.
The altar of St. John’s Church is placed under a semicircular dome with blue walls. According to the norms of most Anglican churches, the altar has a simple cross, but the dome is decorated with three beautiful paintings, depicting the Birth of Christ, Jesus Preaching to the masses and the scene where Jesus is missing from his tomb after the crucifixion. Apart from that, stained glass windows, memorial tablets, statues and plaques adorned the walls.
On one of the walls, to the left side of the altar, hangs a ridiculous painting by Johann Zoffany, a British artist of German origin. The painting, though titled ‘The Last Super’, is not really a copy or replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece of the same title. Zoffany gave a hilarious touch to the famous Biblical event and used well known persons in India as his models. As Judas, he modelled Mr Tulloh, the owner of the eminent auction mart, ‘Tulloh & Cothe Auction Mart’. Though no documentary evidence was found, it is said that, Tulloh took objection to it and filed a suit in the court of law against the painter.
There is a room in the church, which contains the chair of Warren Hastings, a mantle clock and a portrait of Warren Hastings, which bears his original signature.