Located on Cathedral Road, along with the line of Birla Planetarium, Nandan Film and Cultural Centre and Rabindra Sadan theatre complex, St. Paul's Cathedral is the first Episcopal Church in Asia and the first cathedral built in the overseas territory of the British Empire. It is a CNI (Church of North India) Cathedral of Anglican background and also the seat of the Diocese of Calcutta. By 1810 there were around 4,000 British men and 300 British women in Bengal. As the St. John’s Church was not big enough, St. Paul's Cathedral was basically built to make a more accommodating place of prayer, for the ever growing European community of Calcutta in the 1800s.
It was a wild forest area during those early days, that was selected for the site of the proposed new church and far too south from the locality of the white Europeans. Yet, after acquisition of 7 acres of land, a Cathedral Committee was formed to build the structure. In 1819, at the request of Marquess of Hastings, the then Governor General, the military engineer and architect, Major William Nairn Forbes, who later became a Major General of the Bengal Engineers, submitted a design for the proposed new cathedral, with the assistance of an architect, CR Robinson. He designed the building in a Gothic architectural style, added with certain necessary provisions to meet the adverse climatic conditions of India. However, the tower along with the spire of the church was modelled after the Norwich Cathedral in England.
Despite having earnest intentions, no action was taken to start the construction, as the design was deemed to be too expensive to build. Bishop Middleton, who suggested the site of the proposed cathedral, died in 1822 before building plans took shape. The next three Bishops all died after brief tenures. Finally, at the initiative of the benefaction of Bishop Daniel Wilson, construction of the church started on 8 October 1839 with the laying the cornerstone. It was completed after eight years and was finally consecrated on 8th October 1847.
The massive structure of St. Paul’s Church, with its Flagstaff rising to a height of 175 feet above ground level, is an architectural marvel. The graceful structure is 247 feet long, 81 feet in width and 114 feet at the transept. Its tower was modelled on the Bell Harry tower of Canterbury Cathedral. With three Gothic stained glass windows and two frescoes in the Florentine Renaissance style, it looked like a replica of Norwich Cathedral in England on completion.
The Bishop’s throne, known as the Episcopal throne, is placed on the southern flank of the London made high altar, backed by a decorative east wall, designed by Sir Arthur William Bloomfield of London. The mosaic panels on the wall depict different episodes related to the life of St. Paul, like the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Flight into Egypt and the others. The cathedral is equipped with exquisite stained-glass windows on the east and the west.
The original east window, a gift of the dean and a copy of Windsor Castle, was unfortunately destroyed in a cyclone of 1864. The present window, modelled after the windows of the Oxford Cathedral, also arrived from London in 1868 and is equipped with bars between the glasses, specially designed to weather storms. The design of the west window with its central figure of Justice was chosen by Lady Mayo and executed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, known to be a famous Pre-Raphaelite painter, who was engaged by Morris & Co of Bloomsbury as the principal artist to execute the job.
There is a statue of Bishop Reginald Heber, the second bishop of Calcutta, in a kneeling posture, near the Font, which was created by Sir Francis Chantrey. The cathedral housed a dignified organ, with 41 stops, made by the famous Joseph Willis & Sons of London, which is still in use. The main hall of the cathedral is equipped with properly arranged wooden church chairs and benches for the public. The tower, fitted with five huge clocks, each weighing about three tons, acts as the base, on which the 221 feet high central spire stands. The tower is square in shape and almost looks like a replica of the 12th century Canterbury Cathedral, England.
At the initiative of Bishop Wilson, a library was founded over the porch of the cathedral complex. The Bishop donated a huge collection of 8,000 books and manuscripts to the library. The library has a sculpture of Bishop Wilson, made of marble.
Unlike St John’s Church or St Andrew’s Church, St Paul’s Cathedral does not have cemetery attached to it. However, Bishop Daniel Wilson, who had requested burial in the cathedral, lies in an underground chamber of the cathedral, where a plaque conferred on him by Queen Victoria is also on display.
The cathedral has witnessed three royal visits. The Prince of Wales or King Edward VII, as he became later, visited the cathedral in 1875. The second visit was in 1911, when Queen Mary attended the service here and the third in 1961, when Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh attended the service and the Queen presented the Cathedral a silver-gilt chalice.
During the great earthquake of 12th June 1897, the cathedral was severely damaged, when the upper part of the steeple fell. Nevertheless, that was restored at a later date. Unfortunately, in the massive earthquake of 1934, it was destroyed completely. The present Gothic spire, modeled along the lines of the central tower of Britain’s Canterbury Cathedral, was added later
The complex of the beautiful cathedral seems to be an abode of peace, a secluded island surrounded by the noise of city traffic. Each year it is decorated suitably during the Christmas and the New Year and is thronged by the locals and the tourists alike.