Built in 1862, St. James’ Church with its sky dominating twin spires is definitely one of the most graceful churches in the city of Calcutta. Located on the AJC Bose Road (former Lower Circular Road), it has the distinction of being the principal church of Protestant Christians of the city and apart from performing the normal practices of a church, like the Sunday teachings, prayers and Bible Reading, it is also the aegis of two local schools in the area, namely St. James’ School for boys and Pratt Memorial School for girls.
However, the present imposing structure of the church was built to replace the old building, located on Nebutala Lane, in the vicinity of Amherst Street. That old building, constructed on the pattern of St Thomas’ Church, Free School Street, was sanctified by Bishop Reginald Heber in 1829. Unfortunately, in the course of time, the building became unsafe and risky for use, mainly due to the infestation of white ants, which destroyed the beams alias the wooden supports of the structure.
An attempt was made to restore the decaying structure, but while the work was on, the roof suddenly caved in the wee hours of 23 August 1858. After that, the plan for repairing the building was automatically discarded, as it seemed to be hazardous and inaccessible. Subsequently, the authorities took the decision to build a church under the same name, in a more convenient locality, with a school to spread education among the local children.
The proposed project for a new building of the church, along with the responsibility of a school, was whole heartedly appreciated and supported by the elite society. Archdeacon Pratt, a keen Educationalist during those days and an ardent supporter of the project, extended his personal influence to help the authorities to acquire the extensive garden house, belonging to Mr. Coats, along with its spacious ground for the purpose. Much later, after the completion of the project, the girls’ school was named after Archdeacon Pratt, as a token of gratitude. The school, Pratt Memorial School, along with the attached property, was situated just opposite to the Female European Asylum, across the road, which was founded during the month of July 1815, by Mrs. Thompson, wife of Rev T Thompson.
Hon’ble Peter Grant, the then acting Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, laid the foundation stone of the new Church, as well as the school on 7th June 1826 and later, a ceremonial marble plaque to that effect was placed on the eastern wall of the southern side of the building.
While the new building of the church was constructed in the early English Gothic style of architecture, with slight traces of the Norman details, a few variations were also adopted to suit the hot and humid climatic condition of India. The plan of the building is just like a Christian Cross, with the top of the cross formed by the sanctuary, while the arms of the transepts and the foot formed by the long Centrum of the Church. From outside, the building looks like a structure with a succession of pointed arches, as if resting on the floor. The outer walls are firmly supported by the well-proportioned buttresses on all sides. The gracefully charming altar, crafted from white marble, is decorated with artistically carved panels illustrating the renowned Last Supper, which is flanked by two small panels in grey marble, criss-crossed with six slender columns in red and grey.
Due to a wide range of factors, the church had been slipping into decay, since early 1970s. The floor was grasped by profuse dampness. Destructive white ants infested the wooden floor of the second level and many of the door and window frames. The main mahogany roof was still strong, but during the prolonged monsoon season leakage along the drip channels resulted to water seepage. Apart from that, lack of regular maintenance, due to the shortage of funds, took its toll and led to the deterioration of the magnificent church building.
Finally, during the early 2000s, the authorities of the church and the two adjoining schools, Pratt Memorial School and St James’ School, decided to take immediate action to conserve the church for posterity, under professional guidance. Accordingly, research and paper works started in September 2008, along with a study of the old drawings and photographs of the church, in order to understand its significance. It took two years of precise and careful planning and proper implementation of the project, accompanied with 21 consultative meetings with the members of the church, to complete the Herculean project of the conservation, restoration and renovation of St James’ Church, which saved the magnificent edifice from a state of continuous decline and definite decay.
Nearly 150 years after its consecration by Bishop Cotton on 25 July 1864, the renovated St James’ Church in Calcutta was rededicated in December 2011, by Rev Bishop Ashoke Biswas.