We call it “the rocket Church”. I mean come one! How can you not? Take a good look. That unique looking steeple, that looks like the body of a rocket, complete with nose cone, and on both sides of the entrance, you see the way the walls are sloping? That looks like tail fins, right? The books say that the Church is typically Gothic in architecture, and that steeple, while unique, was never meant to look like a rocket. It was meant to look like a ship’s lantern from the old days. The reason why a Church with a steeple like a ship’s lantern is located on Diamond Harbour Road is simple enough to understand. The Kidderpore docks are nearby, and therefore, this area would have been filled with seafaring people. This would have been the first Church anyone would see when travelling East towards the city after disembarking from a ship. Located on 3, Diamond Harbour Road, St. Stephen’s Church is right next to the St. Thomas Boys’ School, but must be entered through the somewhat chaotic lanes of the Kidderpore Bazaar.
The foundation stone was laid on the 6th of January, 1844, by the Governor General, Edward Law, 1st Earl of Ellenborough, along with the Venerable Archdeacon The Right Rev Thomas Dealtry. The Church was consecrated in 1846. Back then, this Church may have been where the Governor General worshipped, when living at Belvedere, which is now the national library. The structures along the Church’s perimeter wall look like they could have been stables. In 1848, it was established as a Chaplaincy and in 1870 it became a parish church. Anglican in origin, the Church continues to maintain Anglican traditions in its services, Matins, Said-Eucharist, Sung-Eucharist and Evening-Song. Congregants inform us that all services, since inception, have been in English.
The uniqueness in the external architectural features extends to the interiors as well. On both sides of the altar are two closets, which may have been meant for nuns, who may have received their communion through windows in the closets. On the walls are many plaques, the older among them commemorating European dead, while the considerably newer ones are Indian. Among the older plaques is one for Edgar Belhouse, 3rd officer of the ship Khyber, who was drowned in the Hooghly on 11th May, 1890. There is a very large and extremely beautiful stained glass window behind the altar, as well as a rather magnificent pulpit, but I suspect that may be new and only designed to look old. The Church also has its original organ, though whether it can still be played, I do not know.
Like many of Calcutta’s colonial era buildings, St. Stephen’s was done in by Independence. As the mostly British congregants left India, the congregation dwindled, and the Church fell into disuse in the 60’s. Lack of funds leading to lack of maintenance, led to one of the beams of the ceiling collapsing, the roof springing numerous leaks, and the windows disintegrating. Squatters encroached on parts of the Church’s grounds. But things turned around in 2013, when congregants decided to take action, and secure funds through a campaign via social media. The Church’s Facebook page solicited donations, bricks to be used for the reconstruction could be bought for Rs. 500 and each brick would have the donor’s name on it. The necessary funds were ultimately secured, and Church was restored to her former glory. Unfortunately it has not been possible to save any of the original marble flooring. The marble now in use was donated by a congregant in memory of his late infant son.
St. Stephen’s is in great shape now, and has a decent sized gathering for Sunday Mass. Many of the congregants are students of the adjacent St. Thomas School. The warmth and openness of the Church authorities is something that I found quite remarkable. We are used to being shooed away on our Sunday photography trips but here there were no hassles about taking photographs and we were even offered cups of piping hot tea. The Lord works in mysterious ways!
- by Deepanjan Ghosh
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