Located on the AJC Bose Road (former Lower Circular Road) and built in 1862, St. James’ Church with its sky dominating twin spires, is definitely one of the most graceful churches of Calcutta. It has the distinction of being the principal church of Protestant Christians of Calcutta. Apart from performing the usual practices of a church like Bible Reading, Sunday teaching and prayers, St. James’ Church also is the aegis of St. James’ School and Pratt Memorial School for boys & girls respectively.
The present dignified structure was built to replace the old church under the same name, which was situated on Nebutola Lane, near Amherst Street. The old Church was constructed on the pattern of St. Thomas’ Church, Free School Street, and was sanctified in 1829 by Bishop Reginald Heber. With the passage of time, this Church got into bad shape primarily due to the infestation of white ants, which destroyed the beams alias the wooden supports. The Church was declared not safe for the prayers and an attempt was made to repair the distressed structure. However, while the work was on, the roof caved in with a crash in the early hours of 23rd August, 1858. Finally, the plan for repairing the building was discarded, as it was found to be very inaccessible. Thereafter, the authorities decided to build a church under the same name in a more convenient locality, with a school for the local children.
The proposed project for building a new church with a school was appreciated by everyone, and was fully supported by Archdeacon Pratt, a keen Educationalist during those days. With his personal influence, he helped the authorities to acquire the garden house of Mr. Coats, together with its spacious ground for the purpose. Later, as a token of gratitude, The Girls’ school was named after Mr. Pratt, as Pratt Memorial School. However, this property was situated just opposite to the Female European Asylum, across the road, which was founded during July, 1815, by Mrs. Thompson, wife of Rev.T.Thompson.
The foundation stone of the new Church and the school was laid by Hon’ble Peter Grant, the then acting Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, on 7th June 1826. A marble plaque to that effect was placed on the eastern wall of the southern side of the building.
The building was erected in early English Gothic style of architecture, with traces of Norman details.However, a few variations were adopted to suit the hot and humid climate of India. Outwardly the building looks like a structure with a succession of pointed arches resting as it were, on the floor. The outer walls were firmly supported on all sides by well-proportioned buttresses. The plan is like a Christian Cross, with the top of the cross formed by the sanctuary, the arms by the transepts and the foot formed by the long centrum of the Church. Inside the building, the altar, crafted from white marble, looks like a beautiful piece of art. It is further decorated with artistically carved panels illustrating the renowned Last Supper, which is flanked by two small panels in grey marble intersected with six slender columns in red and grey.
Unfortunately, the church had been slipping into decay since early 1970s, due to a wide range of factors. Profuse dampness prevailed the floor. The wooden floor of the second level and many of the door and window frames were infested with destructive white ants. The main mahogany roof was still strong, but leakage along the drip channels, resulted to water seepage during the prolonged monsoon season. The lack of regular maintenance, due to shortage of funds, took its toll and led to the deterioration of the magnificent church building.
During the early 2000s the church authority 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. Finally, work started in September 2008 with documented paper research and a study of old drawings and photographs of the church in order to understand its significance. The recently completed conservation and renovation of St James’ Church 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. The combined effort and involvement saved the edifice from a state of continuous decline and decay.
Finally, St.James’ Church in Calcutta was rededicated in December 2011, by Revd Bishop Ashoke Biswas, nearly 150 years after its consecration by Bishop Cotton on 25 July 1864.
Photographs used in the story are by courtesy Indrajit De Sarkar
Location of St. James’ Church