Swedish Lutheran missionary Johann Zachariah Kiernander arrived in India in 1740 as a missionary, with the approval and support of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK). He worked and spent long 18 years of his life in South India and came to Calcutta at the request of Lord Clive. Here he established the Mission Church in a rent free large room near the gateway of the old Fort, which was provided to him by the Governor himself.
In 1767 Kieranander purchased a plot of land at his own expenses and started to build a church in Calcutta. The construction was completed in 1770 after many hiccups and setbacks. Kiernander named it ‘Beth Tephillah’, in Hebrew, which means the House of Prayer. However, in those days it was popularly known as the Mission Church. It is the second oldest Christian Church in Calcutta, only next to the Armenian Church, and the sole place of worship of the Protestants, until the inception of St. John’s Church in 1787. After the construction of the St. John’s Church, the Mission Church came to be commonly known as the Old Church. But for reasons unknown, many people wrongly called it as the Old Mission Church, even a marble plaque and the metallic lettering at the entrance of the church indicates the same.
The Kiernander’s church continued to dominate central Calcutta after his death in 1799. During those early days, the locals used to call it the ‘Lal Girja’ or the Red Church, probably for its brick red look. It is also said that the Tank Square got the name ‘Lal Dighi’, due to the reflection of the Red Church on it. However, with the rapid growth of Calcutta as the second city of the British Empire in the nineteenth century, the Church had to retreat behind a row of newly built commercial buildings.
Over the years the Mission Church underwent several modifications, renovation and extensions. George Henry Kiernander, grandson of Johann Zachariah Kiernander, added the stained glass at the altar to make it graceful and grandeur. The long colonnaded corridor, supported by lofty Doric pillars, leads to the stained glass decorated altar.
There was a day, when the Church had a tall slender spire, which dominated the Calcutta skyline. Unfortunately the spire was severely damaged during a devastating earthquake, originated in Assam in 1897. As it was irreparable, the spire had to be removed and that robbed much of the majestic grace of the building. The church, to this day, remains without a spire. Apart from that, due to the ravage of time and infestation of white ants, the roof of the building was removed and replaced in 1948, allowing in the process for the church to be enlarged.
There are several plaques including a plaque commemorating the 225 years of the Church. It also housed a beautiful marble bust of Bishop Thomas Dealtry. Famous Bengali poet Madhusudan Dutt was converted to Christianity in this Church on February 9, 1843, but strangely enough, there is no plaque commemorating the said historical event.
Today the church, situated on R N Mukherjee Road, has lost much of its past glory. The peripheral area of the Church, including the front pavement is heavily congested with illegal encroachments. In fact, today It is impossible for any person to get a good look or a clear view of the beautiful building.
Location of Mission Church