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Updated: May 20, 2012 18:23 IST

Faith, brick by brick

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There are numerous churches throughout the Capital. R.V. SMITH tells us how they came to be

Delhi's Christian link dates back to the times of the Moghuls. The earliest churches were built by the Armenians who had come to the court of Akbar in the 16th Century. There were two churches, one near the slaughter house beyond the old Subzi Mandi, and another in Sarai Rohilla, though accounts of their exact location differ.

According to Sir Edward Maclagan, says a Delhi Archdiocese publication, there were 120 Catholics in Delhi during Shah Jahan's reign in 1650. Their number went up to 300 by 1686 when Aurangzeb was on the throne. Two priests looked after them. A Catholic cemetery was also in existence from 1656. Father Desideri, who came to the city from Tibet, found the churches in ruins in 1732 (Mohammad Shah's reign). He stayed on for three years and built a new church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and blessed on All Souls' Day, November 2, 1723.

In 1739 this church and another one were destroyed by the Persian invader Nadir Shah during the massacre of Delhi; the Jesuits in charge of them escaped by hiding in a ruined house. One of the churches was rebuilt in 1746 and blessed on Christmas Eve. Later another church came up but both seem to have been razed and in the early 19th Century, mass was held in the palace of Begum Sumroo in Chandni Chowk.

In 1857 Father Zachary of Tretti built a church which was destroyed during the Mutiny and the priest murdered. In 1865 a new church of St Mary's was built and it still stands in S.P. Mukherji Marg as the earliest Catholic church.

The Central Baptist Church was rebuilt in 1858 after the earlier one was destroyed in the previous year's rioting. It owes its inception to Begum Sumroo, who later became a Catholic. St Stephen's Church in Fatehpuri was built in 1867. This Anglican church had its golden years during the tenure of Reverend Robert Winter and his wife.

The imposing building won the DDA Urban Heritage Award in 1994. The church has Corinthian capitals and stained glass rose windows. An attraction was the organ, which was played on Sundays. Its most noted organist was old Benjamin, whose son is now the secretary of the New Delhi YMCA.

The Cambridge Brotherhood built a chapel attached to its residential building in 7 Court Lane, Raj Niwas Marg. The main features of the chapel at the rear of the building are semi-circular arches. However, the oldest existing church in the Capital is St James's Church, built in 1836 by Colonel James Skinner in perpetuation of a vow made when his life was saved on the battlefield in Uniara.

This church in Kashmere Gate is a landmark of the area and the place where the Viceroys worshipped before New Delhi came up. It has a Florentine dome and was damaged in 1857 by the rebel sepoys but later repaired.

Sacred Heart Cathedral, near Gol Dakhana, was erected in 1934 by the Capuchins from Italy. Father Luke was the priest who supervised the construction of the splendid Italian-style building, which was designed by Henry Medd, who also designed the Cathedral Church of the Redemption near the Secretariat that was built in 1935. The Sacred Heart Cathedral was to be originally built in Delhi Cantonment but that land was taken over by the Army and the present plot allotted for it.

Holy Trinity Church in Turkman Gate was built in 1905 and is conspicuous because of its Byzantian-style building, domed and half-domed characteristics. This church was originally planned to be built near the Ajmere Gate. But the site was shifted when an underground medieval reservoir was discovered while the foundations were being dug. The Raj Niwas Marg Baptist Chapel in colonial style was built in 1918, while St John's Church, Mehrauli, constructed with Christian, Muslim and Hindu architectural features came up in 1927.

In the same year Free Church was erected on Parliament Street with its conspicuous circular appearance. Its best known pastor was the late Reverend Salim Sharif. St Martin's Church, also known as the Garrison Church, was erected in 1929 and, like the Trinity Church, was designed by Arthur Shoesmith. Built of three-and-a-half million red bricks in Delhi Cantt, its Nave has a barrel vault and a square tower.

St. Paul's Cathedral in Bhogal was also built in 1929 and expanded in the 1970s. The Methodist Church in Boulevard Road, near Tis Hazari, with is Gothic features, is a very impressive building with a bell tower. It dates back to 1931. St Thomas's Church in Mandir Marg was also built at the same time, ostensibly for poor Christians, and opened by the then Viceroy's wife, Lady Willingdon. The main entrance has stone tablets in Urdu script. Gandhiji used to visit it when he was staying in the Bhangi Colony nearby.

Though the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has listed only 18 churches, their number has gone up to more than a hundred with many new ones coming up, the latest being the St John de Britton Church in Maya Enclave, which was opened in February this year by Archbishop Concassao after a long court suit.

Thus Delhi's Christian link continues to grow to mark it out as a cosmopolitan city of temples, mosques, gurudwaras and churches, perhaps more numerous than in any other Indian city. However the old Armenian cemetery in Sarai Rohilla's Kishanganj needs to be preserved lest it disappear altogether.

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