One of the oldest churches in Kolkata and a national monument, St. John’s Church is set to get a fresh lease of life through restoration

His role as the founder of the city of Calcutta can be widely disputed, but the English tradesman and East India Company administrator Job Charnock’s association with the city can hardly be questioned.

It is this close association that seems to have prompted the authorities at St. John’s Church, one of the oldest churches in Kolkata, to consider installing his statue inside the church compound. The church already houses Charnock’s mausoleum.

According to Reverend Pradeep Kumar Nanda, Presbyter in-charge of St. John’s Church, plans are also afoot to renovate both the exterior and interior façade of the church, install fountains inside the compound, make new pathways, develop car parking area and repair and paint the bishops’ bungalow among others.

This is part of the renovation and restoration task likely to be taken up by the West Bengal Tourism Department in association with the Public Works Department (PWD), Rev. Nanda said.

“Since this is a national monument, we have already initiated measures to restore some of the collections kept here. Recently, the State government and the PWD came forward to fund the external and internal renovation of the church,” he added.

According to him, the project, which is likely to commence before the Durga Puja festivities in October this year, might take about seven to eight months for completion. The government is likely to incur expenditure of Rs. four crore for the restoration project.  

The PWD has already engaged an architect as consultant for the project. “The architect is likely to submit his report in the next 15-20 days. We will then firm up our plan and give it to the church for its approval before embarking on the task of restoration and beautification,” a senior PWD official said. The primary focus would be on water-proofing and ensuring structural stability before embarking on the task of landscaping and beautifying the internal facade, he added.

Established in 1787, St. John’s Church was originally believed to have been a cathedral. It is one of the oldest churches in Kolkata and has been declared as “a protected monument” by the Archaeological Survey of India. The church houses several historic monuments including the Black Hole of Calcutta and the Second Rohilla War Memorial among others.  

Restored artworks

Meanwhile, the church authorities in association with the INTACH (The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) Kolkata Chapter have already initiated the task of restoring some of the paintings and photographs kept at the church. The trust had earlier helped restoring a portion of the church exterior and a wooden spiral staircase inside. 

In 2010, the church got the 10x12 feet canvas depicting “The Last Supper” by the German neoclassical painter Johann Zoffany restored. The painting, acknowledged to be among the finest representations of the Biblical scene in India, was presented to the St. John's parish on June 24, 1787, for the consecration of the first church built by the British.

This project, costing around Rs. 15 lakh, was funded partly by the church and partly by INTACH and Max Mueller Bhavan in Kolkata, said G.M. Kapur, convenor, West Bengal and Kolkata Regional Chapter of INTACH.

This apart, a group of 12 oil paintings, mostly of the erstwhile bishops and vicars of the church and that of a painting of Jesus on a cross; 28 photographs (including the photograph of a portrait of Warren Hastings and a certified copy of Zoffany’s self-portrait); three lithographs and two sketches were recently given a new lease of life by INTACH. The project, which is the result of a partnership between INTACH, the church and Rotary Club of Calcutta Chowringhee, cost Rs. 4.5 lakh.

Challenges 

The humid climate, high presence of suspended particulate matter and budgetary constraints are some of the key challenges in the preservation of art objects in West Bengal.

“The humid and damp weather makes these paintings prone to fungal attack and also makes it a breeding ground for insects,” Mr. Kapur said. Budget is also a major obstacle. “There are a number of old zamindar families which have paintings worth preserving but they are unable to do so due to lack of funds.”