God’s lovely house.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
If the British had made our land their lasting and loving home, then Delhi would have had as many British-period churches as there are Mughal-era tombs. The capital probably would have more than one gothic structure built in the style of St Mary’s Catholic Church.
This old building may transport a wistful visitor straight to the heart of Europe. Here, you could as well be in a village in England. Or in Venice. But this is actually just a short walk away from the Red Fort.
A church was built here in 1723 when Delhi was ruled by the colorful Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah. It was destroyed 16 years later following Nadir Shah’s invasion. The next structure was destroyed during the Mutiny of 1857 – its European priest was murdered while he was said to be praying on his knees.
The church we now see was raised in 1865. It lies within a school complex. The classroom-sounds race into the churchyard like little girls rushing towards the cotton candy man.
The Delhi Walla visited the building while it was undergoing a restoration. The bell tower was silent at this late morning hour. Parts of the church were encased in scaffolding.
Inside, the lungi-clad labourers were at work. The altar was empty. The chessboard floor was bare of pews. Wooden ladders leaned against white pillars. A spiral staircase ran up beside the main door. The daylight was streaming in through stained glass windows. Titled artworks hanging on the wall showed scenes from Christ’s final journey: ‘Simon helps Jesus carry the cross’; ‘Jesus falls the first time’; ‘Jesus carries his cross’.
The church’s website says that it “served the spiritual needs of the Irish Regiment of the British Army garrisoned at the Red Fort up to the year 1914. It was in 1914 that Delhi Cantonment was established for the Armed Forces of British India. The wooden pews of St. Mary’s Church, which remained in use until renovation in 1965, had hooks to hang the rifles of the army men who marched in and out of the Church in uniform wearing their firearms for Sunday Mass… There are people who believe that the graveyards of those killed by Nadir Shah and of the victims of Mutiny were located at the gate of the Church Complex facing the Red Fort. A night watchman in 1976-78 used to narrate stories of visions of the ghosts of the dead rising at night and haunting the area.”
That vanished graveyard has been chosen as the site of an underground metro station. The construction is in progress. The laborers have not yet sighted the old ghosts.
Where Presentation Convent Senior Secondary School, SP Mukherjee Road Nearest Metro Station Chandni Chowk Time English Mass on Sundays 8 am in Winter, 7.30 am in Summer
An ode to Mary