The Sacred Heart Cathedral, St James Church, St Stephen’s Church and St Mary’s Church are the oldest places of worship offering services for the Christian community in Delhi. Once busy places, the churches now open their doors only for Sunday Mass from 9 am to 11 am.
While entry is closed on other days for outsiders, they welcome everyone to participate in their prayer sessions and engage with the parish community on Sundays.
St Mary’s Church, now situated in the premises of the Presentation Convent School, is the oldest church in the city. Funded by Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah in 1723, the church was destroyed twice at different points in time and was witness to the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. The structure that we see now was rebuilt in 1865, long after the St James church came into existence in 1836.
Known as the oldest remaining Presbyterian church in Delhi, St James Church boasts of some of the oldest pieces of history — dating back to 1800 AD — within the church compound.
The official hologram of Skinner’s church reads: “Himmat-i-Mardan, Madad-i-Khuda” (Urdu for ‘God helps those who help themselves’). It is named after Col James Skinner, who was severely injured on the battlefield while fighting as a soldier for the Karolee Rajah.
Legend has it that it was then that he swore to God that he would build a chapel if he is saved from the jaws of death. According to the church authorities, “As if in answer to his prayers, a Dalit woman arrived on the battlefield with a basket of bread and a pot of water. Thus were saved the wounded and James Skinner.”
Built initially as a chapel, and later consecrated as a church, it cost Rs 90,000 to build the church back then on Lothian Road at Kashmere Gate.
The Sacred Heart Cathedral, located right in front of the historic Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, is more open to the larger public. Many foreigners visiting the nearby market in Connaught Place attend the Sunday Mass here.
According to the church authorities, “Fr. Luke Vannucci bought the land in 1922. It was a plot measuring 14.022 acres. The Delhi Government leased it in perpetuity to Agra Archdiocese for a consideration of Rs 7,000 and the Archdiocese of Delhi, which inherited the land, pays Rs 365 as annual ground rent.”
When the church was set to be built here, Edward Lutyen took it upon himself to be a panel member of the jury that was tasked with choosing a suitable architect for the church.
The St Stephen’s Church, built in 1862 in the Italian Gothic style of architecture, is situated on the Church Mission Road, just minutes away from the famous Giani Di Hatti in Chandni chowk. Red in colour, it is supposed to signify the lost lives of Christian martyrs from the mutiny of 1857. It had the support of the Cambridge Mission to Delhi which later on played a crucial role in laying the foundations of the present St Stephen’s College under the University of Delhi.
Looking at the church premises in Old Delhi, the view is nothing like the rest of Delhi’s landscape. While Old Delhi is often associated with Mughal architecture, old markets and historic mosques, the lesser-known history of churches in Delhi is worth exploring.
A driving force in shaping settlements and communities around it, the churches of old Delhi come with stories of mutiny, pre-independence tensions, stories of injured soldiers and so on.
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