Few would know that Delhi has 56 churches spread across the city, representing various sects of the Christian faith. Be it the 180-year-old St James Church in Kashmere Gate, the Sacred Heart Cathedral of Gol Market, the Holy Trinity Church at Turkman Gate, or St Mary's Church in Chandni Chowk, each is a landmark. Steeped in history, their architecture is subtle while leaving one with a feeling of awe.
With Christmas round the corner, the Capital’s churches are in the middle of a flurry of activity as the faithful get ready to celebrate the most important festival of Christians. The Christmas tree near the pulpit is festooned with bells, stars and glitter, while the church and its surroundings are gaily decorated with flowers, balloons and Christmas wreaths. While finishing touches are being put to the installations, last minute carol rehearsals are underway. Markets in and around churches are loaded with decorative pieces and Christmas trees. There’s a brisk sale of dry fruit and ingredients for the Christmas cake.
Even a week away, a visit to any of the churches in the Capital gives a feeling of the Christmas spirit in the air.
Christmas for all
Though Christians are a minority in the Capital, the festive spirit envelops all. Christmas eve sees not just the faithful but those from other religions also joining in the midnight mass. While the markets and malls are gaily decorated, with cakes, sweets and candles sold everywhere, the Christmas tree and Santa surrounded by kids clamouring for sweets and little gifts is a must. Out in the streets, vendors wearing Santa caps display their Christmas baubles.
Abodes of peace
Churches world over evoke a sense of tranquility. It is partly the architecture and is aided in good measure by the ambience within. The oldest church in Delhi is St James Church in Kashmere Gate ~ built over 180 years ago ~ but it can still be deemed as young compared to some other churches in India. Yet, it can boast of a hoary past and a rich architectural beauty as also others dotting the Capital.
St James Church, Kashmere Gate
Built in 1836 by Colonel James Skinner, one of the oldest churches in the city is St James Church. The then Viceroy of India attended this church until the Cathedral Church of the Redemption was built. Behind the church was the home of British Commissioner William Frazer, who was later buried in the church graveyard. Construction of the church started in 1826 with the basic design in Renaissance Revival style. The church is along a cruciform plan (Greek Cross), with three porticoed porches, elaborate stained glass windows and a central octagonal dome, similar to that of the Florence Cathedral of Italy. Unfortunately, this church also witnessed the wrath of the 1857 uprising, when the copper ball and cross on the top were damaged. Col Skinner died at Hansi (Haryana) in 1841, was first buried there, later disinterred and buried in a vault of white marble immediately below the communion in this church.
"The church holds a traditional service at 11.30 pm on 24 December," informed Lara Paul, caretaker of the chruch. "Many ambassadors and elite come here to offer prayers. Unlike other churches, there is no firing of crackers here. Christmas is celebrated with peace and serenely." In the Christmas feast, cakes, coffee and cookies are offered. Celebrations here doesn't stretch long into the night as they have to prepare for the morning prayer. Earlier, the church would organise a lunch for the underprivileged and a visit to a few old age homes.
Sacred Heart Cathedral, Gol Market
Located in the heart of the city, 80-year-old Sacred Heart Cathedral is a familiar sight. Its building is said to have been initiated by Father Luke and the Archbishop of Agra laid the foundation stone. Construction began in 1930, with financial help from British colonial officers. The Sacred Heart Cathedral was only the second Catholic Church in Delhi. It was built a good 70 years after St Mary's Church in Old Delhi.
As per the website of the church, land to build the cathedral was bought in 1920. Eight architects were invited to submit plans. Insufficient finances led Fr Luke to approach prominent denizens of Delhi as well as benefactors in his native Italy. A bronze plaque inside the Cathedral bears the names of those benefactors who donated more than Rs 1000, which of course was a significant sum of money in the 1930s. Around a lakh of people attend mass on Christmas eve.
Holy Trinity Church, Turkman Gate
Located behind the Delhi Stock Exchange, Holy Trinity church, which dates back 110 years is teeming with history. "The church was built in memory of The Rev Alexander Charles Maitland by his wife, Mary R Maitland," informed Assistant Rev Joel Lazar.
In 1883, Anglican missionaries bought four sites on which to settle some of their converts. One of these was at Turkman Gate. In 1905, this beautiful Byzantine church was built, creating a separate congregation and cementing a close relation between the church and the settlement. Now the area is predominantly a middle-class congregation of skilled and white-collar workers in diverse occupations and professions.
A small but a significant number of families live within the compound of the church. Looking like a small village, the complex also has a primary school.
Cathedral Church of the Redemption, Rashtrapati Bhawan
Located to the east of Parliament House, Cathedral Church of the Redemption in is one of the most beautiful and magnificent churches in the Capital. The church is also known as the Viceroy Church, as he offered prayers here.
The church traces its origin to the early 1900s, when the Rev T R Dixon was appointed Chaplain to meet the spiritual needs of the British officers. In 1925, the Chief Engineer was asked to prepare the plans for a 300-seater church with provisions for extension at a cost of Rs 1.5 lakh. Viceroy Irwin laid the foundation stone on 23 February, 1927 at the exact centre of the church, above which the central dome came up. The cathedral was finally opened to public worship on Sunday, 18 January 1931. Today, the President of India attends Christmas mass at this church.
Central Baptist Church,Chandni Chowk
Located just opposite Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib, the Central Baptist Church was once small chapel. Construction of the present church building started in 1864 and completed in 1865 by the London Baptist Missionary Society on a small portion of land. The church was designed in the typical European style of architecture but one can also find a blend of Mughal architecture at its Southern entrance. The Central Baptist Church is probably one of the most well-maintained churches kept well in its original state with its colourful and intricate carvings. The Church has dedicated a section of its wall to honour those who devoted their life to the service of the Baptist community.
It is also the first Urdu church in India, which means prayers are conducted in Urdu too. After the Mughal empire's demise, churches mostly conducted prayers in English, but this church retains its Urdu prayers. Now they offer prayers in Hindi, English and Urdu.
During Christmas, this church calls qawwals from Meerut to perform. On Christmas night, a Christmas qawwali is organised at 10 pm, followed by Carol singing in English and Hindi at 11 pm and service in Hindi at 11.30 pm.
St Stephen's Church, Fatehpuri
Located on the Church Mission Road in Delhi, St Stephen's Church is one of the oldest and famous churches in the Capital. It was built in 1862 by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), which, they say, had to resurrect its Delhi Mission following the uprising of 1857. The church compound houses St Stephen's College and St Stephen's Hospital. The red-colour of the church symbolises the blood of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr and patron saint of the city. The interior of the church, with carvings, motifs and icons, are well-kept and preserved.
The church celebrates Christmas by taking part in the procession organised by St Stephen's Church in Fatehpuri. This is followed by the Holy Communion at 9.30 pm. After the Eucharist celebration at 9.30 am on Christmas Day, a huge fair is held in the church grounds.
St Thomas Church, RK Puram
In South Delhi, St Thomas Church is the most popular place for Christmas celebrations. The church, also known as the Red Brick Church of Delhi, is dedicated to one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus, the patron saint, St Thomas. The church has been built in 1972 entirely in red brick, in a Eastern European architectural style and has a very modern look about it.