Visit the churches of Bengal: St Olav’s Church in Serampore

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A pre-colonial town of Hooghly, which was under the Danish crown for almost 90 years, is still filled with many tales of our history-steeped past.

Although very overcrowded today, some tangible buildings of Danish rule are still visible in its many roads, alleys and alleys. After prolonged neglect, recent direct support from the National Museum of Denmark and the local administration has allowed some Danish heritage structures and buildings to regain their luster and ambiance. A new wave of restoration projects are doing wonders in bringing a slice of history back to the current generation.

Like many other European countries in the 17th century, Denmark also tried to establish trade in India, and Bengal was one of the main points of their establishment. And among the many structures the Danes have built here in the town of Serampore stands out St Olav, a large church founded by the Danish governor, Colonel Ole Bie (who was actually a Norwegian).

At the time of its construction, Serampore already had a Roman Catholic church, but it was not large enough to serve the growing population.

Construction of St Olav’s began in 1800 and was completed in 1806. At its dedication ceremony, the music was performed by none other than William Carey (an English missionary who founded Serampore College and Serampore University ). In his report, Calcutta Review then called it the Lutheran Church. The name, St Olav’s, came a little later.

The superbly designed church, located on Panchu Gopal Bhaduri Sarani, has a cross on its towering pinnacle

Somen Sengupta

The total area it covered was 14,000 square feet and the cost of construction was Rs 18,500. Besides funds from Calcutta and Serampore, much of it came from Denmark. Even the British Governor General of Bengal, Lord Wellesley, donated Rs 1,000 to his building fund.

The superbly designed church, located on Panchu Gopal Bhaduri Sarani, has a cross on its towering pinnacle. The portico and bell tower were added later and the current form of the church finally appeared in 1821. The bell tower is also used as a clock tower. The clock was donated by the Bishop of Calcutta, the Reverend Daniel Wilson, in 1831, when Serampore was still a Danish colony.

Being a Protestant church, St Olav is not home to any idols

Being a Protestant church, St Olav is not home to any idols

Subhadeep Mukherjee

Lieutenant Robert Armstrong was the main architect and it is evident from his design that he was influenced by St Martin-in-the-Fields Church in central London. At this time, many churches in India were built as replicas of St. Martin, of which St. Olav of Serampore and St. John of Calcutta are two prime examples. Some even find similarities to the Church of Our Lady (Vor Frue Kirke), a church in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The facade of the church has a large portico, balanced by an enormous Greek pediment supported by eight decorated Corinthian pillars. In the middle of the pediment, the royal monogram of King Christian VII of Denmark is carved.

The royal monogram of King Christian VII of Denmark can be seen carved on the pediment

The royal monogram of King Christian VII of Denmark can be seen carved on the pediment

Somen Sengupta

There are six marble plaques inside the church, dedicated to Ole Bie, William Carey, Joshua Marshman, William Ward, Juliana Maria Wallich, JO Voigt and one in tribute to the Serampore mission. There is also stucco work on the walls.

Being a Protestant church, it does not house any idols. Instead, he has a cross in front of which a large crowd prays every Sunday.

Imported bells

The flat-roofed church has two bells – one small and one large – which were imported from Denmark. The smaller one was made in a Danish iron foundry in 1804. The larger one was imported in 1853, suggesting that it was imported by the British and not the Danes. Even the foundries in which they were made are mentioned on the bells. The smaller one was made in Fredericksberg and the larger one in Stuttgart, although neither is now working.

In 1940 Kanai Lal Goswami, then president of the municipality of Serampore, accumulated 15 Danish guns collecting dust in various places of the city and placed them on an island just in front of St Olav.

From 2013 to 2019, the National Museum of Denmark and Serampore College undertook massive restoration work and achieved excellent results, with the project even winning the 2016 UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Awards.

Illuminated interiors of the church on a last Christmas day

Illuminated interiors of the church on a last Christmas day

Soumilya De

With a tasteful selection of colors like gray, white and yellow, St Olav’s looks vibrant and inviting now. The church is lit up at Christmas and continues to attract large numbers of visitors from Chinsurah, Chandernagor and even Kolkata.

Somen Sengupta has a passion for heritage and travel and has written about it for 26 years. When not working as a senior executive in a multinational corporation, he keeps an eye out for intriguing historical anecdotes and unearths forgotten stories. It also makes him a quiz enthusiast.

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