Armenian Church The Oldest Church of Calcutta
If Calcutta was once a "City of palaces" the sobriquet is perhaps more due to the benevolence of the merchant princes from Armenia than that of British Raj. It is also believed that the Khojas as the Armenians were called, had carved out a niche for themselves in Calcutta long before Job Charnock started an English colony in Calcutta. Hidden away amidst the hustle bustle of Old China Bazaar Street their church, built in 1707 is said to be the city's oldest place of Christian worship. The Armenian Church has many untold tales to tell.
The Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth is situated on Armenian Street which lies at the north-west corner of Burrabazar, close to the Howrah Bridge. Initially, this church was a wooden chapel which was built in the year 1707. It was burnt down and a concrete one was built in the year 1724. The church was built on a burial ground of an Armenian, Agah Nazar.
Initially, there was a small wooden chapel and the East India Company had made an agreement which said whenever forty or more Armenians would become inhabitants of any garrison or city belonging to the Company, they, in addition to enjoying freedom in pursuing their own religion, would be allotted a parcel of land; and a chapel of timber would be built there which may be later rebuilt with solid materials by the Armenians themselves.
The land on which the church stands was obtained by Kenanentch Phanoos and was utilized as a cemetery till 1724. This church was made through the contributions which were collected by the good endeavours of Agah Nazar. Hence, in commemoration the church was called St Nazareth. The architect of this grand church was Leon Gavond, an American from Persia.
The principle facet of the church is the belfry which is also a clock tower; it was built ten years after the main construction i.e. in 1734. The belfry was built by the benevolent Hazarmall family and some of the other families which have been interred in the church compound.
Over the years the Armenian Church of Calcutta has undergone several modifications and extension. The two extra altars over the sacristies, unusual for an Armenian place of worship were created in 1763. It was built by Agah Petrus Arathoon in the memory of “The earthly God of the Armenians in Calcutta” and his younger brother Khojah Gregory alias Gorgin Khan who was the minister and Commander– in–Chief of Nawab Mir Qasim of Bengal from 1760-1763.
The internal ornamentation of the church was supposedly funded by Catchick Arrakiel in 1790. He constructed the residential quarters for the priests and built high walls around the cemetery. He was also the donor of the grand church clock. The interior of the church is decorated with marbles and the overhead gallery containing mural tablets. The altar has a cross, the gospels have twelve candlesticks symbolizing Christ and his Apostles. There is a staircase leading to an overhead gallery whose walls are full of mural tablets. There are also three very old oil paintings – “The Holy Trinity”, “The Last Supper” and “The Enshrouding of Our Lord” by the English artist A.E. Harris that adorns the altar. Remains of the Armenian cemetery can be seen in the premises.
The church has also benefited by the bounty and generosity of many benevolent parishoners which are portrayed by the tablets adorning the walls on both the exterior and interior of the church. The church also has a tablet of Sir Cathick Paul Chater, the biggest benefactor of Armenians in Calcutta. It is believed that he had left immense funds for the proper functioning of the Armenian Church and the school. He had also given a donation of Rs 11 lakhs to La Martiniere for boys in the year 1926 when the school was facing financial constraints.
The Armenian Church of Calcutta is surrounded by a graveyard that contains a large number of graves. Among all, the most interesting and controversial is the grave of Rezabeebeh Sookias who departed from this world on June 11, 1630, making it the oldest Christian grave of Calcutta. Another striking feature of the church is the inscription on marble which pays a tribute to over one million glorious martyrs who lost their lives under tragic condition during the World Wars.
This one is the biggest Armenian Church in Kolkata. St. Gregory Chapel, built in 1906 is another. In Tangra, on the outskirts of Kolkata, is the Chapel of the Holy Trinity, built in 1867; and a little away from Kolkata is the oldest Church of Bengal, built in 1697 - the Chinsurah Church of John the Baptist. Even today, St. John's Day of Holy Mass is celebrated here by the Armenians of Kolkata. All these churches in and around Kolkata are lit up on Christmas, which the Armenians celebrate in January 6, every year.
The Church is undoubtedly one of the finest examples of Apostlic orthodox architecture. This well-maintained church is an example of the rich culture and heritage of the Armenians. Around 200 Armenians still go to offer prayers in the church premises.
Address: 2 Armenian Street, Kolkata 700001, (Near Nandaram Market)
Timings: Monday – Saturday:
8 am – 12 pm / 2 pm – 4 pm
Sunday: 8 am – 12 pm
Entry fee: Nil
Photography: Not allowed
Car parking: Available on the main road