Lal Girija: The Small English Church of Odisha

The history of Christianity in Odisha is linked to the discovery of the sea-route from Europe to India by Vasco de Gama in 1498. The Portuguese traders played a vital role in the beginning of Christianity, particularly in the Balasore region. By 1514, they had made a settlement at Pipili, and ancient port at the estuary of the Subarnarekha. Besides the British officials of the East India Company, there were no other Christians in Odisha before the 18th century.

The Augustinian Missionaries from Goa began to visit Pipili from1535 and had built a small church dedicated to our Lady of the Holy Rosary in 1606. By the end of the 17th century, Pipili became a strong Catholic Christian centre which spread to the neighboring town of Balasore. In 1625, the port of Pipili was destroyed in a catastrophic cyclonic storm. Many of the ships that were anchored sunk and the godowns, warehouses and buildings were destroyed. The merchants moved to neighbouring Balasore, the Augustinian Missionaries too followed them. By 1640, they had built another Church in Balasore, a replica of the one that had been destroyed. Gradually, the number of Catholics in Balasore diminished as most of the Portuguese had left for other places. During the latter part of the18th century, very few Catholics were left, so much that the Church was closed in 1832. The church and its property were handed over to the local Zamindar for safe custody.

In the year 1864, Fr. Delpelchin, S.J., the Superior of the Bengal Jesuit Mission had made a visit to Balasore and he found that the few remaining Catholic families there had had no visit from any priest for the preceding several years. He returned to Calcutta with firm determination to help the faithful and appointed Fr. Sappart S.J. as the resident priest of Balasore in 1865. On reaching Balasore, Sappart tried in vain to get the church back from the Zamindar, but was unsuccessful. He purchased another piece of land and built a fine Catholic Church which came to be known as ‘Lal Girja’  and  was dedicated to St. Joseph. The church took six years to complete, and was modeled on the village churches of rural England.The small church was tucked away at the end of a short lane next to the residence of the Collector and the military barracks.

Located on a plot approximately one fourth of an acre, the Church was a synthesis of Romanesque and Gothic Style.  The whole structure was built  with fine warm-toned brick sand scarcely any admixture of stone. Timber and lime mortar were used in the construction. The main hall was 50 feet in length and 20 ft wide. There was a small room on the eastern entrance. There were high circular windows on both ends of the church. The stained glass on the windows has since been removed, but in its original state the light streaming through the beautiful stained glass must have been a mosaic of colours The Church does not have any decorations, it was a solid and functional building built to last, and it has lasted. It has always been painted in red, as the name signifies. The façade expresses the whole structural form of the building as fully as it can be.

Christianity in Odisha blossomed during the British Rule. The missionaries brought a renaissance with activities like opening schools, colleges, hospitals, orphanages and printing presses.The Great Orissa Famine of 1866 took a severe toll, causing many starvation deaths and rendering many orphans. The missionaries responded with humanitarian deeds, giving the needy basic necessities like food, clothes and shelter.

Father Sappart opened a Foundling Home in Balasore which in due course grew considerably.In 1868, the Daughters of the Cross arrived in Balasore, opened a Convent and took charge of the foundling Home.Two Irish spinster sisters, Agnes and Gertrude Underwood had vast plots of lands both at Chandipur and Balasore and a fine Bungalow along the old Trunk Road. They opened the “St.Vincent’s Charity Centre,which is the present D.C. Sisters House at Balasore and the very first convent established in Balasore.In 1967, they willed their entire property to the Daughters of Charity.

It has been many years since any prayer service has been held at the Lal Girja. The abandoned property was used as the Land Settlement Office for decades. It was then converted as the Balasore Press Club. Surrounded by tall trees all around the boundary wall, the small church has a picture postcard charm. The Press Club members have made some changes, a badminton court at the entrance and modifications in the interior. Many activities that should not happen in a church now happen in its hallowed precincts.

The Lal Girja may not be used as places of worship anymore, but there is a pervading sense of calmness and peace which is awe-inspiring.The general decay with plaster falling off, termites on the wooden roof rafters and vegetation growing from the walls and on the roof is cracking and splitting the walls.The threat of one of the tall trees falling on the structure exists as the region is cyclone prone.

Even after years of disuse, this abandoned structure still shows traces of its past grandeur.The bright red bricks provide a stark contrast with the verdant plant life encroaching on its walls and roof.On stepping inside, one can picture the almost empty space filled with pews and parishioners.

The Church needs immediate repairs. As one of the oldest surviving Church of the State, it should be declared a State Monuments so that its history and haunting beauty can be preserved for generations. The Christian community too should get involved and retrieve the Lal Girija from the authorities and restore it.

 

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same).

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