Walking along busy Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, one might easily miss this inconspicuous building. Nestled between several eateries and dilapidated buildings is the city’s oldest church, the Central Baptist Church.
Two days before Christmas, the space is abuzz with activity. Church secretary Dayal Masih has gathered a team of workers to clean every nook and corner and prepare the hall for the midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
“The decorations have been put up by the children of our regular members,” says Masih, pointing to the Christmas tree, brightly lit even in the morning. The carpet, a festive red, has been scrubbed clean; the walls are adorned with vibrant streamers, while the ornate altar — the elevated structure from which prayers are offered — has been embellished with an ornate cloth, according to the pastor’s request. Beneath the carpet, under a platform of wooden planks, is a baptismal pool that has been recently retiled.
Interestingly, on the walls, Bible verses are inscribed in Urdu. “When the church was built, most of the members were Urdu-speaking,” says Masih. Though walk-ins during weekdays are rare, the Sunday prayers see a gathering of almost 250 people, he adds.
This old protestant church shows several traits of 19th-century European architecture. The entrance is marked by a series of arches supported on thick round columns. The roof has been refurbished with stones, iron beams and shafts. Though the building is whitewashed every year, it appears a little run-down this Christmas. “We plan to replaster all the walls,” explains Masih.
While the structure of St James Church — an Anglican church built in 1836 by Col. James Skinner — is the oldest in the city, the legacy of the Central Baptist Church dates back to the late 18th century, making it the oldest in north India.
It was in 1792 that the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) of London purchased a few acres of land in the southern part of the Red Fort from the Mughal emperor Alam Shah II. The church building was constructed in the same year. Following the mutiny of 1857, East India Company demolished the church. “It was only after a prolonged correspondence between BMS and East India Company demanding provision of land and money for construction of a new church that the present building was built in May 1860,” says Reverend Edwin Massey, pastor and chairman of the church. The land opposite Dariba Kalan, formerly a fruit garden, provided an “ideal” location for the church.
Though the church is still affiliated to BMS, it does not receive any financial support from the society. Masih provides the reason. “As the cost of land increased due to rapid development in the area, the society tried to sell the premises in 1930.” However, the efforts of BMS were strongly opposed by Indian Christian doctors Saul David and E C Joshua. In 1935 it was decided at the Baptist Mission Conference of North India that BMS would no longer provide any fund for the salaries of pastors and deacons or for the maintenance of the church building.
With a congregation of almost 500 members, the cost of maintenance and salaries of the pastors and church bearer — a total of Rs 20,000 a month — is borne entirely by church members. To generate more funds for maintenance, the church also runs a primary school next door, charging a monthly fee of Rs 400. A membership fee of Rs 10 is charged, though the church members are “extremely generous,” says Masih.
An example of this generosity is a 50-kg brass church bell, gifted to the church by 60-year-old ParveenWadhawan, who has been a member since she was five years old. “I ordered the bell on the Internet. It has come all the way from Tamil Nadu,” she says. The bell, which has been put up at the entrance of the church, cost Rs 56,000. “Now the church can be spotted even from the Red Fort,” says a wistful Masih.