Serampore, now a sub-divisional town, located about 20 kilometers from Kolkata was formally a Danish settlement from 1755 to 1845. This 90 year Danish rule in Fredericksnagore or Serampore had a number of glorious achievements of which the construction of St. Olav’s Church under the Governorship of Col. Ole Bie (1776-1805) deserves mention. Ole Bie’s twenty nine years as Governor was the longest sitting head of Serampore’s Danish Government. The Denmark Tavern (1786) was also opened during Bie’s Governorship. The Tavern, though set up at Serampore was surprisingly not opened by any Danish but by a British innkeeper named James Patt, who had prior experience at The London Tavern.
Fredericksnagore was named after King Frederick of Denmark. In 1799 Joshua Marshman and William Ward set foot at Serampore. Together with William Carey they formed the famous “Serampore Trio”, who established a missionary centre there. In the year 1800, Col. Bie initiated the construction of a Lutheran Church named as St. Olav’s Church for the Protestant people of Serampore. The “Danish Church” as it is locally known took roughly six years to complete. The church was dedicated and named after Saint Olav, who was Norway’s national saint.
The church situated in a busy area of Serampore adorns the entire place. The church was “originally planned as a simple three-aisle building with a flat roof”, though it was enlarged later “with an open portico in front” with double columns, and “a vestry and a spiral staircase behind the altar.” The cornice in the front is decorated with a royal monogram of Christian VII, who was the then King of Denmark. There is a town clock, very much functional, above the portico.
Talking about the architecture, the church is not characteristically Danish as such but it reminds us of St. John’s Church and St. Andrews Church, both situatated in Calcutta (now Kolkata). The inspiration stems from “St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London,” which, for many years, was the basic reference for “British church buildings.”
Ole Bie started raising funds for the church and he managed to raise Rs. 18,500/- which was collected as subscriptions from Serampore, which included the missionaries, Calcutta, Copenhagen and even from other places of Denmark. Wellesley contributed Rs. 1,000/- as subscription for the church. But Ole Bie (1733-1805) could not survive to see the completion of the church as he breathed his last on 18th May, 1805 at Serampore. But the unfinished task was taken up by Captain Krefling, who hired John Chambers and Robert Armstrong, both Englishman to do the needful. A year later in 1806, the church was finally finished.
As there was lack of Danish clergy at that time to run the church, the missionaries were offered to lead the service there. A little away from Serampore there is a church, which was the first home and place of worship of the Serampore missionaries – Carey, Marshman and Ward from the year 1800.
The Danish left Serampore in 1845; and the settlements of Serampore were handed over to the East India Company. In 1948, St. Olav’s Church was transferred to the India Church Trustee, which, in turn, transferred the same to the Calcutta Diocesan Trust Association (CDTA) in the year 1953. Since then St. Olav’s Church is under the Bishop of Calcutta. However, the religious ceremonies have been shared between Serampore College and the local parish of Johnnagar Baptist Church.
In 2009, all activities had to be stopped as the ceiling was so severely attacked by termites so much so that some of the joists collapsed. But restoration of St. Olav’s Church together with other buildings like the Governor House and The Danish Tavern began in 2013 with a partnership between Calcutta Diocesan Trust Association and the National Museum of Denmark. Finally, on 16th April, 2016, the Bishop of Calcutta amidst a ceremony rededicated the Church. I was very much astonished to see the well furnished interior of the church so much so that it looks brand new and very beautiful.
Hooghly Jelar Purakirti by Narendranath Bhattacharjee.
St. Olav’s Church
I am very much indebted to Rev. Anup Mondal, Father, St. Olav’s Church and Utpal Biswas, Secretary.
Date of Posting: 28th December, 2019.