The Serampore Initiative
Restoration of St. Olav's Church
St. Olav’s Church from 1806 today remains as one of the most significant relics of the time when Serampore was under Danish management and known by the name of Frederiksnagore. The Church has been used by the local congregation ever since. In recent years, however, the building has been kept locked due to the danger of a collapse. Locally, there has been a great wish to reopen the church, but the necessary means have so far been lacking.
Consequently, the National Museum’s Serampore Initiative has entered into a collaboration meant to both secure an important part of the Indo-Danish heritage and once again turn the church into a vibrant religious and cultural meeting place for the town’s population. We collaborate with the owner, Calcutta Diocesan Trust Association, and with Serampore College, who has been the regular user. The Indian architectural firm Continuity has been chosen to carry out the restoration. Continuity has many years of experience with conservation and has led the restoration of several large churches in Kolkata.
St. Olav’s Church is known locally as “the Danish Church”, and, looking at the front, the first thing to be noticed is indeed the royal monogram of the Danish King Christian VII. Once entering the large interior of the church, several monuments furthermore work as reminders that long ago Serampore was inhabited by Danes and other Europeans. The church bells are no longer in use, but one of them still bares the inscription “Frederiksvaerk 1804”, which reveals it originates from a Danish iron factory.
In front of the church lies the former main square, which today is characterized by noisy busses, cycle rickshaws and other bustling traffic. Behind a small enclosure lies a memorial ground with canons from the Danish period.
St. Olav’s Church is owned by the Calcutta Diocesan Trust Association (CDTA), headed by the bishop of Kolkata, but so far Serampore College has been in charge of the daily upkeep. The religious ceremonies have been shared between Serampore College and the local parish of Johnnagar Baptist Church. The sacristy behind the choir has furthermore been used by a community development project for children and youngsters. All activities had to come to an end in 2009 though, when the ceiling was so severely attacked by termites that some of the joists collapsed. In addition, moisture has permeated the masonry and plaster, demanding quite a conservational effort.
In 1800, Ole Bie, then head of the Danish trading post in Serampore, initiated the erection of St. Olav’s Church. Ole Bie collected funds for the building activity in both Denmark and India, and the church was meant to be the new landmark of Serampore. Bie, however, did not live to see its completion. When he died in 1805 the tower and the front were still to be finished.
Bie’s successor, Captain Krefting, then took over responsibility for the building and hired the Englishmen John Chambers and Robert Armstrong to help with the practicalities. In 1806 the church was finished, and in 1819 a wall enclosing the church was erected together with two small guard houses, one of which is still preserved.
The architecture of the church is not characteristically Danish but reflects the close connections Serampore had with the British in Calcutta – home to the similar churches of St. John’s and St. Andrew’s. The inspiration for this type of church stems from St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, which for many years was the standard reference for British church buildings.
The roof of the church is flat and the front is characterized by an open portico with double columns. The broken cornice on the front is decorated with the royal monogram of Christian VII, who was King of Denmark when the church was consecrated. Above the portico is a square bell tower, which also holds a town clock.
The restoration of St. Olav’s Church is funded by the Danish Ministry of Culture.
Furthermore, the Society for Preservation of Danish Serampore Heritage contributes to the restoration of the church benches and other inventory with support from Queen Margrethe’s and Prince Henrik's Foundation.
The main coordination of the Serampore Initiative is funded by Realdania.
Architects Continuity, by architect Manish Chakraborti