A witness to history both ugly and good

Memorial Church, a witness to history both ugly and good

The Memorial Church in Bengaluru played its part in soothing the horrid effects of the famine of 1876-77 in the state.

The Memorial Church in Bengaluru played its part in soothing the horrid effects of the famine of 1876-77 in the state. DH Photo by Pushkar V

Although the street where the church is located and the park nearby have been named after it, not many know that the Memorial Church is one of the oldest churches in Bengaluru.

Fittingly, the Postal Department will soon bring out a commemorative stamp to mark the church’s 200 years of life. 

Tucked away in one of the inner streets of Cleveland Town, the Memorial Church has been a witness to the twists and turns of the city’s history since 1820. 

The 1800s saw many missionaries actively involved in the social, economic and educational development of Bengaluru.

In 1820, the first missionaries, Stephen Laidler and Andrew Forbes of the London Missionary Society, arrived here. Soon, they were joined by a Tamilian named Samuel Flavel, who was the first presbyter of the church from 1821-27, as shown on a wooden plaque inside the church.

Together they established five schools to spread literacy and a chapel in the site, where now stands the Bourdillon branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association on Infantry Road. This chapel continued to serve the needs of the Tamil-speaking people until 1916, after which it was moved to the present site.

Rev Sampath Kumar, the current presbyter of Memorial Church, chaperons me around the church. 

Perched on a slightly elevated land, the brick-coloured building exudes a Victorian aura with its arched doorways and windows, an airy portico, and an impressive cross-fronted belfry. 

The interiors are solemn with a marble altar and wood panelling on the wall behind. Among the vintage relics inside the church are an old ornate pulpit, a 200-plus-year-old communion table, antique chairs, 175-year-old pews, and a rosewood baptismal font.

Inside, an engraved stone says the church was established in 1820.

A little away, another engraved stone refers to the great famine of 1876-77, and says the church was built in memory of the abundance the harvest gods had given in 1878.

The years 1876 and 1877 were bleak for Karnataka (then Mysore) due to the famine. Its claws took away nearly a quarter of the state’s population. Thousands poured into Bengaluru from across Karnataka in search of food. 

It is recorded that in September 1877, the death rate was not less than 40 per day. This number, besides the several who died in relief camps and hospitals. 

A local famine-relief committee was set up with Rev Benjamin Rice, the missionary in charge from 1876-80. It’s said that the personal attention and love he gave to the famine-stricken patients won the hearts of many. The church contributed towards this.

Changing times

The church occupied the present building only in 1916.

The congregation had bought a piece of land for Rs 10,000 and collected money to construct the church. The church records do not show when it was consecrated. 

However, the first Indian minister to conduct the services there was Rev S Gnanakkan.

The church became a part of the Church of South India (CSI).  It is now under the Karnataka Central Diocese.

Rebuilding

In 1986, the church committee decided to renovate the old church and give it a facelift. The members of the congregation (then about 145 families) contributed entirely towards the renovation, which cost about Rs 3 lakh.

The church was extended to accommodate the growing number of members or parishioners. The altar was redone with marble flooring and wooden railing. A new marble altar table was added. During this, an old Bible was discovered under the cornerstone. 

Memorial Church’s role goes beyond the spiritual. Within its compound is a building that runs the ‘New Life Centre’ where 22 semi-orphan female children live.

“It is a fully residential centre for these children of different age groups where education is provided to them up to PUC level,” says Kumar. A music academy offers students vocal and instrumental classes and prepares them for music exams.

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