Legacy of Danish - St. Olave’s church (1806), Serampore

St. Olave’s Church in Seramporehttp: en.natmus.dk

In the 18th and 19th centuries  European countries such as  England, France  and Denmark vied with one another to have trade with India. Their presence in Bengal was quite conspicuous in places like Kolkata and Serampore.  Serampore, a town in the Hooghly district, has a lot of  monuments that bear  testimony to a period  of colonization   by the British, French and the Danish. 

1806 - St Olave's Danish Church Serampore wikimapia.org

1806 - St Olave's Danish Church Serampore wikimapia.org

We rarely run into a church in India that has some connection with the Danish. Unlike the English, the Danes  were more interested in mercantile trades than in conquering lands. They were not imperialistic and their activities in India  were restricted to certain regions only. Obviously there  are fewer Danish churches in India than others from Europe. 

The St. Olave's  Church in Serampore, locally known as the Danish Church, is one of the most important  Danish monuments in India. It is more than 210 years old. Believe it or no not, there are as many as 100 structures built during the reign of Danish  rule  between 1755 and 1845. Then the town was known as   Frederiksnagore.  Unfortunately, this historical church was in ruins, facing near collapse after 2013 because of laxity on the part of the government and others. Thanks to the like-minded people were  keen to restore such great monuments. The extensive and detailed  restoration work was done meticulously recently in partnership with Serampore College and  an architectural firm Continuity, in collaboration with National Museum of Denmark (NMD). The restoration work saw to it is heritage value was not disturbed.

The story of  St. Olave’s Church in Serampore is steeped in history and  has  close relevance with  the history of  Danish connection with this town. After a long search  on 6th September 1755, Serampore,  then a village on the  west bank of the river Hooghly,  20 Km from Kolkata, was  finally chosen for the construction  of a new  Danish settlement. Topography of the area, security and easy access to the sea through the river were the main reasons for the selection of this area.  One  Lt. Col . Ole  (Olave) Bie  became the Governor of Serampore (then known as Fredericksnagar) from 1776 -1805 and was instrumental in building a fine town in the settlement and the Church was part of it for the benefit of  the people for their christian services. It was a Lutheran Church at that time. In 1800, Ole Bie, headed  the Danish trading post in Serampore. The church was associated with congregations of Serampore College and town.

The church was built through  subscription from Serampore and Calcutta and in 1800, the work on the church began in earnest. The then cost was just Rs.18,500.00. An interesting fact is besides several missionaries from Serampore,  Marquis of Wellesley  of British East India Company,  gave Rs.1000.00 for the church construction. All of a sudden the work  hit the road block towards the end of the project because of Lt. Col . Ole' sudden demise in 1805 before the completion of the church. It is said while looking at the tall steeple of the church visible from his mansion, Col. Ole collapsed saying, "It is finished". Hence, this Church was named as St. Olave’s Church in his honor. 

Bie’s successor, Captain Krefting, keen to finish the church work started by his superior,  hired the Englishmen John Chambers and Robert Armstrong to complete the unfinished work. In 1806,  the church was completed, and in 1819 a compound wall  around the church was built together with two small guard houses, one of which is still preserved.

It was William Carey ( a well-known British Missionary,  and an activist; he also opened the first University in Serampore)  who conducted the first service from the pulpit in the church. When  the Danish sold their settlements in 1845, St. Olave’s  church came under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Calcutta as  part of his Diocese.The Serampore college is in charge of the management of the newly restored church. Now the Church is restored back to its old grandeur and elegance. The  Bishop of Calcutta, West Bengal Heritage Commission, the district Magistrate, Hooghly, the National museum of  Denmark and other organizations, including the engineers and architects share the credit of restoring a great Danish monument that was about to be lost in time and  due to negligence.

St. Olave's Church,1806 drawing  en.natmus.dk

Above image: lan of St. Olave's Church from 1806 drawn by the British church builder Robert Armstrong. © Danish National Archive.
Today, the Serampore College (Theology Department) and the congregation of Serapore-Johnnagar Baptist Church (CNI), use the Church for their worship services.