Work on restoring and conserving the 172-year-old St Paul’s Cathedral, the city’s most-photographed church structure, has hit an unexpected treasure: a crypt containing the coffin of Bishop Daniel Wilson, widely regarded as the founder of the cathedral that is an inalienable part of the Kolkata skyline.
TOI entered the crypt on Wednesday morning along with three conservation architects through a small opening that has been created to reach the vault located below the altar. The 30×10 feet vault is barely four feet high and one needs to move around on one’s haunches. Towards the north lies a glass enclosure with an ornate coffin inside.
Historians and church authorities have claimed for years that Bishop Wilson, who died 150 years ago, lies in rest “somewhere in the belly” of the cathedral but no one knew exactly where. Last week, when structural engineers dug a small hole into the floor of the damaged altar to assess its strength, they realised it was hollow underneath. A little more prodding revealed what could be a vault and suddenly they were facing the crypt with the coffin inside.
The discovery over the past one week has thrilled the current Bishop and his team because it has brought the curtains down on one of the cathedral’s abiding mysteries, discussed and debated for years.
Wilson convinced East India Company to build cathedral
It was Bishop Wilson who had convinced the East India Company to build a cathedral in Kolkata because St John’s Church, located opposite Raj Bhavan, had become too small for the growing British community in the city. The land was provided by Fort William and the cathedral was completed in 1847. The structure originally had a 61-metre tall spire that was damaged by the two earthquakes in 1897 and 1934 and had to be pulled down and replaced by the existing shorter spire. Subsequent earthquakes, including the recent ones in Nepal and Sikkim, also left their marks on the imposing structure in the form of deep cracks and subsidence, necessitating an urgent restoration work.
The Church of North India, which is the guardian of the cathedral, entrusted the work to conservation architect Partha Ranjan Das, who is also a member of the West Bengal Heritage Commission.
Architects and structural engineers found the eastern façade of the cathedral facing JL Nehru Road to be the worst affected. A distress study report was prepared mapping every damaged section of the structure, including sagged and collapsed floors, cracks in wall joints, damp and peeling walls and crumbling doors and windows.
“The floor of the altar showed a clear subsidence and in many places had come off from the wall. The marble floor was irreparably damaged because of the undulations. It was clear that the epicentre of the damage lay there,” said Himadri Guha, the structural expert monitoring the site. When a small breach was made on the floor to assess its strength, it became clear to the team that it was hollow underneath. As work progressed, the architects and workers came face to face with the crypt and the coffin that lay inside.
“We were stunned to say the least. But it was clear to us that the opening that we had created might bring the entire altar down at any moment, so we retrofitted the entire vault for support. The restoration has to start from here,” Guha explained.
Bishop Probal Dutta, who has been instrumental in getting the expensive project underway sounded thrilled. “This is a pathbreaking discovery. History had it that the fifth bishop of the city lay buried here but it was always a matter of debate because the cathedral does not have a graveyard. There were conjectures about the coffin being buried underneath the cathedral building itself but no one knew exactly where. Now we know. It is like re-visiting history. It’s fascinating. Gives me goosebumps,” Dutta said.
Source: Times of India