THE HIMALAYAN BEACON DARJEELING NEWS BUREAU
VISUAL CORRESPONDENT: PRAVIN THAMI
TEXT BY C. B. RAI
DARJEELING, 9 DECEMBER 2017: The 8th of December 2017, the feast of the Immaculate Conception marks the 125th anniversary of the first stone of the church laid by Archbishop Goethals and the formal beginning of the Parish of Darjeeling. The history of the parish, however, begins earlier, almost simultaneously with the history of Darjeeling, the town in particular.
Darjeeling was discovered in 1828 by Captain Lloyd and T. W. Grant. The natural beauty, then must have been obviously more than what it is today. Untouched by the callous hands of the man the rugged hills, the deep valleys, the sparkling torrents, the dense forests and in the back ground the magnificent range of the Himalayan eternal snows must have been a glorious sight to behold indeed. Blessed with salubrious climate, a perfect setting to rejuvenate the weary bodies wilted by the Indian summer heat and dust. No wonder by 1835, the British had acquired it along with 135 square miles of the surrounding district. Darjeeling was, in that year a very modest place with one hotel and about 30 houses. The whole district was still covered by dense forests, only here and there a tea garden was being opened out. The native population was scanty: the old records show that in the whole district it grew between 1839 and 1849, from a small number of a hundred to about 10 thousand.
The Loreto nuns arrived in 1846. How they undertook the arduous journey has become a party of Darjeeling folklore. They had brought with them their own chaplain, the Rev. John Mcgirr, an Irish Priest who had been working in Calcutta for some years. He had the honour of conferring the first Baptism in Darjeeling on the 3rd November, 1846. Two years later, in June 1848, the exact date is not recorded, Dr. Athanasius Hartmann O. F. M. Cap, the Vica Apostiolic of Patna came personally to Darjeeling to install the first parish priest, the chaplain as he was then termed. The first incumbent was Fr. Ignatius Persico, a priest of the Capuchin Franciscan order, who later, on his return to Italy became a cardinal. Fr. Ignatius was followed by nine other Capuchin priests.
The Capuchin priests served Darjeeling for the first 30 formative years. The catered to the spiritual needs of the catholic population, with the exception of the Loreto nuns and their students, a handful of pensioners, tea planters, boarding house proprietors was made up of casual visitors, the British soldiers, tourists and holiday makers escaping from the oppressive summer for a few months. For thirty seven years from 1848 to 1885, the parishioners and the visitors attended the Mass at the convent chapel. It was only in 1885, that a separate chappel was erected for the parishioners and the visitors. The chapel was built by Fr. Accursio Insermini. It stood on the hillside half way between the Bishop’s House and St. Roberts School. On the completion of the church (now the cathedral since 1962), the chapel was dismantled and re-erected with old materials and in its original proportions at Jalapahar, where it still stands.
The Belgian Jesuits took over the the Capuchins in 1887. If the Capuchins laid the foundations of the Darjeeling parish, the onus of consolidation fell upon the Jesuits. Fr. Henry Depelchin S. J. the founder of St. Joseph’s College (School Dept.) North Point was the first Belgian ‘parish priest’ or the chaplain of Darjeeling. It was during the Mission of Belgian Jesuits, the church of the Immaculate conception was built. Dr. Paul Goethals, the Archbishop of Calcutta was instrumental in negotiating with the authorities of Loreto Sisters and reached an agreement for the construction of the church. The excerpt of the agreement contained in the legal document runs thus:
“And whereas in or about the year one thousand eight hundred and ninety two, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Calcutta agreed with the then authorities of the Loreto Convent in Darjeeling to build a church on the land appertaining to and being a portion of the said convent, location No. 2 in Darjeeling on the understanding and arrangement that the said church would belong to and be looked after and managed by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Calcutta although the same was built on the land belonging to the convent and that the convent authorities would not sell, mortgage or in any way deal with the same…”
On the basis of this agreement, Archbishop Goethals laid the foundation of the church on the 8th December 1892, the feast of the Immaculate conception, to whom the sacred edifice was dedicated.
The church of the Immaculate conception was built by Brother Eugene Rotsaert S. J. The church is small but well proportioned: the total length is 112 feet, the nave is 28 feet and on both sides of the sanctuary, there are oratories, in the ealierer days to accommodate the nuns and their pupils. The stained-glass windows, nearly all donated by mr. A. Forbes, add a colourful and pleasant light in the church. The pipe organ is also a gift of Mr. Forbes. Above the altar an imposing group of statues representing the Calvary strikes the visitor with awe and reverence. It was presented to the church by Mrs. P. Fielman. Some visitors to Darjeeling have said that, in their journey around the world, they have rarely seen a church as beautifully kept as the Darjeeling Church. For this, the credit must be given to the nuns of the convent, who from the beginning, have looked after the cleanliness and decoration of the altars. Nowadays, this credit for the upkeep of the church is being shared by the laity through small christian communities who turn up every Saturday to clean and prepare the altars for the Sunday Mass. It has also been said that much of the charm and devotion connected with the church service is also due to the artistic singing of the Loreto convent choir in the earlier years. This situation has not diminished. The church still reverberates with melodious sound of the hymns sung with joyous reverence not only by the Parish Choir but by the whole congregation.