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Srinagar’s St. Luke’s Church gets a new lease of life after 35 years

Heritage St Luke's church in Dalgate, Srinagar

Christian religious services were restored at the 126-year-old St. Luke's Church after 35 years of armed insurgency and a separatist movement in Srinagar, the summer capital of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir on the eve of Christmas on Thursday.

Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha inaugurated the church through virtual mode from his office in the winter capital of Jammu, bringing the Rs 65 lakh renovation of the dilapidated structure to its logical conclusion. The church has been renovated and restored to its glory by the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department under the Government of India-funded Smart City project. It is part of the historical and heritage structures being restored in Srinagar by a host of the government departments and organisations including Srinagar District Administration and Srinagar Municipal Corporation with the assistance and coordination of the Department of Tourism and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), a non-profit organization set up in 1984 with the mandate to protect and conserve vast natural, built and cultural heritage of different States of India.

Scores of local artisans, architects, masons, carpenters and engineers, including the masters of Khattamband, wooden false ceiling in geometric designs endemic to downtown Srinagar, were engaged in the renovation. Like architects Suhail Naqashbandi and Ms Mehvish, they were all thrilled when a group under the leadership of Mrs Grace Paljor performed the maiden choral service. "The church and it's services were shuttered in the late 1980s when the valley turned turbulent and our miniscule minority of Protestant Christians began feeling insecure. The restoration after 30-35 years is something great for us. We hugely recognise and appreciate the contribution and support of the local Muslim community which is known for respecting all religions", said Mrs Paljor, the Principal of St. Paul's Christian missionary school Srinagar.

"Our predecessor have set up hospitals and schools side by side. In 18th and 19th century, "Mission Hospital" set up by the Christians at Rainawari was famous. My grand aunt was a midwife there. I was born at that hospital which is now known as Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Hospital Rainawari. St. Joseph Hospital Baramulla, where the Pakistani marauders massacred several nuns and missionary workers in 1947, was another famous treatment centre established and operated by the Christian community.”

In addition to the hospitals, the Christian missionaries also constructed half a dozen churches in Srinagar, Baramulla and Gulmarg. St. Luke's was one of them. They also operated Kashmir's best private schools like Burn Hall, Presentation Convent, Biscoe and Mallinson.

St Luke's Church at Drugjan (Dalgate), close to Government Chest Diseases Hospital, is a single-storey building constructed on a cruciform plan. The Church follows the Gothic Style of Architecture which is distinct from the other important monuments dotted in the landscape of Srinagar. Attached to the porch, there is a bell tower which is three-storey high, mounted by a high pitched corrugated galvanised iron roof with dormer gables on each side.

Before the restoration works began, the Church was lying in a dilapidated condition, with the structural members suffering major damage. The CGI roofing was completely damaged, the rainwater intrusion from the roof aggravated the decay of important components.

Initially, the structural integrity of the Church was analysed by experts and the envisaged vision was to restore the Church in its original shape and character keeping intact the architectural glory of the Church.

Inaugurating the church, LG Manoj Sinha was joined by Director of Tourism Kashmir, Dr Ghulam Nabi Itoo, from his office besides the mayor and Commissioner of Srinagar Municipal Corporation, Junaid Azim Mattu and Athar Aamir Khan. Chief Priest of St. Luke's Church, Father Eric with people from all walks of life was present to witness the re-opening of the Church.

Addressing the gathering through virtual mode, Sinha said that the lost glory of the oldest Church in Srinagar had been finally restored.

“Reopening of St. Luke's Church in Srinagar after restoration is a historic occasion to celebrate and imbibe Lord Christ's message of sacrifice, service, redemption, love and compassion”, Sinha asserted. He said that St Luke's Church is a unique symbol of J&K's composite culture, which was built in 1896 on the southwest slope of Shri Shankaracharya Hill.

Sinha greeted the citizens of J&K, especially the Christian community and all the artisans involved in the renovation and conservation, besides the officials associated with the Smart City program.  The restoration and conservation work of St Luke's Church has been carried out under the ‘Smart City Project’. The up-gradation of the surrounding landscape has also been attended to including access to the Church, lighting and the allied components. The inside of the Church has also been redone with construction of alter, wooden flooring, seating, window panes, access gate and porch.

India is home to diverse religions and cultures for centuries.  But, despite much diversity, we are living in unity without any discrimination, the LG observed. He urged the people to inculcate the spirit of social harmony and strengthen the values of brotherhood, peace and selfless service.

St. Luke's message of peace and harmony to all human beings is more relevant today than ever before. Today, while facing the challenges of Covid pandemic, the whole world is realising that no nation or society can survive in isolation. Our dependence on each other, our connect with each other has increased substantially, Sinha said.

On the occasion, Lieutenant Governor remembered Dr. Arthur Neve.  Dr. Arthur served the people of J&K for three decades, by establishing this Church as well as saving many lives as a doctor. The Lt Governor also extended his warm wishes to the people for the upcoming Christmas festival.

"On the eve of Christmas, when we remember Jesus Christ, let us also reiterate our strong resolve to follow the path of truth, non-violence and universal brotherhood. Every person should sincerely play their part in promoting harmony in society", Sinha asserted.

Special prayers were recited to mark the day, while a documentary on the history and restoration of the church was also showcased on the occasion.

On the occasion, the famous Neve brothers — Dr. Earnest and Dr Arthur Neve — among the pioneers who introduced allopathic medicine to Kashmir despite the initial opposition by the Dogra rulers, were also remembered.

Special prayers were also recited by Chief Priest of St. Luke's Church, Father Eric, to mark the day.

Also Read: Srinagar joins UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network—an elite group of 295 world cities