St. Stephen's Church
St. Stephen's Church is prime tourist attraction in Ooty situated on the Ooty - Mysore Road, recognised as one of the oldest and ancient churches in the Nilgiris District and the first ethereal Christian Church to be erected in the Nilgiris. St. Stephen’s Church is a Gothic Church and is best known for its formidable and stunning colonial architecture seen only in Ooty and a few other places in India.
Highly visited by tourists and visitors just to catch a glimpse of its imposing structure still intact and operational, St. Stephen’s Church is where people visit to offer their prayers and a few to make a wish within a serene atmosphere where you truly feel the presence of the almighty.
St. Stephen's Church is entirely carved and constructed from wood transforming it into one of the pioneer architectural church models made of wood that exudes certain calmness thus lending a soothing ambience to the entire place. Historically, this pure wood was obtained from the Palace of Tipu Sultan, then the Emperor of the Mysore Kingdom after he was defeated and killed on 4th May 1799 while trying to defend the fort of Seringapatam. The wood was placed on large wagons and was brought in by means of a series of elephants.
Tipu Sultan, also referred to as the Tiger of Mysore was a fearless Leader and an implacable enemy of the British and hence in order to retain the Nilgiris which was then largely dictated by political and colonial and compulsions, the British first vanquished Tipu Sultan in 1799 and then captured the Nilgiri hills under their military control for strategic reasons. Even the loyal troops of Tipu Sultan were completely crushed for the fear of them ganging up to turn their territory into an insurgent and unconquerable site.
After the British took over the Nilgiris, John Sullivan, then the Collector of the Coimbatore District, recommended a note to the British parliament on 21st Feb 1832 that they establish of a full-fledged military station in the Nilgiris. Meanwhile, the Nilgiris, then spelt as ‘Neilgherries’, witnessed a steady influx of British colonists who visited to acclimatize themselves within the lofty Nilgiris Mountains and soon made this region their home.
It was in 1829, when Governor Stephen Lushington visited Ooty and addressed his desire for the establishment of a Common Church to cater to the hundred odd white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and their families residing in Ooty. He chose a suitable site which was situated in the long and abandoned corner atop a swamp that once belonged to an extinct Toda Tribe. This area was cleared to make way for construction of the famous churchyard.
The foundation stone was laid on 23rd April 1829 by Stephen Lushington without prior permission from the Directors of the British East India Company. They expressed their annoyance and dispatched a note to Lushington stating that the expenses for this Church was a joint investment of the Company and the Church Missionary Society aided by private subscriptions that computed to Rs. 8000 then. Later, they learned that the expenditure was entirely borne by the Company which surmounted to Rs. 24,000. Capt. J. J. Underwood, the architect and engineer of St. Stephen’s Church was also blamed for exceeding the estimated expenses. Later, Governor Lushington decided that the Palace of Tipu Sultan be pulled down to render construction material to complete St. Stephen’s Church and the proposed Grammar School Building and several other public buildings. The Timber was transported via the old Seegur Ghat Road, an ancient Toda and Badaga pastoral migration pathway since the present Kalhatty Ghat road was then non-existent. The Timber and other construction supplies were traversed past the Sigur foothill right up the Hulathi Badaga village and further on to Marlimund to finally arrive at Ooty [Ootacamund] with the aid of Elephants.
The Church was finally completed the following year in 1830 and was named as St. Stephen’s Church in honour of Governor Stephen Lushington who was responsible for erecting this Sanctuary for the Christians of Ooty.
St. Stephen’s Church was consecrated on 5th December 1830 by the Bishop of Calcutta [Kolkata] His Excellency John Matthias Turner and Rev. William Sawyer was appointed Chaplain of St. Stephen’s Church. However, he fell ill and passed away on 7th January 1832 and was buried within the churchyard.
St. Stephen’s Church exhibits a stunning colonial style of architecture depicted through its massive beam of timber wood, also taken from the Palace of Tipu Sultan. A Massive life size painting depicting the Last Supper hangs against the western side wall of the Church situated above paneled doors.
St. Stephen’s Church also features large stained glass windows that depict the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and Our Lady holding infant Jesus in her arms amongst many other depiction of Christ’s life. Instead of the usual large hollow bell hanging from the attic, four hammer-like structures are tied like an inverted V-shaped wooden planks fastened by wires that produce a musical sound when pulled from the floor. This entire arrangement is placed on a tall and very strong stool with complete access in all directions.
St. Stephen’s Church also features a pulpit that is reached via a flight of steps to the left of the chancel, fixed bench-like seats with backs with a raised chancel and a room in the cellar which is attached to the Church.
St. Stephen’s Church opened on 3rd April 1831, an Easter Sunday, for public worship and today, Services are held inviting a large population of Christians residing in Ooty to its abode. Special Services are held during December and January at 09:30 AM for Holy Communion, Christmas, New Year, Easter and the Harvest Festival.
St. Stephen’s Church is a true iconic structure and prominent landmark of Ooty that formidably stands as a monumental example conveying its history to Indians and visitors from across the globe as well.