Architecture: After the monsoons: the resurrection of St Martin's: A great church in India has been rescued from rain and rats after an appeal in the Independent

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The Independent Culture
A YEAR AGO we asked readers to contribute to an appeal for St Martin's, the former garrison church of the British military in New Delhi. St Martin's is not only the most impressive building owned by the Church of North India, but one of the finest British-designed buildings of the 20th century, writes Jonathan Glancey.

St Martin's is in the day-to-day care of the remarkable Reverend Raj Murch who, following in the footsteps of his church's namesake, is helping the poor of New Delhi, educating and feeding their children, preaching the gospel and otherwise bringing the parish and its magnificent church back to life. His is a heroic mission.

When I visited Mr Murch last year he explained that he needed just pounds 2,500 to make essential repairs to the church, rebuilding the roof and ensuring that the basic structure was made safe.

The reinforced concrete roof, untouched since the church was completed in 1931, was in danger of collapse. It could easily have caved in during last year's monsoon: such a catastrophe might well have put an end to Mr Murch's school (held inside the church) and perhaps to St Martin's itself.

The Church of North India has little money to spend on churches and, regrettably, St Martin's is still regarded by some as a legacy of British imperialism rather than simply as a great church built by the British. Arthur Gordon Shoosmith, assistant to Sir Edwin Lutyens during the building of New Delhi, was the architect.

Readers of the Independent were able to come up with the money Mr Murch needed; since then, the church has been surrounded by scaffolding and the roof rebuilt to a high standard. On Easter Sunday, with the structure of the church safe and sound, Mr Murch and his growing congregation will join in a prayer of thanks for readers' help.

The dark spiral stair I climbed to reach the decaying roof is no longer patrolled by giant soldier ants and mouse-sized cockroaches; the dead rats and pigeons I found rotting in the belfry have gone, so, too, are the trees I had to climb over as I went up the steel rungs on the outside of the building on my way to inspect the roof of the tower. St Martin's has been resurrected.

The St Martin's Church Appeal in the Independent has encouraged other organisations to send money to New Delhi over the course of the year; it has also put Mr Murch in touch with the architect's 99-year-old wife and his daughter, who are both living in Canada.

Mr Murch has saved St Martin's, but he needs a further pounds 5,000 to complete the restoration of nave, aisles and choir, their peeling plaster walls, rickety parquet floors and damaged or missing furniture and fittings.

Most readers who responded to the appeal had no doubts about the significance of the church and its ministry, but a few donors asked why this church - Mr Murch's ministry aside - was considered to be such a great building by critics and historians. Only a trip to New Delhi can reveal the full impact of this mighty sculpture built of several million locally made Roman bricks. It looms above the great dusty square it stands in, a giant Gothic church modelled as if in the style of a great Thirties power station. Ancient and Modern, its design is raw, its appeal timeless.

This is architecture at its most powerful and elemental, an archaeological artefact wrought by science and technology and a counterpoint to India's inspiring legacy of Hindu and Muslim temples and mausoleums. Its design is also appropriate to the fierce north Indian climate; the thick, apparently windowless walls keep out heat and sun. The great, saucer- domed interior is marvellously cool in summer.

Since last year, the number of overseas visitors to St Martin's has increased dramatically; it is becoming, as it has always deserved to be, a stopping point on the tourist trail of New Delhi. And readers' saving of St Martin's church has helped not just Mr Murch's mission to improve the quality of life for those in his care, but also to foster fresh links between Britain and India.

Readers who wish to continue supporting St Martin's should write to Jonathan Glancey at the 'Independent', 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.

(Photograph omitted)

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