The just ended Easter holiday was yet another reminder of how far colonialism transformed Kenyans: From worshiping gods in mountains, forests and caves to praying to God in churches.
Among the earliest churches in Nairobi was St Stephen’s Anglican Church, a wood and mabati affair planted in 1902 along Jackson Road (Parliament Road) where the August House stands today. Nineteen years later, St Stephen’s Church was transplanted to Pumwani and dedicated to St John after whom it was renamed. It was for worship by Africans who had been condemned to living East of Uhuru Highway in not just Pumwani, but also the neighbouring Ziwani, Bahati, Kaloleni, Makongeni and Jericho estates in Nairobi.
Indeed, owing to the racist mores of the time, the odieros had the Cathedral of the Highlands (the All Saints Cathedral) along Delamere Avenue (Kenyatta Avenue) for worship by jungus and it was proper that the increasing miro population in Eastlands have St John’s Church and a Cathedral of their own in form of St Stephen’s African Cathedral built on two acres hived off the massive plantation of city architect James Watson Kerr, but bankrolled by the colonial government in compensation for the parcel of land at Parliament buildings.
Its foundation stone was laid on June 23, 1923 by Mrs Ernest Carr, wife of a wealthy city contractor and whose family built many church projects for the Church Missionary Society.
St Stephen’s Cathedral was built in English Gothic design. It featured dormer windows, granite floor, ribbed timber members to the ceiling and Mangalore tile roof. The Cathedral found a ready-made congregation from reli workers and civil servants living in Shauri Moyo, Makadara, Muthurwa, Landi Mawe and Maringo estates with the nearby Church Army College providing homespun African clergy.
Did you know St Stephen’s Cathedral Jogoo Road — now under Rev Joshua Omungo — was once the largest of its kind between Cairo and Cape Town? It bragged a 1,200 strong population and its bell tower could be seen from kilometres on end.
Many independence era politicos found a ready congregation here; from Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Charles Rubia, the first black Mayor of Nairobi to Tom Mboya whose trade union movement founded momentum at St Stephen’s where to date, Cotu, still holds its prayers the day before Labour Day
Besides that accolade, the Cathedral also went on to boast one of the most outstanding church choirs in the country. Founded by the late Prof George Senoga Zake in 1956, the St Stephen’s Church Choir became a formidable musical force after Prof Zake-one of the five Kenyans who composed the national anthem-used musical liturgy steeped in Anglican church, but fused with African tunes and dance to change traditional worship music so much so that when first President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta died on August 22, 1978, it was St Stephen’s Church Choir the state turned to for funeral music guidance!
By the way, the St Stephen’s Church erected to replace the demolished was demolished during the expansion of the Chambers of Parliament, but its stones were of such ‘kaa ngumu’ quality, dynamites were employed during demolition!
The 96 year old Bansall and Sons piano sourced from South Africa alongside the Organ still stands in good condition at St Stephen’s Cathedral from where Mary Otieno emerged as one of the greatest solo gospel artists in Kenya!