St Stephen's ACK: A century of faith, growth and love for the community

Anglican Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit cuts a cake to celebrate 100 years of St Stephen's ACK Cathedral. [Courtesy]

In 1919, Canon George Reed Burns, who was Vicar at St. Stephen's Church at Jackson Road took in Elijah Gachanja as both student and teacher. The Church had a mission school which Gachanja attended. In the evenings he would evangelise among the workers and rickshaw operators.

Gachanja loved narrating how he preached to the rickshaw operators as they waited for their clients in Nairobi City. He socialised freely with them and taught them the Word of God. In 1921 Gachanja was baptised at St. Stephen's Church and named Elijah.

Canon Burns was impressed with Gachanja's commitment and he decided to train him for mission and evangelism. In 1922, as Burns was going for his leave overseas by ship, he travelled with Gachanja to Mombasa and enrolled him at Buxton High School where he studied for two years and qualified as a teacher. He was posted to Nakuru, which was an outpost of Nairobi. Gachanja was to later play a major role in the growth of St. Stephen's Church.

This first St. Stephen's Church structure was moved to Pumwani CMS grounds in 1922 and re-dedicated as St. John's Church. By then the St. Stephen's congregation was in the process of putting up a permanent building whose foundation stone was laid on 23 June 1923 by Mrs Ernest Carr, wife of a contractor who was known to have built many church projects for the Church Missionary Society.

It was built of stone and was located where the present Chamber of Parliament is. The target of St. Stephen's Church was Africans of middle-class status. However, the new church at St. John's Pumwani targeted Africans of the lower cadre who were labourers. Those Africans had been segregated and relegated to living not just in Pumwani, but also in surrounding areas of Eastlands.

Pumwani was the oldest African settlement which was created by the colonial government in 1922 as the first planned housing scheme for Africans in Nairobi. Pumwani was a centre of small African enterprises, which attracted Kenyans from different parts of the country.

In 1928, Canon Burns took Gachanja to St. Paul's Divinity School in Frere Town where he received his theological training. In December 1929, Gachanja was made Deacon. He was posted as Deacon at St. Stephen's Church on Jackson Road where he served for six years.

In 1935, Gachanja was ordained as a priest becoming one of the 20 Africans who had been ordained at that time. After his ordination, he continued serving at St. Stephen's Church. Later he moved to St. John's Pumwani, where he served until 1945. Afterwards, he was sent to serve at the Parish of Njumbi from 1946 to 1949 before returning to St. Stephen's Church.

In 1952, Rev. Gachanja, who was the priest in charge at St. Stephen's, received the first Swahili Bible that had been flown in from England. In a photograph published in the East African Standard on 21 September 1952, Rev. Gachanja is seen receiving the Bible from Rev. Frank Bedford who was Secretary of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

Relocation to Jogoo Road

The colonial government identified Jackson Road as the most appropriate place to build Kenya's Parliament. Therefore, the government relocated St. Stephen's Church to Donholm Road (now Jogoo Road) in 1952. The foundation stone was laid on 26 December 1952 by Reginald Percy Crabbe who was the Bishop of Mombasa Diocese.

The building would replace St. Stephen's Church at Jackson Road (now Parliament Road). Since it was a government project, the church was built very fast becoming the largest church in East and Central Africa at the time.

The church became a significant landmark in the city of Nairobi with some locals claiming that it could be sighted from as far as Machakos. The finished building was imposing and was built in English Gothic design. The design featured dormer windows, granite floor and ribbed timber members to the ceiling and Mangalore tile roof.

External walls were built of smooth-dressed stone with rough-dressed stone to the upper skirting area, reinforced by stone buttresses at regular intervals. Windows were glazed in steel casements embedded in pointed arch frames. Doors were made of heavy timber panels lashed with steel braces and hung in pointed arch frames. Beautifully carved and polished wooden pews provided a seating capacity of 1,200. The church was consecrated on 27 September 1953 by Bishop Reginald Percy Crabbe.

Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit (left) joins clergy in celebrating 100 years of St Stephen's ACK Cathedral. [Courtesy]

After relocating to Jogoo Road, St. Stephen's Church served a vibrant congregation that was mostly African. This congregation was made up of civil servants and workers from the East African Railways company who lived in various estates such as Makongeni, Government Quarters, Bahati, Mbotela, Landimawe, Muthurwa, Shauri Moyo, Makadara and Maringo Estate. By the standards of the 1950s, this congregation was considered quite elite.

Mantle of leadership

Through the years St. Stephen's Church was headed by various European vicars. They included Rev. Philip A. Bennet (1903-1905), Rev. William Marcus Fallon (1905-1916), Canon George Reed Burns (1916-1924) and Rev. Pittway Rowland Alfred (1924-1956).

Rev. Canon Elijah Gachanja became the first African Vicar at St. Stephen's Church on Jogoo Road in 1957 and his Curate was Daudi Udali. Gachanja and his family occupied the vicarage from where they served the church.

Gachanja's wife, Leah Nyambugi, soon began farming around the vicarage compound to supplement Gachanja's earnings. She would also walk with her children from Jogoo Road to the All Saints' Cathedral compound to cultivate the land that was lying idle. She would harvest maize and beans that kept the family going.

Timothy Mwangi, who lived with Rev. Gachanja in the vicarage, recalls St. Stephen's Church as one of the tallest buildings in Eastlands. Jeremiah Joseph Kimani (best known as JJ Kimani), who spent most of his life at St. Stephen's, recalls being baptized by Canon Gachanja in 1945 at St. Stephen's Church on Jackson Road.

He later became one of the pioneer Christians to worship at the church's new location on Jogoo Road. Kimani remembers how worshippers from Makongeni Estate used to come with bicycles purchased through loans and park them at a designated area within the compound near the entry gate. Some of them would tie their bicycles together and would meet when the service was over in order to retrieve them.

Mau Mau uprising

In 1952 at the height of the Mau Mau uprising, the British Government declared a state of emergency. The Government asked the CMS to make arrangements for the church to preach to the Mau Mau detainees at the Athi River Detention Camp as a way of pacifying them. Rev. Gachanja was assigned the responsibility of preaching to the detainees, which he did alongside his other duties as Vicar at St. Stephen's Church.

A car was provided to facilitate his travel from St. Stephen's Church to Athi River for a number of days a week. Gachanja would preach to the detainees while guarded by the police because he was viewed as a traitor. Years after the emergency, some of the detainees he met confessed to having accepted Christianity and apologised for their hostility towards him.

While based at St. Stephen's Church, Gachanja used to preach through the radio, using the Swahili language. Gachanja was made Canon while still serving at St. Stephen's Church. This is an honour given to senior priests who have rendered selfless service to the work of God in the Anglican Church.

He retired in 1961 and a farewell party was held for him by the congregation. A photograph that was taken during his farewell party on 24 September 1961 hangs on the wall in the vestries of St. Stephen's Cathedral, which he served with dedication during his time in church ministry. After retirement, Gachanja served as chaplain at the Divinity School Limuru from 1962. This was the final station where Gachanja served the church in an official capacity.

After Kenya's independence, the vicars who served at St. Stephen's Church included Edwin Adinya (1963-1967), Boaz Oduma (1968-1973), Peter Indalo (1974-1975), Luke Makolo (1976-1978), Peter Mwakio (1979-1983), Gilbert Amimo (1984-1992), James Kinyanjui (1993-1994), Joseph Mwangi Ngooro (1995-1996) and John Ndung'u Muriithi (1997-2002). In 2002, St. Stephen's became a Cathedral and began being headed by provosts.