Church where colonial high and mighty worshipped

The All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi. The church was built between 1917 and 1952. PHOTO | DOUGLAS KIEREINI
The All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi. The church was built between 1917 and 1952. PHOTO | DOUGLAS KIEREINI 

In a long running “harambee” effort that lasted 35 years, starting in 1917, the construction of All Saints Cathedral was eventually completed in 1952.

The first foundation stone was laid on February 3, 1917 by Sir Henry Conway Belfield, then Governor of Kenya.

Designed by Cobb Archer and Scamell architects, the building reflects an English-Gothic style with castellated towers at each end of the transept, one of which contains the belltower and the other the organ tower.

Walls consist of smooth dresssed stone with recessed white mortar joints under a clay tiled roof supported by timber trusses and pointed arches.

The floor is finished mostly in dressed masonary with cement screed slabs to the apse.

Doors are made of polished timber members reinforced with iron braces encased in recessed pointed arch frames while windows are of similar construction, but glazed in stained glass depicting various holy sacraments.

There is a lovely coloured rose window overlooking the main altar area.

The ceiling comprises polished tongued and grooved ribbed timber boards. Pews are handcrafted in polished timber providing a seating capacity of 1,500 when “packed to the rafters”.

The building is in an excellent state of repair and decoration.

There is a “Walker” piped organ which was originally installed here in 1934. Two years ago the organ was refurbished at a cost of £20,000 (Sh2.9 million) and it now looks and sounds resplendent adding to the mystical aura of this iconic building.

All Saints Cathedral is a gazetted national monument.

The Anglican Church of Kenya, being the official church of the colonial power, enjoyed a previleged position. All Saints Cathedral was where the Governor and other high ranking officials went to church and was thus regarded as the church of the high and mighty in the white community.

It was also the episcopal see of the Anglican Church of Kenya.

In 1923, the Africans had St. Stephens Church built for them in Eastlands, where they lived, for avoidance of doubt as to their place in society.

Notwithstanding its privileged position the Anglican Church has always been politically active in Kenya.

During the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s, Anglican clergy sharply denounced the movement but criticised the manner in which the authorities were mistreating the African detainees.

When President Moi clamped down on freedom of speech and political opposition in order to consolidate his power, Anglican leaders spoke out from the pulpit in defence of civil liberties.

It will be recalled that in 1988 Bishop David Gitari castigated attempts to manipulate elections through the notorious “queue-voting” system, earning him the wrath of supporters of the government.

Other church leaders soon joined him in the criticism of government. In 1990, Bishops Henry Okulu and Alexander Muge were highly critical of the State’s investigation into the death of moderate Foreign minister Robert Ouko.

Bishop Muge died later the same year in a suspicious road accident after receiving death threats from a government minister.

This incident only served to embolden the clergy to take an even more active role as the public watchdog, vocally supporting the transition to a multiparty democracy.

Gitari became Archbishop in 1995 and continued to actively engage the church around civil rights, using his position to promote constitutional changes such as term limits and fair elections.

Although Charles Njonjo had joined All Saints Cathedral just prior to independence in 1963, the church remained a strictly “white” affair and a symbol of status in society.

It was not until the 1970s that Africans started to feel comfortable as members. However, as the church leadership became more politically charged in the 80s and 90s some members left, perhaps fearing that they might betray their stand on matters political.

Today, the church has adopted a less confrontational approach according to the sitting Provost, the Very Reverend Sammy Wainaina.

The church engages the authorities through formal and informal channels and the government also consults the church on matters of national interest.

All Saints Cathedral plays host in such meetings, with the participation of other denominations, and has come to be seen as the “voice of reason”.

A major expansion project has recently been completed creating more space for prayer, meetings and even an upmarket coffee shop branded Jumuia and a gym soon to be completed.

The church now holds a total of 15 services on Sundays including those for the youth, Swahili and Sunday school, starting with the 7am service, for the ultra conservative, then a more vibrant service at 9.30am which has five services running concurrently for the different groups.

Other services run throughout the day providing a tapestry of choices to meet individual needs.

The church is eager to drop the “exclusive” tag and now welcomes everyone. The idea of the expanded facilities is not only to provide for the believers spiritual needs every Sunday but also for their social and physical needs in the week, in one-stop shop.

The Diocese of Nairobi was recently split into two namely, the Diocece of Nairobi with the geographically larger area and the Diocese of All Saints based around the All Saints Cathedral.

Today, All Saints Cathedral stands out as a symbol of unity in diversity and social justice maintaining an Anglican order of service laced with an African vibrancy.