St John’s Orthodox Church is believed to be the largest wooden church in England and has been called ‘the most important military building in Colchester’.
Colchester became a Garrison town under the Roman occupation in 43 AD. However, its importance as a military centre was only re-established during the Napoleonic Wars some 200 hundred years ago. Indeed, located on the aptly-named ‘Military Road’ to the south of the town centre, this landmark Church stands on what was once the new military burial ground of St Botolph’s Church. Records show that between 1807 and 1812 there were 466 burials here, mainly of soldiers who died during the Peninsular War. For more information on these burials, click here. For an archeological evaluation of the site of St John’s Orthodox Church (2007), click here.
In 1855 it was decided to build the present Church for the Garrison soldiers. These had been recruited for the Crimean War (1854-56), which had been provoked by Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III. Seeking power and influence, he objected to Russia’s defence of Christians in Jerusalem and elsewhere against Ottoman persecution. Thus, in league with the Muslim Ottomans, he decided to invade Russia through the Crimea.
Since the Crimean War was unpopular and conditions awful (historians now consider it to have been an unnecessary war, into which Great Britain was dragged by aggressive French policies), the British government had to recruit mercenaries. These came from Switzerland, Italy, Belgium and above all what is now Germany, thus forming the ‘German Legion’. This Church was completed for them and the first religious service took place in January 1856. However, only days later, on 1 February, peace terms to end the War were agreed.
The Church was purpose-built in prefabricated sections, held together with 12-inch bolts, by the firm of Charles and Thomas Lucas, based in Lowestoft, Suffolk. This company was the contractor for the New Camp of Colchester Garrison in 1855 and were involved in building many well-known structures, both military and civil, of the Victorian Age, including the Albert Hall. Four buildings were built to the same iron and timber panel design as the Colchester Church. These included the Garrison Churches at Aldershot and Catterick, both since destroyed by fire. Part of the fourth building, the railway station in Felixstowe, Suffolk, still stands.
The Church, known as the Garrison Church or the Camp Church, was built with seating for 900 soldiers. Devoted to military use, the Church was never consecrated to any saint. In 1971 the Church became a Listed Grade II building and Grade II* in 1998. The last military service in the Church took place on Sunday 8 April 2007. New barracks had been opened on the outskirts of Colchester and a much smaller Garrison church, dedicated appropriately to St Alban the Martyr, opened there on Sunday 15 April.
The Church then passed into the hands of the developers of the old Garrison site. In early 2008 they put it up for sale by informal tender. At that time, we had been searching for suitable premises in the area for eleven years. Our tender was accepted and we became legal owners of the site in September 2008. There followed a period of considerable activity to refurbish and adapt the interior to Orthodox worship. For photos of the conversion work, click here. The first Orthodox services took place here on 29 and 30 November 2008, appropriately just before the Feast of the Entrance into the Temple of the Most Holy Mother of God.