Sad­ness as fall­ing con­gre­ga­tion forces land­mark Belfast church to close its doors af­ter 133 years

Belfast Telegraph - - NEWS - BY MARK BAIN

THE fi­nal chap­ter in the his­tory of one of Belfast’s land­mark churches will be writ­ten to­mor­row morn­ing.

Af­ter 133 years, Fortwilliam and Macrory Pres­by­te­rian will holds its last ser­vice.

The build­ing on the Antrim Road has served as a place of wor­ship for gen­er­a­tions, but a dwin­dling con­gre­ga­tion means keep­ing ser­vices run­ning is no longer fea­si­ble.

The con­gre­ga­tion will amal­ga­mate with Whitehouse Pres­by­te­rian on the Shore Road.

The Rev Ken Doherty will have the hon­our of con­duct­ing the fi­nal ser­vice at the church, which once boasted Belfast’s tallest spire.

“It’s a sad fact that a lack of man­power and a lot of peo­ple mov­ing out of the north Belfast area dur­ing the Trou­bles — and the Antrim Road area in par­tic­u­lar — has meant not enough younger peo­ple have been join­ing the con­gre­ga­tion in the last few decades,” he said.

“In many ways it’ll be a sad oc­ca­sion, but we want to make it one for the com­mu­nity who have sup­ported the church through the years to re­mem­ber come 11am on Sun­day.”

The Rev Doherty, a re­tired min­is­ter of Wood­vale Pres­by­te­rian, has been con­duct­ing ser­vices in Fortwilliam and Macrory for the past year and will be joined on Sun­day by Dr Charles McMullen, the moder­a­tor of the Gen­eral Assem­bly.

“We would love to see as many peo­ple come out to wor­ship as pos­si­ble and give the church the send-off it re­ally de­serves,” he added.

“It has been so much a part of the com­mu­nity for over a cen­tury and we hope that will carry on af­ter the fi­nal ser­vice is over.”

The build­ing has B+ listed sta­tus and the Ul­ster Ar­chi­tec­tural Her­itage So­ci­ety hopes to see it back in ac­tion in the near fu­ture.

A UAHS spokesper­son said: “The build­ing is B+ listed in recog­ni­tion of its ar­chi­tec­tural and his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance.

“That gives it pro­tec­tion against de­mo­li­tion and in­ap­pro­pri­ate or un­sym­pa­thetic al­tera- tion. With new use, the build­ing has po­ten­tial to breathe new life into the lo­cal com­mu­nity.”

The build­ing is cur­rently for sale and in­ter­ested par­ties have al­ready con­ducted view­ings.

“We want to see it con­tinue to serve the com­mu­nity. It de­serves to re­main part of the Antrim Road com­mu­nity in some shape or form,” said the Rev Doherty.

Orig­i­nally called Fortwilliam Park Pres­by­te­rian, the church amal­ga­mated with Macrory Memo­rial in nearby Dun­cairn Gar­dens in 2005.

The build­ing’s roots date to June 1880 when ar­chi­tects were in­vited to sub­mit plans in a com­pe­ti­tion, with prizes of £30 for the win­ner and £10 for the run­ner-up.

The plan was for a church to seat 800 peo­ple and a school­room, cost­ing no more than £5,000. There were three en­tries and the de­sign of Henry Chap­pell of New­tow­nards was cho­sen. Com­pleted in 1885, it came in well over bud­get at £8,000.

Two for­mer min­is­ters — the Rev James Breakey (1955) and the Rev John Thomp­son (1986) — served as mod­er­a­tors of the Pres­by­te­rian Church in Ire­land.

De­spite the amal­ga­ma­tion in 2005, at­ten­dances have dropped to a few dozen each Sun­day, with only 80 peo­ple con­tribut­ing to the weekly of­fer­ing in re­cent times.

Churches at Dun­cairn, Clifton Street United, St Enoch’s, Old­park and Macrory Memo­rial have al­ready dis­ap­peared from the com­mu­nity.

The Rev Jim Stothers, the deputy clerk of the Gen­eral Assem­bly, said he ap­pre­ci­ated “the deep sad­ness felt by those who have The Rev Ken Doherty (left) at Fortwilliam and Macrory Pres­by­te­rian Church wor­shipped faith­fully at Fortwilliam and Macrory for many years and the up­set that this brings”.

But the Rev Stothers added: “In the Old Tes­ta­ment, the writer of Ec­cle­si­astes says that ‘there is a time for ev­ery­thing, and a sea­son for ev­ery ac­tiv­ity un­der the heav­ens’. I want to give thanks for the life and wit­ness of Fortwilliam and Macrory, for the lives changed through the preach­ing of the gospel there and the im­pact it has had on the area and on so many peo­ple over the past 133 years.”

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