Historic Belfast church closes after final service (2010)

The church where Sir Edward Carson came to worship on the day that he signed the Ulster Covenant in 1912 held its final service in September 2010.

Friday, 3rd September 2021, 5:04 pm
Pictured in 2010 is the Reverend Dr David Murphy who held the final service in 1st Presbyterian Church, Ballymacarrett on Sunday, September 12 that year. Picture: Brian Little/News Letter archives
Pictured in 2010 is the Reverend Dr David Murphy who held the final service in 1st Presbyterian Church, Ballymacarrett on Sunday, September 12 that year. Picture: Brian Little/News Letter archives

Following years of costly maintenance and a dwindling congregation, Ballymacarrett Presbyterian Church in east Belfast was to resound with hymns for the last time at an “emotionally-charged” evening service on Sunday, September 12, 2010.

The church, off the Albertbridge Road, first opened in 1837 to minister to local hand-loom weavers and was a haven of peace and tranquillity at a flashpoint interface throughout the darkest days of the Troubles.

During the early days of the violence, the army took over the old Mountpottinger schoolhouse on the Paulett Avenue site and the congregation had to pass through a military checkpoint on their way to services.

Pictured in September 2010 are the Reverend Dr David Murphy (left) and the Reverend Stephen Moore (Convener of East Belfast Presbyterian Commission) outside 1st Presbyterian Church, Ballymarrett.

Due to the decline in the number of worshippers, a decision had been taken which was to see the well-loved church amalgamate with the Presbyterian church on the Ravenhill Road.

The minister, the Reverend Dr David Murphy, told the News Letter it was hard to explain just how devastating the news had been for the stalwarts of the church.

“We have a very loyal congregation at Ballymacarrett and this announcement has been more than some people can bear.

“A few long-standing members have died in recent months and I have had two widows tell me their husbands died of a broken heart at the loss of their church.

“Ballymacarrett, particularly the interior, is an extremely beautiful church but once it has been sold then I suppose anything could happen to it – it could even be knocked down,” he said.

The Reverend Murphy said the decision to amalgamate was particularly difficult as the church was “very much alive” up until the decision by the East Belfast Presbytery to sell the site.

“This was not a dying church as far as the people were concerned. We have continued with the Boys Brigade and BB Old Boys, as well as Sunday schools and various other groups, right up to the last, and that is what makes this so very difficult for people.

“However, regarding the building itself, the old sandstone had an ingress of water and the cost of remedial work alone was around £200,000. Such large sums of money are hard to raise with a dwindling congregation.”

The well-known preacher and poet W F Marshall – dubbed the Bard of Tyrone – was an assistant minister at Ballymacarrett in the early part of the 20th century.

On the day the Ulster Covenant was launched in 1912 he had a poem printed in the Northern Whig newspaper called The Blue Banner.

One line from the poem reads: “The Cov’nant oath we now will swear that Britain may be told/We stand for faith and freedom and the memories of old”.

The name of Ballymacarrett has been synonymous with social deprivation for centuries and the survival of the church through the years was testimony to a tradition of astute financial management in the face of adversity.

Church records showed that in 1842 the congregation was so poor that the gas supplier had not been paid for three years.

The Reverend Murphy said inner city churches were “particularly badly affected” in an increasingly secular society and added: “It is also true to say that in today’s society we have too many loyalists and not enough Christians.”

Meanwhile, then Ulster Unionist Party leader Sir Reg Empey said that the final service at Ballymacarrett Presbyterian Church marked the end of an era.

Sir Reg said the loss of the church “will be felt by many within the east Belfast community”.

He added: “During times of great pain and suffering it has been a solid and reassuring presence, offering solace during our most violent times.

“It is an unfortunate fact that failing congregation numbers and the ravages of time on an historic building have necessitated this move.”