Grave concerns as former church is put up for sale
Residents in a Co Down village have warned they do not want to see their centrepiece 18th century church turned into a hotspot for revellers as it goes on the market.
The former St John's Parish Church in Hilltown, Co Down, is up for sale with an asking price of £80,000.
The one-time Church of Ireland building, designed by architect Charles Lilley, became the focal point of the Hilltown community when it was opened by the Bishop of Down on August 7, 1771, but has stood desolate since its last service was held in 1983.
Numerous community efforts to save the building have failed and now the detached one bedroom, one reception property is on the market.
Ian Bailey (55), who was among the last three families belonging to the congregation, doesn't oppose the sale but he does have some concerns.
"I have no issue because I know it will never be used as a church again, but it should never become a nightclub or a bar, that would be my only fear," he said.
"It's an active graveyard and I'm glad there's a condition in the sale, but the problem with selling anything is that you lose control of it, conditions become very difficult to enforce."
Mr Bailey, whose late brother is buried in the adjoining graveyard, expects the site to become his own final resting place one day.
He is hopeful that someone with a "sensible and suitable" plan will purchase the former church, which was first led by the Rev William Lucas, Rector of Newry.
"I would love to see it restored, it's a beautiful building but time has taken its toll on it," he said.
"I wouldn't object to seeing it transformed into a restaurant, a shop or a facility providing daytime nursing care"
A previous cross community plan to hold a charity carol service in the venue was axed when no insurance company would give the green light, the 2008 economic slump scuppered efforts to obtain government funding and getting lottery funding has proved problematic.
"The problem with lottery funding is that they want to know what the final use for the building will be, and we could never find one," Mr Bailey added.
Semi-retired farmer and local history enthusiast Mary Savage also expressed fears that the once holy site will be turned into a magnet for party-lovers.
"You have to be respectful of the graveyard," she said.
"It's hard to think what could be done with it, but I certainly wouldn't want to see it turned into a pub, definitely not."
Ms Savage said the close proximity of the burial site to the church will make it difficult for whoever buys it and hopes it can stay in its current form.
"It was the first building in the village, everything was built around it - it's a valuable piece of history," she said.
The sale does come with one noteworthy condition, the advertisement states: "The graveyard does not form part of the premises for sale and remains in use."
It also makes clear that any buyer must permit access for "general maintenance and upkeep of graves and pathways".
Fixtures and fittings such as the baptismal font, pulpit and pews are also not for sale.