One was a former dance hall, another a railway carriage, while some of the seating was from buses in the Second World War... a fascinating glimpse into NI's mission halls
In a letter of encouragement to the Christian folk starting up a mission hall in Ahoghill in 1931, the evangelist Rev WP Nicholson wrote: "My, but you have a CATHEDRAL there … boys a boys, I never thought that dear old Ahoghill would have such a place and that there would ever be such a work done there for the Lord."
As part of a four-year personal project, which has now been published as a book, I have had the privilege to see inside and photograph more than 100 such "cathedrals" all over Northern Ireland. I have visited only mission halls, ie, halls with no links to any denomination but which have been, on the whole, started by one or more individuals with a passion for preaching the gospel.
Why? Well, I have a deep love for these halls, as my grandparents had strong links with the hall in Brookeborough, my mother was a pianist and children's teacher there and I attended my local one from an early age. This, combined with an interest in documentary photography, made a 'mission halls project' seem ideal.
And it has been a most fascinating journey. Many halls were established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Interest in preaching the gospel had arisen after the 1859 spiritual revival when, it is believed, around 100,000 people here came to faith in Christ. Many cottage meetings were established as a result, partly because people couldn't travel long distances to church and partly because they were looking for a more evangelical message than existed in the churches. Subsequently, as more and more people joined these cottage meetings, purpose built mission halls were constructed.
Many of these very halls are still preaching the gospel today. The original Tullynure mission hall, near Cookstown, erected in 1895, still stands and, inside, many handcrafted artefacts have been beautifully preserved. One hand-drawn picture text is ascribed to "John Ritchie, Publisher, Kilmarnock" and another text on the wall, of John chapter 3 v 16, has the words at the bottom "Six kinds, sixpence net each".
Records show that the building in which another mission hall, Ballyhill Old School near Lisburn, began had a somewhat different use. It was reported in Bright Words in 1903 that: "It was a barn, or store, or hall - once a dancing-hall, now converted and consecrated - in which the meetings were held. The folk were busy at their potatoes; but in October the night sets in soon, and they were not too tired to gather out to the meetings. For 12 weeks the mission went on, and when it closed the attendance had averaged 200 nightly."
Some of the many wonderful things about mission halls are the godliness and humility of the people who welcome everyone with an open heart (and, often, tea and scones), and the simple beauty of each, individual hall. Every one is different inside and out and you can see the love and care which has gone into creating every piece of furniture and artefact.
The great inventiveness of the mission hall people is evident all over the country: for example, the people of Ballynafie Mission Hall, Portglenone, used an old railway carriage in which to meet before finding a wooden building; at The Commons, near Carrickfergus, seating came from utility buses used during the Second World War; and at Derrycrew Mission Hall, near Loughgall, the seats came from Belfast International Airport which was getting rid of its old furniture to prepare for a refurbishment.
Often, the people built their hall with their own hands and their own money such was their desire. And they were undeterred should any obstacles arise in their way.
One example of this indefatigable spirit was among the people of the wonderfully named Butterlump Mission Hall which stood right on the Ards peninsula between Ballyhalbert and Portavogie. During its existence from the late 19th century until around 1932, the people walked each week to the hall along the shoreline from the north and the south, through water and seaweed when the tide was in, such was their determination to get to their meetings. The glow of their hurricane lamps could be seen bobbing along the seafront as they made their way.
Another is found in the history of Camagh Mission Hall, Armagh, which was established in the 1930s. The people originally met in an old disused outhouse in a farmyard and theirs was the only regular Sunday evening meeting for miles around. However, in 1939 a Presbyterian man who was strongly opposed to the meetings stuffed the chimney with hay before a meeting in an attempt to smoke the people out. While deeply saddened, the people were offered a piece of ground six miles away to build a hall - and from then on the meetings flourished, with attendees coming from some distance away on foot and bicycle.
Of course, some halls are relatively modern including Ballynasollus (Cookstown) and Ballydonaghy (Dundrod), which both started in 1998, and many have found a way to build impressive, modern buildings, such as Larne, Loughbrickland and Garvagh mission halls.
It has been a truly uplifting experience to record each of these mission halls and their stories in print. Now, as my camera takes a rest, I hope that, like the Rev Nicholson, the mission hall people have much to rejoice about in the days ahead - and that their journey never ends.
- History of Mission Halls throughout Northern Ireland, by Judith Cole, Ambassador International, £25, available at www.ambassadormedia.co.uk or amazon.co.uk. The book is being launched at The Faith Mission Centre, Mahon Road, Portadown, this Thursday at 8pm, all welcome