Belfast Telegraph

Restoration of historic north Belfast church St Joseph's to finally begin

By Mark Edwards

Work to restore the historic St Joseph's, a former Catholic Church in north Belfast, is to begin this month.

The Sailortown Regeneration Group (SRG), which has a 150-year lease on the derelict church, has managed to secure around £30,000 from Belfast City Council and the Department for Communities to begin making the exterior of the building safe.

Known as the Chapel on the Quay, St Joseph's was established more than 140 years ago for the growing Catholic population in the docks area.

The building, which is in the heart of Sailortown, was closed and de-consecrated by the Catholic Church in 2001 due to a dwindling congregation.

The church's last Mass was celebrated on Sunday, February 11, 2001.

Since its closure, residents and the SRG have been fighting to protect the premises and the history of its dockland community.

In March, £10,000 sourced from Ulster Garden Villages and the Department for Communities was spent on repairing the roof of the church and making the building waterproof.

However, the campaign hit a setback in May this year when a piece of masonry from the church spire fell and damaged nearby housing.

No one was injured but St Joseph's was served with a Dangerous Building Notice by the council, meaning the building would have to be repaired or torn down.

Terry McKeown, from SRG, said: "The city council managed to source some money from the Department for Communities. We have now drawn up tenders and the work to make the exterior of the building safe will be starting on November 27.

"After that, we will then try and make the interior safe for use. There is a huge interest in the church. What we want to do is open the inside of the church and have events in it.

"There is a huge amount of history, not just about Sailortown but about Belfast's industrial history.

"So we are looking to use it to bring all that together and build connections with the trade unions and with the Public Record Office to collect all that in."

She added: "We want to get that digitalised and we want to use the church as a centre for both research and exhibitions and displays about the history and heritage of Sailortown and the wider Belfast area."

In November 1972, two of the youngest members of the St Joseph's congregation were buried from the church after they were killed when a no-warning bomb exploded outside nearby Benny's bar.

Clare Hughes (4) and Paula Strong (6) had been playing in their Halloween costumes on October 31 in the street outside the packed pub when the bomb went off at around 8pm. A plaque dedicated to the children remains just above the entrance of the dilapidated building.

Ms McKeown's vision is to use the church as a centre to showcase the lives of those who lived in the area and who went to sea for months on end, leaving their families behind in Belfast.

She said: "The Sailortown people are fantastic and they have massive history here. The problem has been that they have not had the political or statutory support in order to put something like this in place."

She added: "It is a project I got interested in three years ago. I just found the spirit of the people in Sailortown so fantastic and I thought they deserved better than what they were getting.

"But we are making headway at last and this money we have got in for the external repairs is a big deal.

"Politicians are now beginning to sit up and take notice."

Ms McKeown said with a large amount of development taking place in the vicinity of the church, it is vital the last historical building in Sailortown is preserved for posterity.

She commented: "There is a lot of credit given to the Titanic and its history but I think the stories of local people in Sailortown have been forgotten about. I think it is worth celebrating.

"We have a lot of people from abroad contacting us, people who have emigrated, to find out about their grandparents."

Ms McKeown added that she hoped to obtain an estimate of the cost to fully restore the building once the current works are completed.

Belfast Telegraph

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