Belfast Telegraph

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

The Rev Ken Doherty at Fortwilliam and Macrory Presbyterian Church
The Rev Ken Doherty at Fortwilliam and Macrory Presbyterian Church
Fortwilliam and Macrory Presbyterian Church
Mark Bain

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 alteration.

"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 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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