History of Fortwilliam Park
Fortwilliam Park Presbyterian Church was the child, the dream, the idea of two prominent business men who lived in the nearby Fortwilliam Park Avenue. Henry Matier and Archibald Kent were interviewed by the Presbytery of Belfast on 28th May, 1878, and they put forward a request to form a new congregation and build a church on the Antrim Road.
By 1878 the population of Belfast was 200,000 and rising. The Presbytery took advantage of the interest of these prominent citizens and agreed to their raising funds and building a new church.
A committee was established, consisting of clergy of the Presbytery and local elders among whom were Thomas Sinclair, Henry Matier, Archibald Kent, Robert Porter, William Kennedy and William McCammond, these names remained prominent in the early years of the congregation. Rev. William Johnston of Townsend Street Church was appointed Convener.
The committee met on the 21st June, 1878 and Henry Matier, Archibald Kent and Rev. Dr William Johnston were elected to look for a suitable site. Ground on the Antrim Road opposite Fortwilliam Terrace was chosen. Mr Samuel Lawther, the owner, agreed to the lease of the ground at a rent of £30.00 per year, as his contribution he offered the first two years to be rent free.
A meeting held on the 23rd October, 1878, agreed to this, but was subsequently rescinded due to a disagreement among some of the gentlemen concerned. It took almost a year for things to get underway again when Henry Matier, Robert Porter and Archibald Kent privately purchased ground fronting on the Antrim Road and generously offered it as a site for the church free of rent for ever. This is how the church came to be sited in the triangle of land between the entrance gates to Fortwilliam Park and Alexandra Gardens.
June 1880 the ball started rolling. The plan was for a church to seat 800 people and a schoolroom, costing not more than £5,000. Henry Matier promised £1,000, Robert Porter £250, Archibald Kent £100 and the other gentlemen £50.00 each, so nearly half the sum was raised.
Architects were invited to submit plans in a competition with prizes of £30 for the winner and £10 for the runner up. There were three entries. Mr Henry Chappell of Newtownards was the winner. Unfortunately, the plan showed a building too big for the site. Not to be deterred, urgent negotiations were entered for the leasing of extra land. Eight tenders were received ranging from approximately £7,000 to £8,500, unfortunately these quotes were away beyond the committee's expectation. The plans had to be revised and by omitting the school buildings and an entrance on the north side a reduction was reached. A new tender from James Henry, who agreed to build the church for £6,200 4s 11d was accepted and trustees appointed.
The Moderator of the General Assembly, Rev. H V Wilson of Cookstown said “ I heartily congratulate you on the site you have chosen and on the style of the structure you are raising. The site is a splendid one, one of the best in the suburbs of Belfast. The surroundings are all that need be desired and I confidently expect that the building in beauty and graceful proportions will be worthy of the position it occupies. I rejoice that you are setting so good an example of the advance that is taking place in church architecture in our day. It is high time that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland should provide churches of a better class for her congregations in which to worship. In this respect it becomes us to move with the age.”
Building went ahead and by December, 1884, Pew Rents were being fixed and then amended by February, 1885 to range from 2 shillings to 25 shillings per annum. April 1885, the building was complete at a total cost of approx. £8,000. A pulpit of polished oak and walnut was a gift from Miss Edith L Matier and this was the final item to be put in place.
The opening service took place on Sunday 26th April 1885. The service was conducted by Rev. Robert Flint, D.D., LL.D., Regius Professor of Divinity in Edinburgh. The church was packed to capacity with additional seating provided in the aisles at the evening service. The offerings at both services together amounted to £500, a remarkable sum of money for the times.
An interim Session was set up on 8th May 1885 consisting of Rev. Dr. Johnston, Rev T Y Killen, Rev J B Wylie, Henry Matier, Robert Porter and Archibald Kent. The first Congretational Committee was established on 8th October with William Kennedy elected Secretary and Robert Porter, Treasurer. The first Lord's Supper was observed in November 1885, forty four Communicants took part.
A joint meeting of Session and Committee appointed H Matier, D Lowson, G Clark and J Mageean to hear several Clergymen with a view to recommending a call to become the first Minister of Fortwilliam Park Congregation. As a result the Rev James Maconaghie of Omagh, was installed on Tuesday 16th February 1886.
War Years 1914 -1918
The Rev. A Lyle Harrison was installed on the 6th April,1914 and very soon the country was at war. Many members of the congregation volunteered for service in the forces and those who sacrificed their lives are named and remembered on the memorial erected in the vestibule at the end of the war.
The Second World War 1939 – 1945
Due to black out restrictions the church could not be used for evening worship. The Lecture Hall was used as it had the necessary black out requirements. April, 1941, the Antrim Road suffered heavily from enemy bombing and the church was damaged by the blast from the bombs which destroyed the nearby Tramway Depot on Salisbury Avenue. As a result many of the congregation moved to the safety of the country. The Sunday Schools closed down. The Church Secretary and the joint Treasurers resigned. The memorial windows were removed for safe-keeping and the Rev. Harrison announced his retirement. It was Fortwilliam's darkest hour.
Once again many members of the congregation volunteered for service in the forces. Almost 100 men and women served in various branches of His Majesty's Forces.
Remembrance Day 1950, a service was held to Dedicate the Memorial to the members of the congregation who had been killed in the Second World War. This Memorial consists of twenty-five Silver Communion Trays housed in an oak cabinet with a bronze plaque inscribed with the names of the fallen, on its front. The service was conducted by Major the Rev. D.C. Harrison,B. A., S.C.F.
The Golden Years
In 1945 the congregation was so large and its activities so varied that Rev. T. J. Holmes, B. A., was appointed as Assistant Minister to assist the Rev. Breakey with the various organisations, visitations to family homes and the preaching of the gospel.
The immediate post-war years saw the church filled to capacity Sunday after Sunday. It was necessary to arrive early to obtain a favourite seat and sometimes it was necessary to wait until the children left for the Primary Sunday School to find a seat. Special occasions called for chairs from the Hall to fill the aisles.
Activities were flourishing. Hundreds of scholars attended the Sunday Schools, Primary, Morning and Afternoon and Bible Classes. The Boys' Brigade, Life Boys', Brownies, Girl Guides, Badminton Club, Youth Fellowship, Girls' Auxiliary, Women's Missionary Association, Gardening and Homecraft and Dramatic Society all flourished. This was a time before television and the church was central to the community and family life.
To alleviate this situation an extension to the church was planned, but this was not to be because of post-war shortages.
A house at the rear of the church came on the market. It was decided to purchase this house at 2, Alexandra Gardens and convert it to church use. After some work was done and the rooms enlarged, smaller groups of up to 50 could meet there in comfort and leave the Lecture Hall free for larger gatherings and activities.
Education and Fortwilliam Church
The church has always taken an interest in the education of the children in the district. It was a subject dear to the heart of the first minister, the Rev. Maconaghie and has continued over the years.
In 1889, oversight of Cavehill National School was transferred from Duncairn to Fortwilliam Church with Mr. Maconaghie appointed manager.
The church corresponded with the Board of Education in Dublin concerning the provision of a school on the site in Glandore Avenue to meet the needs of the district. Money for the building and the site was raised quickly, but the school wasn't opened until 21st. April,1900. It was destroyed by enemy action in 1941.
The church was relieved of direct responsibility for its schools in Glandore and Cavehill, in 1925 and 1927, when they were transferred to the local Education Authorities. However, the congregation maintained a Sabbath School in the Cavehill School for many years.
Interest in the education of the young has continued over the years. Many of the ministers have sat on local school management committees now known as the board of governors.
Extension 1943-1956 | A long drawn out process
In April,1943, one year after the Rev. Breakey's appointment a special meeting of the Session and Committee was held to consider a plan to extend the premises to meet the needs of a fast growing congregation. There was general approval of the scheme and an Extension Fund launched to provide finance for the work to start as soon as the war time restrictions would allow and planning permission allowed.
Meanwhile, to ease the accommodation problem a temporary building was purchased and erected on the north side of the church. It was called the “Minor Hall” and was in use for 40 years.
The Extension Fund was growing steadily,but inflation was beginning to take its toll on finance in general so the Weekly Offering system was introduced.
Building licences were unobtainable for many years, at last in February, 1953, a building licence for £20,000 was in prospect but costs had gone up and when tenders were received the cost had risen to £33,000.This was reduced to £30,000 by using re-constituted stone instead of natural stone. The modified scheme provided less accommodation than was hoped for but it did provide much needed amenities and facilities at the eastern end of the church.
After all this time the work was finally completed in April, 1956 and a Service of Dedication was held at the Anniversary Service on Sunday, 22nd April, 1956.
Praise through the Years
There was no organ when the church opened in 1885. Praise was led by Mr. Samuel Whyte assisted by a paid soprano.
At the end of the 19th Century, the Church Hymnary was introduced and the choir requested the use of a harmonium to help the praise. This was refused. However, in 1902, a member of session made a gift of an American organ to the congregation which was accepted and installed.
1902 - 1911 Samuel Whyte became choir master.
1927 - A pipe organ was installed in memory of Fortwilliam's first minister, the Rev. Dr. J.Maconaghie. It cost £2,176. This shows a change in attitude to worship.
During the extension, in 1954, the organ had to be moved and the opportunity was taken to upgrade the instrument to three manuals with 61 stops and 1,438 pipes making it one of the finest in any church.
In 2004, a new hymn book was launched at the Waterfront Hall and was put in use in January, 2005.
In 2009, as a final piece of the refurbishment, a new organ will be installed .This will be a great asset to future praise.
In Praise of God
This beautiful, eye-catching building, holds an elevated position on the main Antrim Road where Fortwilliam Park and Alexandra Park meet.
The Church opened on the 22nd April 1885 and it became a class “B” Listed Building in 1988.
The church was built of natural stone which came from a quarry at Scrabo. The unusual feature of the design was that the building was of two storeys, the church being built above the Lecture Hall or School Room, as it was then called. Another outstanding feature of the building was the tall spire. The height of the building combined with the elevated position it held, made the spire the highest in Belfast.
The front door is reached by a flight of twelve steps, which makes it a favourite venue for brides and their photographers.
The inside of the church is resplendent with its rich, warm wooden pews , blue carpet and magnificent polished oak and walnut pulpit. On a bright day the sunshine streams through the two stained glass windows erected in memory of two founder members. This illumination causes a soft warm light to filter through the building.
Major repairs and refurbishment have just been completed in 2009 and the church is looking really spectacular.