A FAMOUS Belfast Church will be holding its last ever sermon after almost 200 years in continual service, with plans now to turn the building over to the Ulster Orchestra.

Townsend Street Presbyterian Church has been a mainstay of the local community, welcoming all and maintaining relationships with their neighbours, even throughout the worst days of the conflict.

The original church no longer remains, having been demolished for the current building built in neo-Romanesque style, which was built at the cost of £11,000 (£735,000 in today’s money) and opened in 1878, commissioned by Reverend William Johnston.

Built by the famous Ulster architects, Young and Mackenzie, they also built scores of buildings around the city and beyond, including the Scottish Provident buildings, Belfast Royal Academy and the Culloden in Cultra.

The church has many unique and brilliant features, including its interior design. No matter where you sit in the church you are facing the pulpit. Reverend Jack Lamb, the charismatic leader of the church since 1995 said, “It was designed to make sure you’d be caught if you began to nod off!”. However the church’s main attractions are its magnificent organ, and stained glass windows. The organ was installed after the First World War and dedicated to those who lost their lives, including many from the congregation.

Those who attended Townsend Presbyterian Church often plied their trades in the local mills and shipyard. At the time and for many years its location was on the outskirts of Belfast, before the expansion of Belfast eventually left it having a central location in the city.

Generations of people from the local area attended Townsend Presbyterian Church, including some who still attend today. Built for 1,400 people, sermons used to be packed to the rafters, to the extent that a pew rental service was in operation for many years. A family would rent the space on a certain pew, which were all numbered, thus ensuring they always had a seat. The current church’s congregation is down to only 40 people, but many still travel each week to attend, with some coming from Carrickfergus and beyond. Rev Lamb said that some have been coming for such a long time, that they can trace their families back in the pew rentals, and can see their names on the walls in plaques which are dedicated to those who lost their lives fighting in both the World Wars.

Speaking about the famous organ in the church, Rev Lamb related that its installation was not without controversy.

“Before the organ all singing was just done with a tuning fork to get the choir in tune, and that was that, when the idea to install the organ was proposed, it was seen as radical at the time, and some dourly opposed the need for music in the church.

"However, the case which was made was that this organ was dedicated to all the men who died, it would be good for the church and be a benefit in the long run, and so it has been. The acoustics in the church are magnificent, which is why the Ulster Orchestra have decided to take over the place when I retire in September. What better people could we be leaving it do, we know the organ will be safe in their hands, and our church also has a special fund set up after the organ was installed which goes just towards the upkeep of the organ, so there’s no chance of it breaking down any time soon.”

HISTORIC: The historic organ was built to commemorate parishioners who lost their lives in the Great War

HISTORIC: The historic organ was built to commemorate parishioners who lost their lives in the Great War

The church’s other magnificent feature are the priceless stained-glass windows made by the renowned An Túr Gloine (The Glass Tower) artistic movement. Amongst them, a window by Wilhelmina Geddes, reflecting motifs of “faith, hope, and charity”.

Though dedicated to the memory of deceased church congregants, the three virtues represented in Geddes’ artwork are a brilliant metaphor for the cross-community cooperation that Townsend Street Presbyterian church has been renowned for. Even during the worst days of the Troubles, the church remained open. 

Rev Lamb commented on this, saying: “The great joy about being on Townsend Street is that at the height of the Troubles a group of people from St Peter’s Cathedral and a group of people from Townsend Presbyterian got together to see if they could do something positive. Thirty-three or so years ago a business park was started and it’s always had a cross-community volunteer board of directors.”

In more recent years as well the church has been at the forefront of cross-community relations and Reverend Lamb has helped to foster a brilliant relationship with Raidió Fáilte across the road.

More recently the church has also taken part in the raising of £1.1million for the people of Ukraine.

With the last sermon due to take place on 11 September, Townsend Presbyterian Church is inviting all those who wish to attend to come along for their final service. Anyone who has been with the church in the past, or had family members who went to the church are also cordially invited, before the building is formally handed over to the Ulster Orchestra who plan on using the facilities for practice, and hopefully for concerts in the future.

GOOD HANDS: Reverend Jack Lamb said the church would be in good hands, as the Ulster Orchestra prepares to move in

GOOD HANDS: Reverend Jack Lamb said the church would be in good hands, as the Ulster Orchestra prepares to move in

Rev Jack Lamb said he is certain the Ulster Orchestra will take good care of the building, and the organ is already taken care off.

“I am looking forward to my retirement and I’ve had a brilliant 27 years at Townsend Street Church, I would love to try and work on a project getting tours going of Belfast’s amazing churches and playing their organs. We held an Organ Extravaganza last year and it was a phenomenal success, so I would like to see that set up again, and get those organs booming!”