A visit to Ballymena meant the opportunity to go and have a look at the former Remonstrant meeting-house there. The entry in the Unitarian Heritage book is a bit limited, as the Irish section of that otherwise invaluable book often is. It says simply ’High Street. Antrim. 1845’ in the disused churches section and gives no further details and has no illustrations. Although it is situated on the High Street it’s actually a bit tucked away and not that easy to find.
But as the photos show it is an interesting and unusual building that was erected by the Non-Subscribers in 1845. The date stone can still be seen, and although the congregation finally departed in 1926 it is not ‘disused’ having been the home of the Faith Mission church for decades.
Having said that there is precious little information on the ground in Ballymena about this building. I asked in the Faith Mission shop if they had any information on the building and they told me no. In the Council run Braid Centre – a Museum and Arts Centre – although they had an interesting collection of leaflets and other pamphlets, they had nothing on this building.
I was surprised the Council had nothing because their predecessor, the Ballymena Borough Council, had thought it worthy enough to merit a plaque which was put up in 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the building’s opening. I knew this because I was there all those years ago and somewhere have a black and white press picture of the occasion.
It is a curious building designed by Thomas Jackson, an architect with a Quaker background, who contributed a great deal to the buildings of Belfast including St Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church which, although much grander by far, nevertheless shares some architectural details with the Ballymena Remonstrant church.
The Ballymena congregation was part of the impressive missionary drive inaugurated by the Remonstrant Synod and was opened on Sunday, 9th November by Rev Henry Montgomery. I am indebted to ‘Dryasdust’ writing in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian in September 1994 for details concerning the congregation’s life. He writes that the original congregation had 57 families in its first year of existence. Given that they had built such a notable edifice they might have been expected to be able to flourish. The first minister was the Rev Francis McCammon who was born in Larne but had been ministering in Diss in Norfolk immediately prior to receiving a call to Ballymena. Unfortunately his ministry ended fairly acrimoniously as did the ministry of his successor James McFerran. However, he was followed by the Rev J.A. Crozier (1855-1865) who seems to have been highly successful in building the church up into a flourishing cause. Unfortunately following his departure to Newry in 1865 numbers never really recovered and the last minister (Rev Halliwell Thomas) left in 1875. The congregation struggled on in some form or other until the First World War but finally closed in the 1920s with the building being sold in 1926.
The Bible Christian reported the opening in the following way:
The meeting-house of the new congregation in Ballymena, in connexion with the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster, was opened for divine worship, on Sunday, Nov. 9, by Dr Montgomery, who preached from Matthew, 10th chapter and 34th verse, an eloquent and powerful discourse. It has been erected from the designs, and under the direction of Mr. Thomas Jackson, architect Belfast. The style of the building is an adaptation of the ecclesiastical style (commonly, but erroneously called Gothic) of about the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The front elevation is in the form of a gable, boldly enriched by projecting buttresses, with cut-stone weatherings, surmounted by pinnacles and leaving embrasures, with cut-stone dressings, extended between them. The entrance door, with the windows in front, and on the flanks of the building, is surrounded by appropriate cut-stone dressings, the sash frames being of cast metal in imitation of cut stone. In the centre of the front, over the door entrance, is a large ornamental wheel window, also formed of cast metal. The meeting-house contains 250 sittings; it is entered through a commodious porch and hall, over which is a school room, which is arranged so as to admit of being added as a gallery to the house, at a future time, should additional accommodation be required. The committee contemplate the erection of a residence for their clergyman, contiguous to the meeting-house. The following gentlemen acted as collectors on the occasion: Thomas Casement, Esq. J.P. Ballee-house; Wm. Coates, Esq. J.P. Glentoran, Belfast; Archibald Barklie, Esq. Inver, Larne; John Dickey, Esq. Leighenmore, Ballymena; Alexander O’Rorke, Esq. Ballymena; William Beggs, Esq. Lisnafillen, Ballymena. The collection, including donations from parties who could not attend, amounted to upwards of £170.