National Churches Trust on ‘supporting Northern Ireland’s churches and chapels’… with the IHBC & NI Branch

Northern Ireland has 2,500 churches and chapels – more per head than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, and the recent National Churches Trust update highlights include partnership with the IHBC and our national Branch in the Northern Ireland Places of Worship Forum network.

image: Balllintoy Church – NCT website

…2,500 churches and chapels in Northern Ireland – more per head than anywhere else in the United Kingdom…

… partnership with local heritage bodies including the Ulster Historic Churches Trust, the Historic Environment Division and the Institute of Historic Building Conservation…

National Churches Trust writes:

… As part of its strategy to help ensure the sustainability of the UK’s churches and chapels, over the last couple of years the NCT has worked with the Ulster Historic Churches Trust and stakeholder groups to set up a new Northern Ireland ‘Places of Worship Forum’….

Places of Worship Forum
‘St Macartan is B+ listed (roughly equivalent to Grade II* in England and Wales) as is another ‘Treasure Ireland’ beneficiary, the First Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Newry, Co Down.

This grant is funding work to restore the frames holding stained glass windows which for the Newry Church is one in a long list of problems being addressed after poorly executed repairs in the 1990s. The church’s managers are roughly half way through repairing the damage and are approaching the task with a new confidence thanks to the NCT.

“The Places of Worship Forums are a great idea,” says the convener of the church’s property committee, David Hanna. “People with real passion are sharing their ideas with others; as in examples of capable contractors and proven solutions. It’s fantastic having this expertise at our fingertips. It is worth as much as the money.”….

920 places of worship are listed
There are around 2,500 churches and chapels in Northern Ireland – more per head than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. According to the 2011 census, the biggest denominations are Catholic (41 per cent), Presbyterian (19 per cent), Church of Ireland (14 per cent) and Methodist (3 per cent).

Some 920 places of worship are listed buildings, 12 of them cathedrals. The different traditions have problems in common: declining congregations, falling income and a struggle to maintain their buildings.

The NCT’s Senior Church Support Officer, Nigel Mills, says that is why they decided to intensify their focus on Northern Ireland….

Ulster Historic Churches Trust
It was in 2018 that the Trust set up the Northern Ireland Places of Worship Forum in partnership with local heritage bodies including the Ulster Historic Churches Trust, the Historic Environment Division and the Institute of Historic Building Conservation.

Then came ‘Treasure Ireland,’ launched in 2020 and scheduled to run till 2023. It awards grants of between £500 and £10,000, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Pilgrim Trust and the Department for Communities, Northern Ireland. (The photo at the top of this page [LINK] shows the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Strabane which has received a ‘Treasure Ireland’ grant of £7,500 and £2,500 grant from the Wolfson Foundation, on the recommendation of the National Churches Trust).

As well as grants, there are training workshops on all aspects of caring for buildings, welcoming visitors, and encouraging proactive maintenance rather than reactive maintenance.

Says Nigel: “At the start of our projects in Northern Ireland we had 12 people in focus groups. Now there are 500 plus churches we engage with on a regular basis. Compared with where we were it is quite staggering.”

The NCT is also awarding Cornerstone grants of between £10,000 and £50,000. These are allocated towards the cost of major urgent structural repairs, and the installation of kitchens and toilets. The last round of Cornerstone Grants was bolstered by funds from the Department for Communities Covid-19 Heritage Support Programme.

Since April 2020, National Churches Trust Grants have funded work at 27 places of worship in Northern Ireland which is more than the previous three years put together.

Much of the progress is down to the ‘Treasure Ireland’ project. Nina McNeary, is the NCT’s first Church Support Officer to be based in Northern Ireland and who works on the ‘Treasure Ireland’ project. She started in August 2020, in the middle of the pandemic.

Nina has found that people from different denominations have felt comfortable meeting from their own homes via Zoom. “There is warmth and openness in these forums and they have worked.”

The House of Good
Another positive sign is the interest taken in the NCT’s ‘The House of Good‘ report published in November 2020 that highlights the important role played by places of worship in serving the most vulnerable in society.

“Pre-pandemic there weren’t as many churches that organised foodbanks and food parcels. Over the last year we’ve seen more churches being active in providing help to local people,” Nina says.

Churches are also welcoming visitors who have found out about them through the Trust’s Explore Churches website and during European Heritage Open Days, an annual celebration of architecture, history and culture that takes place in September. More churches and chapels in Northern Ireland are to be added to the Explore Churches website. There will also be training available to help churches increase visitor and tourist numbers.

The hope is that Northern Ireland’s rich faith heritage will be an additional draw for tourism particularly in the post-Covid era of the staycation.

Visitors are drawn to the countryside with its ancient graves and picturesque ruins, and especially the dramatic scenery of the North Antrim coast that featured in the television fantasy series, Game of Thrones.

The many sites associated with St Patrick and his disciples attract modern day pilgrims. These include Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of the island, where Patrick reputedly built his first stone church in 445. Patrick, and the island’s two other patron saints, Columba and Brigid, are believed to be buried in the historic graveyard at Down Cathedral, Downpatrick which declares itself “a place of pilgrimage, prayer and welcome for everyone.”

Beautiful buildings
As well as richly decorated churches such as the Catholic St Columba’s Church Long Tower, Derry City, dating from 1783, there are beautiful, simple buildings in villages and open countryside.

Nina McNeary singles out Ballintoy Church in Game of Thrones country which overlooks Ballintoy Harbour with views of the Scottish coast…

… The work being carried out to make sure that buildings are in a good state of repair and the desire to share their heritage bodes well for the future sustainability of the churches and chapels of Northern Ireland.

Read more….

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