Presbyterian Church: 135-year-old hidden gem provides warm welcome to new visitors

Ken Canning & Victor Wray, members of Carlisle Road Presbyterian 'Congregation, who have been amongst those showing all comers around 'their Church this summer.
Ken Canning & Victor Wray, members of Carlisle Road Presbyterian 'Congregation, who have been amongst those showing all comers around 'their Church this summer.

Over 100 people have explored an 135-year-old hidden gem in Derry’s built heritage trail this summer after the congregation of Carlisle Road Presbyterian Church decided to open its doors to the general public as part of a new initiative.

The magnificent old building - which was opened in March 1879 - has been an integral part of the city centre landscape for almost a century-and-a-half.

However, many in the city are wont to bypass the familiar façade, with it’s twin frontal spires and four turrets marking the gateway to Carlisle Road, whilst making their journeys to and from the city centre

But this summer the congregation launched a successful experiment to attract people of all faiths, tourists as well as fellow citizens, inside for a sneak peak of their church. Around a dozen members have taken turns showing visitors around.

Ken Canning is one of them. He said over 130 people have visited over July and August. That’s around one for every year of the present building’s existence. Ken says that overall the experience has been extremely positive.

“This is the first year this has happened,” he said. “We decided to [open our doors] because so many people have come to us, tourists from all over the world, as well as local people of different religions, who have come in.”

He continued: “They’ve seen the outside of the building but never had an opportunity to come inside. There have been so many positive comments about the building, [People are] impressed with the condition it’s kept in, and by the size of the building, which you don’t really get an idea of from outside.

“It was more or less experimental this year but hopefully, it’s something that will be continued in the future, during the summer months.

“We have a rota of people like Victor [Wray] and myself, who can come and look after it during the day.”

The volunteers who have been showing people around are members of a robust congregation, which, however, like many Christian congregations on the Cityside, dwindled to an extent during the Troubles, as many, especially in the wider Protestant community left for the Waterside and further afield.

Ken acknowledges that this has been the case with his own congregation, stating: “The numbers of the congregation during the years too, have altered. Prior to the Troubles there may have been around 400 families but this has been reduced with people going to different churches and

moving to different areas. We still manage to keep going.”

However, Ken explains that his affinity with Carlisle Road Presbyterian Church and the airy old building stretches back for a number of generations and that this has survived his own migration away from the immediate area.

“I was born into it, and my father and my grandfather. There’s been a loyalty thing that brought me to this Church and kept me here, even though we moved to another part of the city,” he explained.

The congregation originally met in a former theatre in Fountain Street.

The were received by the United Secession Synod in 1837 and

supplied with preaching.

Rev. Thomas Thompson of Kilraughts began the work. On June 26, 1838, the Synod ordained Rev. John McFarland, to the pastoral charge of the new Second Presbyterian Secession Congregation. Numbering 27 families, the congregation met in what is now the Church of Ireland Diocesan headquarters in London Street.

In 1840 the Church became known as 4th Derry under the care of the Presbytery of Derry.

It was during the Ministry of Rev. Robert Ross (1850-1894) that the church was built. Financial help was received from the Honourable the Irish Society. Built by Colhoun Bros to the design of the Belfast architects, Young and Mackenzie, the neo-Gothic, building where the current congregation still meets was opened on March 23, 1879.