A historic church in Belfast that had once been on the verge of permanently shuttering its doors is making a comeback under the auspices of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, a Roman Catholic society of apostolic life dedicated to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The Fortwilliam and Macrory Presbyterian Church was built on the Antrim Road, in North Belfast, in 1885. The association for Protecting Historic Buildings describes it as a “Free-standing, double-height over basement gable-fronted Gothic Revival sandstone church, built c. 1885, to the designs of Henry Chappell.”
Due to the gradual decline in attendance over the last few decades, the Presbyterian Elders and Kirk Session had decided to close the church in October 2018. It was at this time that the Institute of Christ the King, which has been serving in the Diocese of Down and Connor on a regular basis since 2010, began considering the prospect of trying to acquire the building for the purpose of transforming it into a Catholic church.
Thanks to Divine Providence, an interest-free loan was eventually made to the Institute towards the purchase of this building, with the permission of the local bishop. The community members and several volunteers began working hard to prepare the church for the celebration of a Catholic ceremony in a short period of time. It was necessary to move the heavy and beautiful wooden pulpit, which was standing in the middle of the sanctuary, over to the side. In its place, a beautiful altar was installed. The church was also in need of a thorough cleaning, and the water and gas had to be reconnected. A temporary organ was obtained as well, the chandeliers were reconnected, a provisional sacristy was set up, and the large basement was prepared (in order to properly host social functions).
The church opening was celebrated last week, on Wednesday 11th December, in the presence of His Lordship Noel Treanor, the bishop of Down and Connor, and a large congregation. Also present were Monsignor Gilles Wach, Prior General of the Institute of Christ the King, along with several Institute canons, seminarians and candidates, and a number of sisters belonging to the Institute’s female religious branch, the Sisters Adorers of the Royal Heart.
The ceremonies began on Tuesday evening with the canons singing the Office of Vespers in the presence of the bishop. The Presbyterian community was also invited to attend. The tea and refreshments were served afterwards in the basement, providing the occasion to meet a number of former churchgoers from the Fortwilliam and Macrory Church community. They all expressed their gratitude to the Institute for acquiring this building and keeping it as a place of worship.
On Wednesday evening, a First Solemn Mass marked the final moment of the church’s triumphant re-opening; it was indeed the first ever Holy Mass celebrated in this church. The liturgy began with a blessing of the church by the bishop, with the choir singing the hymn “Veni Creator”, invoking the assistance of the Holy Ghost. Monsignor Wach then addressed the large congregation, which comprised more than four-hundred individuals.
Monsignor quoted Saint Augustine of Hippo, the greatest doctor of the Early Church, which best expresses our present sentiment: “Peter personifies the Church; as every bishop is the bridegroom of his particular Church, Peter, bishop of Rome, is the bridegroom of the universal Church, which has its visible foundation entirely in him.”
He continued: “Your presence, My Lord, in this church in your Diocese, where, under your guidance, the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest will carry out the priestly ministry, is for us the manifestation of “sentire cum Ecclesia,” or, “to think with the Church”. The bishop then solemnly blessed the church and a beautiful statue of Our Lady, as this new apostolate is consecrated to her Immaculate Heart.
Whenever a local Bishop solemnly assists at the Holy Mass in the Traditional Rite, he is seated on a throne under a canopy, in the place of honour, and the rubrics reserve several blessings to him. These include the blessing of the incense, the blessing of the deacon before he proclaims the Gospel, and the final pontifical blessing over the congregation, at the end of the ceremony.
Bishop Treanor also delivered the sermon from the pulpit and reminded the congregation of these words from Sacred Scripture: “Let my heart rejoice in Your Salvation”: This verse from Psalm 12, found in the Gradual for this Votive Mass of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Patroness of Fortwilliam and Macrory Catholic Church, resounds with the joy of the mystery of divine salvation.
The bishop offered this prayer: “We pray this evening that all who come to worship, celebrate the divine liturgy, and to pray here in this church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, may find here a ‘seat of wisdom’, to invoke the attribution in the litany of Our Lady.”
He then addressed those present: “Dear Monsignor Wach and members of the Institute: this evening, as you anchor your pastoral service in this church and within the life of the Diocese of Down and Connor, we pray that you will find a home and feel at home here amongst us in the matrix of the diverse Christian communities in this city.”
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was then celebrated for the first time ever in this church. The Sacrifice of the Cross is now renewed every day on the altar of this splendid church, bringing newfound hope to Catholics in Belfast and saving a majestic edifice once condemned to fade into obscurity. The Blessed Sacrament now dwells in this church’s tabernacle at all times, and there is daily Eucharistic Adoration. Our Lord Jesus Christ has received an early Christmas gift – a new house!
We in the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest extend to all our profound gratitude for your prayers for our community in Ireland. From the Sacred Heart Church in Limerick and the Church of the Immaculate Heart in Belfast, we keep all readers and friends of the Catholic Voice in our prayers, especially during this Christmas season.
Please come and see the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Belfast! Greet Canon Heppelle, the Institute’s priest in charge of this apostolate, and the community members.
Contact: Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary – Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest – 577, Antrim Road -Fortwilliam – Belfast BT15 3BU.
(For donations, please make out your cheque to “Institute of Christ the King” and send it to:18 Shangarry Park – Belfast Northern Ireland BT14 8JD or use the Institute website: www.institute-christ-king.ie)
Sunday: 11 am: Mass
Monday to Friday: (except Wednesdays)
– 6 pm: Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament
– 7 pm: Mass
Wednesday: 8 am Mass (No 6 pm adoration, no 7 pm Mass)
– 10.30 am: Devotions to the Immaculate Heart of Mary
– 11 am: Mass (followed by Benediction on First Saturdays)