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On a sun drenched but blustery Sunday, 8th May 2011 a large congregation of over 300 members, friends and visitors assembled in the 1711 constructed Meeting House in Downpatrick to celebrate 300 years of continual worship by many generations of Presbyterians. Rev Dr David Steers conducted the service and following the Introit ‘Holy, Holy, Holy!’ by the visiting choir the Minister in his opening words especially welcomed the Moderator of the General Synod and minister of Dromore, Rademon and Ravara, the Rt Rev Samuel J. Peden, FIPurM, CMPM; the guest Preacher Rev Dr John W. Nelson BA, BD, Clerk of the Presbytery of Antrim and minister of Raloo and Ballycarry; the Clergy of the Denomination and the District, and Mr E. O’Neill, the Chairman of the Down District Council. The evidence of being a liberal denomination was evident by the cross-section of those attending. During the service the Donaghadee Male Voice Choir, Accompanied by Mr I. Black and Directed by Mr R. Wilson MBE performed a number of items including: ‘Every time I hear the spirit’, ‘I need Thee every hour’, ‘I hear a voice that calls me to him’, ‘I am coming home’, and a medley of ‘Let there be peace on earth’, ‘Swing low sweet chariot’ and ‘Amen, Amen’. The congregation had no hesitation in applauding these highly enjoyable items. The congregational hymns: ‘We love the place, O God’, Praise to the Lord’, ‘Guide me, O thou great Jehovah’ and ‘Our Father, by whose servants’ were accompanied by our Organist Mrs. Betty Taylor. We thank our organist, and members from Ballee and Downpatrick who made up the combined choir. The Reading from Isaiah Ch. 51 v. 1-8 was taken by Mr. Stephen McMullan and that from James Ch. 1 v16-25 by Miss Anna Ferguson. Rt Rev S. Peden dedicated a new plaque Commemorating the Ministers of the Congregation. In doing so Rev Peden paid homage to the service of the 23 ministers listed and thanked the members of the congregation who felt it fitting to pay their respects in this manner.
The congregation was asked to stand for the ceremony. Following this Mr Peden pronounced the Prayers of Intercession in which he appealed for the needs of the community both near and far. Rev Dr J. Nelson began his sermon by noting that who and what we are has been shaped by where we are in place and time with up to 16 generations in the present building and as many as 20 generations since the founding of the congregation in the 1640s. In each generation, said Dr Nelson, the Ministers who led their people had endeavoured to explain the Christian faith, to baptise, to marry and to bury the members. Rev Nelson explained the difficulties of ministering in both political and religious turbulence. He set the scene for the eventual erection of the Meting house by ‘painting’ a montage of the early preachers. How John Fleming had ministered in both Ballee and Downpatrick, travelling into the districts and eventually being ousted. After a gap of ten years when many ministers fled to Scotland the congregation called Rev Archibald Young who also retired in 1689. Increased wealth and church attendance during this time led the congregation to think of a new building. Ballee had already erected its own building and during the ministry of Rev Thomas Jackson settlement closer to the town was a possibility. In 1710 the Stream Street site was acquired from the Southwell Estate and by 1711 the present building was opened. Apart for the roof which was upgraded possibly from thatch to slate in the following century, the original structure, one of very few has remained intact. This T shaped meeting house is now an A listed historical building. We know the minister’s room and vestry were added between 1720 and 1729 at which time it was likely the stairs to the east and west galleries were enclosed. Dr Nelson informed the gathering that in 1714 the church doors had been nailed up but due to the death of Queen Anne the building was reopened. It is understood the building was never again closed other than for restoration purposes when alternative venues were used for the services. With the arrival of Rev Thomas Nevin began three generations of his family and throughout all the Non-Subscription challenged the congregation remained loyal to their minister. This liberal attitude of our members has survived to this day. Rev Nelson recalled stories from the everyday life of Rev S.C. Nelson who ministered for 56 years. His diaries recorded graphic pictures of his duties between 1835 and 1837. And said Dr J. Nelson so it is today for Rev Dr Steers when the congregation meets to worship and crosses the border of time and faith. The members were congratulated on reaching this historical moment. The celebrations concluded with refreshments and our members are thanked for their kindness in providing and serving these. All who helped in the preparation of this event is rewarded by its great success. The Committee also acknowledges the attendance of so many of our denominational ministers and several who sent apologies and donations. The collection in aid of church funds was in excess of £1,000 and we sincerely thank everyone for their generosity.
On the evening of Tuesday, 1st November a large gathering came to the Stream Street meeting-house of the First Presbyterian Church (Non-Subscribing), Downpatrick for the formal launch of the new history of the congregation written by Church Secretary, Miss Mary Stewart. The evening was chaired by the minister, Rev Dr David Steers, and included musical items provided by Jack Steers on the trumpet and Alfie McClelland on the organ. The ladies of the church provided an excellent range of refreshments. The main speaker of the evening was the Rev Dr John Nelson, Clerk of the Presbytery of Antrim, who gave an amusing and interesting account of some of the main points in the congregation’s history. Copies of the book cost £15 and are available from the church.
The First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church in Downpatrick warmly welcomed a visit from the members of the Presbyterian Historical Society on the evening of Thursday, 17 th February 2011. Rev Dr David Steers welcomed the gathering and suitably outlined the origins of the Meeting House. Following a prayer Mrs Betty Taylor, Organist accompanied the hymn ‘Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven’. Rev Dr John Nelson, vice-president of the Society, introduced the speaker Dr Dónall MacDónaill of Trinity College, Dublin. Dr MacDónaill a native of Carlingford delivered a most informative talk on Presbyterianism in the area. Using a Power Point presentation the speaker demonstrated the wealth of research he had undertaken to prepare the topic. He outlined the areas he hoped to address and began by revealing the topographical features of the district. He traced the historical implications of the rule from England and the uniqueness of Carlingford Lough. We saw illustrations of many pieces of documentation including old maps, photographs and hand written sermons. Dr MacDónaill traced the careers of the first Presbyterians and civilians who had influenced the social life of the area. Confirmation of the original church was well featured in maps and photographs. In addition Dr Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, Traditional Singer in Residence at Queen’s University, Belfast was present. She had researched music to accompany some relevant poetry written for the McNeill family of Ballymascanlon, Presbyterian Gaelic speakers who had come originally from Kintyre. Everyone enjoyed her singing of these pieces in Irish, the first time they had been heard for over three hundred years. The evening concluded with refreshments, a visit to the book stall and of course plenty of chat. Once again we are indebted to Mrs Annabel Cleland for co-ordinating the supper and our generous members who provided and served the food.
Dr Dónall MacDónaill of Trinity College, Dublin, speaker, Rev Dr John Nelson, Vice-President of the Society who chaired the meeting, and Dr Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, Traditional Singer in Residence at Queen’s University, Belfast at the Presbyterian Historical Society meeting held at Downpatrick Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church on 17th February.
The Annual Children’s Day Service was held in Downpatrick on Sunday 12th June 2011 and was conducted by Rev. Dr. David Steers. Continuing with the tercentenary year’s celebrations of the church, the adults and children dressed in period costumes covering the 300 year span from 1711 when as Dr. Steers reminded the gathering Rev. Thomas Nevin was ordained and installed in the same building. Today our ancestors would have not only been familiar with the dress of the congregation but also the virtually intact building. It was a joyful occasion and one which we hope will be remembered for a long time. The Sunday School Scholars processional hymn was ‘Jesus loves me’ and following this assembled at the front of the church the young people led the rest of the service. Prayers and readings were linked together with hymns for which the pupils had won denominational awards. These included ‘Daniel was a man of God’, ‘At the name of Jesus’, ‘One more step’, and a Children’s Hymn written by Rev. David Gordon, our minister 1871-1893. The children took up the collection on behalf of the Multiple Sclerosis Society following which Dr. Steers presented the prizes for attendance and examinations. Other congregational hymns sung were ‘Seek ye first’ and ‘God make my life a little light’. Rev. Steers thanked the Teachers Miss Marion Moffett and Mrs. Annabel Cleland, the organist Mrs Betty Taylor and all who had helped the children achieve such successes in the denominational examinations.