The Story of Whitehouse
Whitehouse congregation was formed in 1866, we have a couple of baptisms from that time in our baptismal book. We know from the Belfast newsletter that the foundation stone from the building was laid on the first January 1867. And the opening service for the new Presbyterian church which to quote the Belfast Newsletter had “just been completed in the village” was conducted by Rev Dr Henry Cooke at 12 noon on Sunday 24th November 1867. “The venetian gothic style of architecture now so much in vogue has been adopted and the structure is much admired. Taking into account the very modest expenditure which will not exceed £1700 it must be considered highly credible to all concerned”
The first two ministers stayed very briefly – the first Rev Hugh Smyth left after 6 years to go to America and the second Rev John Hewitt was appointed as a missionary to India after only two years– but when Rev Robert Barron was ordained here in 1875 he was to stay as minister for 50 years and after that as the senior minister.
In a pamplet written in 1935 Rev Dr Barron describes what he found when he first came to the area – “I found that the people of the villages were mostly employed in the flax spinning mills, for which Whitehouse has always been famous…… Work in the mills commenced at six o’clock and continued until half-past five o’clock, and men and women and little children turned out at that early hour, often in the cold dark winter mornings, with rain or snow falling thickly. Children in those days worked half time from ten years of age. Many of the women were old and worn and badly clothed, for necessity compelled them to work till extreme old age. There were no old-age pensions nor unemployed benefits in those days. I often hoped that I would live to see the hours of work shortened, and beginning not earlier than eight o’clock, and I have lived to see that day……..
The houses in which they lived were small, mostly one storey, whitewashed, with little accommodation for families, with no gas, no water, no sanitary arrangements or sewers; yet they were very cheerful at night, with good fires and filled with lovely children and a contented and, on the whole, happy people. The wages were small, and the hours of work long, yet few of the people grumbled or complained. They faced life boldly, and endured bravely its hardships. Some of the rows of houses had quaint and pretty names such as “Garden Square,” “Dandy Row,” “Maidens’ Row.”
Earlier in 1914 in his autobiography Dr Barron had written “Although such a busy place and so closely connected with Belfast the district has its own distinctive character and life and the people of Whitehouse shore are a distinct people and differ in many ways from their neighbours in the city; and strangers coming to reside in it soon fall into its ways and become part of its life.”
Dr Barron goes on to tell the story of a Sabbath School teacher telling the story of the Prodigal son to her infant class – when one of the boys in the class went home to tell the story he explained the prodigals first wrong step – “he left the shore and he went to the town”.
Dr Barron had a special concern for the people of Whitewell two miles from Whitehouse village – a place where there was no church or school for the children or any religious work in the district. He and others from the church started cottage meetings and eventually a school for the children of the area. He writes that one day one of the local men stopped him and asked: “Why do you come all the way from the shore to Whitewell?”
I replied, “To hold meetings and do the people good.”
“But,” said he, “nobody ever comes to hold meetings at Whitewell. On Sundays, the people play cards, fight cocks, and get drunk.”
I invited him to the cottage meetings, and he said, “If you come all the way from Whitehouse to preach to us, it is as little as we can do to come to hear you”
“In 1891 a day-school was commenced in the building under the National Board, and was very successful and prosperous under excellent teachers. Some people did not sympathize with the work carried on. It was too unsectarian. At a meeting of the Belfast Presbytery, the Rev. Dr. Johnston made an attack upon me for encouraging “a nondescript evangelism that is ruining the world.” But none of these things moved me or the other friends, and we went on with the work…….
Mrs Barron taught woman’s bible study in the school hall while Dr Barron taught the men, he writes of his wife “In studying the epistle to the Hebrews Mrs Barron adopted Professors Harnack’s view that it was written by a woman; by Priscilla the wife of Aquilla. She called it the woman’s epistle and she and the class took more interest in it on that account.”
“A sad disaster befell us. On November 20th, 1928, the schoolroom was destroyed by fire, and all our meetings and Gospel work in it came to an end. However, we did not give way to despair. Certain buildings of the Belfast Tramway Co. were placed at our disposal, and rented to us, and the day-school was removed thither, and has been continued there until the present day.”
The present day he talks about was 1935 – the need for the church to maintain a school has long since gone but in this congregation we still look to see what a difference we can make in our surrounding community and we still aim to be unsectarian…….
Some of our older members remember Dr Barron – he celebrated the 60th anniversary of his ordination in 1935 and died in 1942.
The minister who succeeded him in 1926 was the Rev James Nutt who remained a bachelor all his life but was very well cared for by the women of the congregation.
He was known to visit the mill on a Monday and have the odd word with any worker who had missed church on Sunday!! Actually he was coming to speak the treasurer who kept the church’s accounts but he used the opportunity to catch up with any worker who ahd been missing the day before.
While Rev Fergie Marshall was here the centenary anniversary of the church was celebrated in 1967 and the whole area was flooded in the early 70s and what were then the new halls were built in 1972. During Fergie’s time we had woman elders ordained for the first time. May Jamison & Evelyn Snowball were amongst those first women elected.
In Rev Dennis McKillen’s time we had our first major arson attack, and there are pictures of him in overalls surveying the damage and buckling down to do what he could do to help. There was also a major thrust to reach out to young people at that time. And what was then known as the Contact Club was formed – some of the members of that youth group are elders and leaders of our congregation today.
When Allen Sleith came here as minister a new project “Moving beyond sectarianism” was set up and we have never looked back. Building good relationships with our neighbours in this community is one of our main objectives as a congregation.
And that was clearly demonstrated when the building was finally demolished by fire in August 2002. I came here as minister in December 2000 and don’t say a word but I year and eight months later (and three arson attacks later) the church was reduced to a shell.
Rebuilding took 2 and half years but we weren’t idle – the congregation grew – the regular morning congregation grew by at least 50% – Doreen our Deaconess joined us in 2004 and later regular PCUSA Young Adult Volunteers came to serve for a year at a time alongside our young people.
We were rebuilt and into our new building in February 2005.
Amalgamated with Duncairn and St Enochs in September 2005 and some of the Duncairn and St Enochs elders joined with our elders to form the newly amalgamated Kirk Session.
In the summer of 2008 we were flooded out and scattered to the fourwinds – back into our building in March 2009 – we had a challenging time simply getting everyone back again.
All this building and rebuilding work inspired a number of our members to get involved in local and overseas Habitat for Humanity builds. A real enthusiasm for missional enterprise at home and overseas began to develop. Regular alpha courses were organised so that those who were becoming interested could explore faith for themselves. Our staff team was completed in 2015 when Bobby Orr joined us first as a student assistant and then as an assistant Minister.
Jonathan Newell one of our own elders was licensed as probationer for the Christian minsitry in 2016 and now serves as an Assistant in Cooke Centenary.
From 2013 to 2016 we signed up through the Connected Chruch programme to an initial 3 year project with Tear Fund Rwanda. That relationship extended to a twinning with the local Presbyterian Church in Gikondo, Kigali. It has been a major learning experience for us as a congregation – primarily in the area of peace and reconciliation because the experience of the church in Rwanda has much to teach us. We have had various folks visiting in both directions and now look forward to friends from Rwanda joining us for our 150th Anniversary in November 2017.
Who knows what new things God will have in store for us as the year progresses.
The Mission of Whitehouse Presbyterian Church is:
- To worship God together
- To follow Jesus Christ
- To share the Good News of His love in the power of His Spirit
To this end, we commit ourselves
- To make our resources available
- To work to improve community relations
- To care for the needs of the wider world