RAILWAY STREET, LISBURN
On 10th January 1962, the Presbytery of Dromore installed me to the pastoral oversight of Railway Street Presbyterian Church, Lisburn. It was a most impressive and moving service. In his Charge the Rev Thomas McIlroy spoke of the mammoth task which awaited the new Minister, developing his message from the words of Mordecai in the Book of Esther, Chapter 4, verse 14,
'Who knoweth whether thou art come to the Kingdom for such a time as this'.
Railway Street was one of the best known churches in the General Assembly. None of its ministers ever left to go to another congregation, though two, J L Biggar and T H Robinson, had become Professors in Magee University College, Londonderry, and Dr R W Hamilton was Moderator of the General Assembly in 1924. At the Congregational Reception following my Installation, the Senior Elder, Mr. Archie Hadden, spoke eloquently of the distinguished list of ministers who had occupied Railway Street pulpit throughout the previous hundred years. He then
turned to me and he said, "! do not advise you to seek to emulate your predecessors, but to be yourself and bring your own gifts". Imagine the reaction the following week when in the local paper the banner headlines on the front page read,
`NEW MINISTER IS ADVISED
TO EMULATE HIS PREDECESSORS!'
I resolved by God's Grace that I would be myself in seeking to be faithful to my High Calling. My first service was one that was highly charged for me. The Organist had chosen as the opening Praise, Psalm 92, to the tune `Howard'. My commencement sermon was on Paul's words in Ephesians Chapter 3 Verse 21
"Unto God be glory in the Church by Jesus Christ throughout all ages. "That text became my watchword throughout my ministry in Railway Street.
When I accepted the Call I had no idea where we would be living. All I knew was that the congregation had sold the Fort Manse on Fort Hill and had bought another house on Magheralave Road, but that was the sum total of my knowledge. When we came to see the house which was to become our new home, Kathleen and I were somewhat taken aback when we saw the antiquated nature of the kitchen quarters. However we were assured that a major job of modernising and updating would be undertaken. We could see the basic quality of the house and we were happy to wait for the outcome. Eventually the work was completed and we moved into No 31, which was to become for us a very comfortable and happy home for the next three decades and more.
It was significant that the Church had bought this house from Mr. James Hanna whose wife had been born in Enniskillen Manse, the daughter of the Rev Cuthbert Mitchell. Mrs. Hanna and her daughter, Mrs. Joan Bass, took great pleasure in seeing their former home becoming the Manse.
The property in Railway Street was in need of considerable up-dating. One of the first tasks that faced me after I arrived was the complete refurbishment of the Lecture Hall, whose only form of heating was from two coke-burning stoves in the middle of the floor. There was no permanent platform and the only seats were long uncomfortable forms. The tiny little dark kitchen had a leaking roof and only one wooden jaw-tub for washing up. Building a new kitchen, entrance hall and toilets, re-plastering the walls, installing new floors, ceilings, heating, lighting, chairs, platform etc. completely transformed the building and brought it up to date to accommodate a range of new organizations which
I was anxious to see started for different age groups within the congregation.
These new organisations included an Indoor Bowling Club, a Young Women's Group, Anchor Boys, Bunnies, later renamed Rainbow Guides, Fellowship of Youth, Mid-Week Bible Study Fellowship, Beginners Sunday School and Nursery. These all proved to be great assets to the life and fellowship of the Church.
I was surprised to find that in the Church there were no Sanctuary furnishings apart from the pulpit and organ. While the Choir were restricted to a small
'choir box'. This I found was very difficult especially for Baptisms, Weddings, Funerals, etc.
After considerable thought I produced a scale plan which I presented to the Session. Knowing that previous suggestions along this line had proved abortive, I coupled my plan with a costing of the main items and suggested that the scheme be carried through as a memorial to my predecessors,
the late Dr John Knox Elliott and Professor T H Robinson. The idea was well received and
eventually was unanimously approved. Three pews were removed, a raised platform was erected for the choir, a Communion Table and Minister's Chair, Lectern, Baptismal Font, Wedding Kneelers and Choir Chairs were installed and the whole area carpeted. It was a happy day on Sunday
5th May, 1963, when the reopening and Dedication Service was held - much to the delight of the congregation.
Prior to my arrival there had been no ladies on the Kirk Session, even though they had been eligible for election on the same terms as men for the previous fifty years. At an early election of Elders however, two were chosen by the Congregation, Vivienne Weir and Irene McCormick. They proved to be such hard-working and valuable Elders that in subsequent elections a succession of ladies were ordained to the Eldership including, Myrtle Henderson, Doreen Anderson, Mena Williamson, Edith McConnell, Gladys Brown, Heather Henry and Sadie Meban. Their contribution to the life of the congregation was invaluable. Some like Vivienne Weir and Edith McConnell also gave outstanding service on various commissions of Presbytery and Boards of the General Assembly.
Parish visitation took up a lot of my time, as I was anxious to meet the people in their homes. This was much appreciated and proved very beneficial to me. Visitation can also yield some unexpected experiences.
One afternoon I called at a small house in the Tullynacross area. The outer door was open so I knocked the inner door and heard a voice saying
`Come on in'. Accordingly I lifted the latch and came into the kitchen but found no one there. When I looked out of the window I saw old Mrs. Lewis in the garden, obviously unaware that anyone had called. I was puzzled for I was sure I had heard her calling, "Come on
in". Then as I looked around the kitchen I saw her parrot in the corner. It was undoubtedly the
best talking parrot I ever came across. Not only could it mimic Mrs. Lewis, but also the postman, the baker and others who were frequent callers. On subsequent visits I often enjoyed its chatter.
My final encounter with it however was the night Mrs. Lewis died. I had been called to her bedside about three o'clock in the morning, and as I ministered to the old lady with readings and prayers the parrot kept up an incessant chatter mimicking the sayings of poor old Mrs. Lewis and others who came to her door.
After Mrs. Lewis died some members of the family took care of the parrot. Sometimes in the summer they put a chain on its leg and allowed it to wander in the garden. One day a neighbour came to the door saying a cat had attacked the parrot, but when the owners went down the garden they discovered the parrot had the last word - the cat was dead!
Soon after I came to Lisburn I started a Counselling Hour every Tuesday evening at 7 o'clock. This very quickly caught on and often there was a virtual full `surgery' waiting for me on Tuesday. This meant dealing with all kinds of matters both practical and spiritual. Those sessions were often exhausting but they were most beneficial. They were a great time saver too for in such interviews one could get down to business straight away and so a whole series of issues could be dealt with in one evening. It was also very acceptable to the parishioners for they knew they could see me if they went to the Church at the appointed time.
The Congregation had embarked on a Christian Stewardship programme during the vacancy. This idea was excellent and no doubt would have worked well if the people had been prepared for truly sacrificial giving on the basis of genuine tithing. Some rather foolish statements had been made during the campaign to the effect that having adopted the Stewardship Programme there would be no need for any special collections or money raising efforts such as Sales of Work etc. as all needed
money would come from direct giving. This was not possible, however, without truly sacrificial giving by the whole congregation. Instead of Stewardship promoting generosity and openness it had the opposite effect and many people used it as an excuse for not giving to various good causes. One of my first tasks was to free the P.W.A, from the Stewardship programme. The result was that the P.W.A. became a very strong organisation raising thousands of pounds every year for Missionary Work at home and
abroad. For over 31 years my wife, Kathleen, was the popular and beloved president of the P.W.A. During that time she guided its affairs with devotion, wisdom, charm and grace. New members joined and kept joining, so that the organisation was continually renewed and vital. Her ladies, as she always called them, became her very dear friends, and they loved her in return.
In the ministry one has to be ready for all eventualities, such as, for example:
A Lost Funeral!
The funeral was going a long distance and I had a splitting headache. Kathleen suggested that rather than travelling in a limousine full of people, some of whom might be smoking, she would drive me to the family home for the service and then follow the hearse on its lengthy journey to a remote part of County Tyrone, thus allowing me to relax, close my eyes and hopefully the headache would pass.
When the service was completed the cortege started its long trail which, we assumed, would go via the Ml and on to Dungannon, Omagh and beyond. At traffic lights in Lisburn we became separated from the hearse - it got through and we did not. On the green light Kathleen made as swiftly as speed limits and Lisburn traffic would permit for the Motorway - no sign of the hearse! Throwing caution to the wind she put her foot to the
floor, the speedometer rose to 90 - no sign of the hearse! On approaching Moira my driver decided that no funeral was going to be travelling at this speed and this one must have gone north of Lough Neagh. So she exited the Ml and headed at speed for Nutts Comer, Aldergrove and Antrim. On reaching the latter she stopped at the police station, explained that we had "lost" a funeral and was allowed to phone the Lisburn undertaker. The deceased had been killed in a road accident and the cortege had taken the main Lisburn to Moira route, not the Motorway, in order to pass the scene of the fatality
-but no one had thought to tell me. The funeral was then proceeding on the M 1 on the route we had originally taken.
My chauffeuse returned to the car and took off like a jet aircraft - we were on the north side of the Lough and the funeral on the south. By the time we finally reached the cemetery an hour or so later and at a very high speed we both had blinding headaches, which didn't improve on sighting mourners LEAVING the cemetery!
I decided - this is it, one of a minister's worst nightmares had happened to me. Then I spotted a Church of Ireland rector accompanying them and breathed a sigh of relief - it was his funeral, not mine!
We sat in the car and waited and waited and waited till eventually Kathleen looked up over a nearby wheat-covered field.
"Am I dreaming or do I see something like a mobile flowerbed winding its way down through that wheat?'
; she asked. I looked, and sure enough it was the roof of the flower-bedecked hearse, which had been driven by highways and byeways past countryside homes of various relatives of the deceased, before I was finally allowed to lay his mortal remains to rest in the appointed grave.
Kathleen and I stopped off later for a quiet meal and to recover. Neither of us will ever forget the day we lost a funeral!
Music has an important part to play not only in stirring people spiritually and emotionally, but also in fostering a greater sense of fellowship. People are reached at different levels. Some people have no musical appreciation whatsoever like one good lady who told me she wouldn't know the difference between
'God Save the Queen' and 'The Sash my Father Wore!' yet she would never have stayed away from a Musical Service, such was her loyalty and commitment. There are those who only have an ear for
'Pop Music' and so we had a service from time to time to cater for their taste. I found it interesting, however, to see how young people often outgrew the
'pop culture' and developed an appreciation for the more classical forms of music. Maintaining the tradition of Stainer's Crucifixion, Nine Lessons and Carols and Handel's Messiah kept a constant reminder before the congregation that in music as in everything else we ought to offer the best to God
Throughout my ministry we have been richly blessed with a number of very good organists and none better than our present Musical Director, Mr Peter Wilson, who came to us when he was still a student at Queen's University in 1973 and
has given outstanding service for the past 26 years. We were fortunate to have an excellent choir to lead the praise and provide a special anthem morning and evening each Sunday. Being a member
of the Church choir gave my wife great pleasure for they were such a harmonious group of people and, like them, she loves `good music'. They were the first choir in Dromore Presbytery to be presented with robes and they looked resplendent when they wore them for the first time for
`Nine Lessons and Carols' on 20 December 1967.
With a full church, inspiring singing and superb music there Through Changing Scenes
was always a great feeling of uplift in our services of Worship so that many went away saying,
"It was good for us to be here, for here we met with the Lord"
To celebrate our twentieth anniversary in Railway Street, Laura Shies a highly esteemed member of the congregation, wrote the following poem:
|TO THE CROMIES ON THEIR ANNIVERSARY
It hardly seems like twenty years,
It scarcely seems like ten,
Since Mr Cromie came to us,
Yet I remember when
The congregation waited
So eagerly to see What kind of pastor, preacher, friend
This new man was to be.
We pledged our earnest loyalty
To him and to his wife,
And hoped his little boys would find
With us a happy life.
And as the years went on, we joined
To celebrate their joys,
When two small girls came to the Manse
To join the little boys.
And now a score of years have passed
What changes we have seen!
And more and mare we realize
How lucky we have been.
These have been years when tragedy
Could drive our country mad,
And in the Congregation
Our share of loss we've had.
Through Changing Scenes
Yet how much happiness and love
There is for us to share,
And in our joys and sorrows
Our Minister is there
So to the Family at the Manse
Our thanks and wishes true.
May all the many years to come
Bring happiness to you.
(From Laura with love.)
(Sadly Laura has since died so I treasure this poem all the more).
I found a great blessing through making full use of the special seasons and events of the Christian Year. They also
formed an excellent framework for teaching the whole orbit of Christian Doctrine. Well planned weekends on special themes and subjects were also most fruitful.
The B.B.C. also gave us the opportunity of frequent broadcast services. These always evoked a considerable response which proved the value of the spoken Word reaching people on the air waves near and far, in their homes, in hospital or as they travelled by car.
Soon after my arrival in Lisburn I was appointed Chaplain to Thompson Memorial Home, as it was then called. It had been built in 1885 in memory of Dr. James Thompson, a Lisburn surgeon who was greatly concerned for the physically disabled in the area. In time, however, the building became greatly in need of modernisation and so in 1967 the trustees transferred it to the National Health Service. After complete refurbishment it continues to provide outstanding care for people with a wide range
of disabilities. It is now known as Thompson House Memorial Hospital under the management of Down Lisburn Trust.
Some of the patients are there for short-term care while others have been
resident for many years and they have become my friends. It is my privilege to
visit them on a regular basis and to conduct services for them. I would pay
tribute to the valuable assistance given in those services by Dr Ruth Patterson,
our pianist, and other ladies from Harmony Hill. Those services are an
inspiration. The patients are generally so cheerful and appreciative they would
put physically fit people to shame. Invariably I leave Thompson House uplifted
spiritually through having met and stared with my little congregation there. The
staff have my warm appreciation for the love and care which they show to the
patients, and they are all most helpful to me as a Chaplain
The 1960's was a decade of considerable growth and development. Lisburn was elevated to the status of a Borough in 1964. The first Mayor, Alderman James Howard, J.P., and the first Deputy Mayor, Alderman Arthur Bowman, were both members of Railway Street Congregation, as were several of the
Councillors. I had the privilege of being appointed as the Mayor's Chaplain.
Community relations in Lisburn were harmonious and good. The Mayor saw to it that ay far as all council housing was concerned the communities were mixed. Because of that no sectarian ghettos developed in Lisburn as had happened in some other
urban areas in the Province.
A large new housing development began with the building of the Old. Warren and Knockmore Estates, both within Railway Street
Parish area. It soon became evident to me that these developments were so large that they needed a new church of their
own. My Kirk Session agreed and so we brought a Resolution to Presbytery and to the General Assembly's Church Extension Committee. In due time St Columba's Church Extension charge was inaugurated, the Rev Malcolm Scott became the first Minister and I preached at the opening service on Whit Sunday,
6th June, 1965. St Columba's became Railway Street's first daughter congregation.
Railway Street congregation continued to expand with the development of new housing in the Ballymacash area so that once again I encouraged the Kirk Session to request Church Extension to commence a new congregation. The first stone of the new building was laid in 1976 and the Rev Robert Lockhart was installed at a Service in Railway Street Church on 2nd May 1976. The new Church to be known as Elmwood was opened the following January. As Church Extension Convener I had the privilege of opening their new suite of Halls on
28th September 1981.
The development of two new Congregations formed within Railway Street parish area gave me great pleasure and satisfaction as evidence of the Grace of God at work.
Evangelical outreach was always a major thrust of my ministry and this resulted in a considerable growth in the congregation. While it is statistically true that most people come to profess their faith in Jesus Christ in their teenage years, so in most congregations Communicant Classes are geared for that age group, I found, however, that there were also many people of more mature years who were coming to faith in Christ. Because of that I began the practice of holding separate classes for adults. As a result of the first of these we received 53 adults as new communicants. Some of these had come from other traditions and had never been baptised, and so I had the joy of baptising them before receiving them to Communion. While numbers varied I never had a year without some adults as well as
teenagers coming forward to confess their faith in Jesus Christ and to become Communicant Members of His Church.
The `Y' Club
The Y W.C.A. had a property in Wallace Avenue known as Pym House. It had served a useful purpose for many years providing young people who had come to live in Lisburn with modest accommodation at very cheap rates. In time, however, such accommodation lost its appeal so the committee in charge recognised that the time had come for a change of direction in the use of the building. .
One of our Elders, Harold Patterson, and his wife, Meta, were very interested in youth work. They set the wheels in motion and eventually Pym House, after major refurbishment, became the centre of the Y Club. This proved to be a most successful venture, providing young people throughout the community with a great variety of leisure facilities within a Christian context. Railway Street young people were greatly involved in it and derived much benefit from it. For many years Harold and Meta organised very enjoyable Easter Camps at Ballycastle and summer camps in Scotland, mainly at Balfron. Over the years hundreds of young people attended those camps and many were led to a personal faith in Christ through them. Many of them also found their life's partners
there as well.
I have always regarded youth work, whether uniformed organisations such as the Boys' Brigade and the Guides, or non-uniformed organisations such as the Y Club, or the Sunday Night Youth Fellowship as being of prime importance in the life and growth of a congregation. Sunday School teachers and youth leaders have my unbounded admiration.
Maturing in Service
It has been very gratifying to see many of our young people maturing in the Christian life and going on to make a real contribution to the common good of their fellow men in a great variety of professions and walks of life.
I was particularly pleased to see a number responding to the call of God to serve Him in the Ministry of His Church. James Briggs is now Minister of my home congregation, Scarva Street, Banbridge; Norman Brown is minister of Wellington Street, Ballymena; George McClelland is Minister of Magheragall; Kenneth McConnell is Minister of First and Second Boardmills
and Killaney; Philip McConnell is Minister of Waringstown and Trevor Patterson is Vicar of Holy Trinity Church of England, Richmond, Surrey.
Some of the girls in our Youth Fellowship also became ministers' wives, like
Lorna Watt, married to Norman Brown, Margaret McAuley, married to Maynard Cathcart of Waterside, Londonderry, Doreen Anderson, married to Robert Beckett of Crumlin, and Pamela Power, married to Leslie Addis of Buckna.
There is nothing finer than to see young people finding their fulfillment in the service of Jesus Christ. T H Gill expresses it so well in
that lovely hymn:
"Lord in the fulness of my might,
I would for Thee be strong:
While runneth o'er each dear delight,
To Thee should soar my song
O choose me in my golden time,
In my dear joys have part!
For thee the glory of my prime,
The fulness of my heart!"
On 12th March 1956, our first child was born in Enniskillen. It was a great thrill when the telephone rang with a message from the Nursing Home to say that Alan William Thomas had arrived and mother and baby were fine. I was anxious to go immediately to welcome our newborn son, so I put on my coat and was just going out through the door as the telephone rang again. When I answered it I was given an urgent message asking me to go as soon as possible to one of the families in my congregation whose only son - a teenage boy - had just been killed in a road accident.
One can only imagine how mixed were my emotions swinging from delight at the first phone call to shock and sorrow at the second. Of necessity my visit to see my wife and my firstborn son had to be brief as I then had to hasten to the home of those parents distraught at the death of their only boy, to be with them in their sorrow.
I am recounting this incident to indicate how emotionally draining are the sudden changes in situations that swing between extremes of joy and sorrow with which a Minister has to cope.
Two-and-a-half years later our second son, David Howard Alexander was born on 22nd
October, 1958, Alan was overjoyed to have a little brother to be a playmate, but he could hardly wait for David to grow up to be able to kick football! On one cold
afternoon when David was in his pram on the lawn Kathleen noticed all of his blankets etc on the grass
and Alan searching for something in the pram. She rushed over to see what was happening and asked Alan, 2 years old, what be was doing. He replied,
'I am looking for David's teeth, for he hasn't any in his mouth!'
When we arrived in Railway Street, Lisburn in January 1962, we had our two little boys, Alan aged 5 years and David aged 3 years. This was very much in keeping with past tradition, in that the only Manse children previously had been boys. We broke with tradition, however, when on
13th June 1963, Gillian Kathleen Anne was born. She was given a great welcome as the first daughter of Railway Street Manse in the congregation's history of over 100 years. Even greater was her welcome within the family. I remember well the day Kathleen arrived home from hospital with Gillian in her carry cot. Alan and David were so thrilled that they ran upstairs to their bedroom. Alan brought down his favourite teddy bear and David his pet knitted monkey, their prized possessions, and gave them to their baby sister, tucking them into the cot beside her. It was such a lovely, spontaneous, unselfish expression of welcome.
Our joy was further increased when on 9th December 1965, Fiona Margaret Eileen arrived. What a wonderful early Christmas present. Ever since Fiona has made Christmas a special time for all of us.
Family life was rich for us with our two sons and two daughters. The Manse made a wonderful home for them. It was such a fine spacious welcoming house with expansive grounds, The children had a marvellous time, climbing trees, building tree houses, playing in the bushes in the large garden and in the orchard - often joined by their friends. Throughout those 'growing up' years we were fortunate to have John Galbraith as our
gardener. He was the essence of patience, and completely trustworthy. Many a cut knee he bandaged, many a puncture he mended and many a tear he wiped away. John was with us until he died, just a few weeks before we retired.
In their 'growing up' years, our children developed a strong bond of trust with their grandmother. She became their confidante and they learned much from her. Mrs Moore had a good understanding of young people, she enjoyed their pranks and
their fun, while at the same time she had the art of sharing her wisdom with them, without ever giving the impression of
`talking down' to them. A wise and good grandmother is a great blessing to any family. Our children will always treasure the memory of their granny and are ever grateful that they had her until they were adults.
After local schooling Alan boarded for a number of years at The Royal School, Dungannon, likewise David was a boarder at Coleraine Academical Institution, while Gillian and Fiona attended Friends' School, Lisburn.
On leaving school Alan embarked on a business career which eventually led to the establishment of his own business as a wholesale supplier of Garden Furniture and Horticultural supplies. On
4th April 1977, Alan was married to Patricia Hall, daughter of Mr & Mrs Robert Hall of Glebe House, Rathfriland. They now live in Florida, U.S.A. and are richly blessed with a son, Neil and daughter Jennifer.
David went to Queens University, Belfast, and after graduating took up Accountancy. He is now Accountant for the Diocese of Connor, Down and Dromore in Church of Ireland House, Belfast. David married Anne Hinds, daughter of Mr and Mrs Henry Hinds of Innisfayle Road, Belfast, on 21st February 1987. They have two lovely children, Rebecca and Samuel.
Gillian went to Queen's University, Belfast, where she took an Honours Degree in History and proceeded to establish a very successful dress designing business known as
`Originalle by Gillian' specialising in wedding gowns. Gillian married Timothy William
Corrie, son of Mr and Mrs Victor Corrie of Hampton Park, Belfast, on 22nd
May 1990. Their first home was in Newcastle to be near Tim's shop - Thornton's Chemists - but soon afterwards they moved to a lovely house in Spa, Ballynahinch.
After leaving school Fiona became a Pharmaceutical Assistant in Boots, Lisburn. There she continued until her marriage to Harold Robinson, son of Mr and Mrs Ernest Robinson, Woodvale Farm, Boardmills, Lisburn. Their wedding was on
1st September 1984. We are not likely to forget Fiona's wedding for after one of the loveliest summers on record the weather suddenly broke and
1st September was a complete downpour. Yet it was a very happy day and one of the highlights of my Moderatorial year. Fiona and Harold have four lively young sons, Richard, Andrew, Stuart and Mark. When they are around there is never a dull moment on Woodvale Farm.
It is a great delight to us to see our family all very happily married so that now we have four delightful homes to visit and eight very entertaining grandchildren, all of whom
I had the pleasure of baptising.
It also gives us great satisfaction to know that they are all active, attending members of their respective churches and their children are being brought up
`in the nurture and admonition of the Lord', to appreciate 'the .joy of positive living' as Norman-Vincent Peale would have put it. There is no better foundation for life than a living faith in Jesus Christ, the Lord and Giver of all good life.
I found it difficult to realise that when I was born in 1928 the State of Northern Ireland had only been in existence for 6 years. Yet in my early schooldays it seemed as if it had been separate from the Irish Free State for decades.
As time went on, however, I became aware of the serious Troubles which had afflicted the whole Island in 1921-22 and which had resulted in the partitioning of the country. I also became increasingly aware of the fact that while the majority of people were loyal to the State of Northern Ireland and proud of their British Citizenship, there was also a minority who were not, and who looked to Dublin with a longing to be part of the Southern State.
While there were sporadic outbursts of violence from time to time, they were not considered to be of a serious nature and they never affected the community in which I was growing up. During the War years of 1939-45 the status quo was maintained largely undisturbed, so it continued throughout my college years. As students in Londonderry we could walk freely through the Bogside and other nationalist areas without the slightest cause for anxiety. When
I was at Trinity College Dublin, I had no feeling of living in an alien city; my friends and I enjoyed traversing its
`streets broad and narrow' and were quite at home in it. The same was true during my years in Belfast. My only mode of transport was a bicycle and I cycled up and down the Falls Road and the Shankill Road at all hours of the day and night with a completely esy mind.
Sadly, however, those peaceful, carefree days did not continue for long. Disruptive elements got to work sowing the seeds of dissent and resentment within the nationalist community and the seeds of fear and mistrust among the Unionists. This boded ill for the future.
Shakespeare says, "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players. " If this is so, then the stage on which the drama of my ministry was executed had a significant social and political backdrop. After only ministering for a year and a half in Enniskillen, IRA violence erupted. Their terrorist campaign continued from 1956 until 1960. The Territorial Army building was blown up, the RUC Training Depot was attacked, various RUC stations were bombed and people were killed or seriously injured. That campaign was mostly concentrated in Fermanagh and Tyrone.
The offensive was met by the RUC who strengthened their numbers with special units known as the RUC Reserve and an increased number of mobilised 'B' Specials, the Ulster Special Constabulary.
I had been appointed as Officiating Chaplain to the RUC Depot and as many of these personnel were Presbyterians from Counties Antrim and Down,
I saw it as my duty to minister to them and so I gained permission from the Bishop of Clogher to conduct afternoon services for these men in Inishmacsaint Parish Church near
Derrygonnelly because a large number of them were billeted in the Old Rectory beside the Church. This arrangement worked well and was much appreciated by the officers and men.
As time progressed the IRA suffered some heavy casualties.
They realised they were not going to win and so the campaign declined and finally ended in 1960. So I experienced another period of 18 months comparative peace in Enniskillen before leaving for Lisburn in January 1962.
The early 1960's was a period of considerable economic prosperity. The Northern Ireland Government, under the dynamic leadership of Brian Faulkner as Minister of Commerce, had attracted many international industrial firms to set up factories and Plants in the Province.
Commissions were set up for the development of towns such as Ballymena and Antrim, while plans were set in motion to build the new city of Craigavon. There was a general air of confidence and optimism abroad.
When Lord Brookborough retired as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland he was succeeded by Captain Terence O'Neill who set about seeking to normalise relations with the Irish Republic. He invited the Taoiscach, Sean Lemass, to visit Stormont and he also paid a return visit to Dublin. Most people appeared to welcome this attempt at rapprochement, however, a small vociferous element began stirring up opposition. Fears and prejudices were aroused, opposition grew and before long there were shouts of
'O'Neill must go!' The same slogan was used against each of O'Neill's successors!
At the same time there was an onslaught of verbal attacks on the Presbyterian Church accusing it of a Romeward Trend, heading for union with Rome. This was hard to imagine, when one thinks of how difficult it is to persuade two Presbyterian Congregations to unite it was hardly likely that the Presbyterian Church was going to unite with the Church of Rome! Nevertheless there are some people who will believe anything, and so protest demonstrations and marches were held in various parts of the country. These often resulted in confrontation with the
Through Changing Scenes Police, who were then accused of being 'Nazi Jackboots'.
Meanwhile the success of the Civil Rights Campaign in America encouraged some nationalists, mainly from the Roman Catholic community, to establish their own Civil Rights movement, which soon led to violent clashes not only with opposing factions but also with the Police.
All this had a de-stabilising effect on the community and caused a tragic reversal of its economic and social development. Civil unrest continued to increase throughout the latter part of the sixties until full-scale violence erupted in 1969 and continued for the next 30 years.
Throughout those years I had the awesome task of conducting the funerals of many IRA victims including members of the RUC and seeking to comfort their loved ones as well as ministering to the seriously injured and those whose business premises had been destroyed.
Lisburn was a prime target for terrorist bombs, no doubt partly because it was a garrison town with Theipval Barracks as the Headquarters of the army in Northern Ireland, but also because it was well known as a prosperous business centre. The result was that many buildings were either destroyed or badly damaged by a series of bomb attacks.
While Railway Street Church suffered some damage in these attacks, it was minor compared with the destruction experienced by First Lisburn when their beautiful stained glass windows were, on two occasions, blown in and the building severely damaged. Dr Cordon Gray, the minister, had the foresight to collect as much of the shattered stained glass as possible so that eventually he was able to have the pieces put together to form the beautiful Resurrection window. Not only is it highly acclaimed as an outstanding piece of art work, but it is also a moving witness to the faith and resilience of the minister and congregation of First
Lisburn. After Good Friday there is always The Resurrection Morning.
One Saturday afternoon my wife and I took Gillian and Fiona to a birthday party, and decided to go into Lisburn to do some shopping. I was driving my car along by the side of Railway Street Church towards the car park when suddenly we heard a loud explosion and then heard a heavy thud on the path just behind the car. When we got out to investigate we found there had been a bomb in a Post Office pillar box in Market Square and a large slab of metal from the pillar box had been blasted over the roofs of all the buildings including the Church and landed about a foot behind my car. If it had struck the roof of the car it would have gone through it like a carving knife. We had had a narrow escape.
Realising the town was thronged with shoppers we knew there were bound to be casualties, so my wife and I
rushed to the casualty department of the Lagan Valley Hospital. Soon the victims began arriving - some tragic sights. One man had his arm blown off at his shoulder; others had broken legs, head injuries and various lacerations. Within minutes a second pillar box exploded in Antrim Street bringing more casualties. One baby was blown out of its pram and was knocked unconscious while its mother was seriously injured. When they were brought in from the ambulance a nurse handed the baby to my wife who nursed it for an hour while its mother was attended to in theatre.
We spent the whole afternoon helping the doctors and nurses where we could and seeking to comfort the injured, their relations and friends, many of whom were suffering from shock. If ever Lisburn needed its Hospital it was that afternoon.
On 21th October 1974, Samuel Malcolm Gibson was gunned down by terrorists as he went about his normal work. He was a young man whose only concern was for the welfare of his wife
and family and the peace of his community. He was doing what he could for peace as a part-time member of the Territorial Army. His was the first terrorist related funeral it fell to my lot to conduct On that occasion I said,
"The tragedy is that Malcolm 's death is but the latest episode in a trail of horror that has stained our land for the
last five years and the sad thing is that that trial will be continued unless, through effective interventions, a halos called to it."
Sadly the trail of horror and bloodshed continued and on 27th January, 1976, a popular young member of my congregation, David
McGilton, was out enjoying himself with one of his friends, Peter Armstrong, from Finaghy, when both boys were shot dead at point blank range by the I.R.A. I shall never forget the feeling of total devastation at the news. David's father, Dr James McGilton, was my highly esteemed Clerk of Session and my very good friend. Both his parents were keen members of the Church, so David's death came with a great sense of personal loss to us all. Only the Grace of God brought the family through that tragedy.
Hitherto College and University Campuses had been spared terrorist attack until Friday
4th November 1983. That evening at the Jordanstown Campus of the New University of Ulster, a bomb exploded blowing up a Lecture Room in which a number of students including some young policemen were attending a class. Many of the students were seriously injured and two of them were killed, young Stephen Fyfe and his comrade Inspector Martin. Stephen was a young man of great promise, 28 years of age, married and with a little baby son. He had just received his first promotion in the R.U.C., then in a split second on that Friday evening he was cut down. At his funeral service in Railway Street Church I said,
"As this campaign of murder continues against our people I would repeat the appeal issued by our
General Assembly in June last for the implementing of measures that will bring this carnage to an end. No community can be wholesome, happy
or prosperous when the Rule of Law is flouted -and where it is not given the means to
One of my most trying experiences was being handed a note in the course of a Harvest Festival Service to say that one of our most faithful members, R.U.C. Superintendent Alwyn Harris bad been killed by a bomb placed under his car as he and his wife had been on their way to church. Alwyn died instantly but his wife escaped. I abandoned the sermon I had prepared and addressed the stricken congregation on the tragedy and sought to bring them comfort and guidance from God's Word. I proved the truth of Jesus' promises that in such an hour the words would be given.
I Had a similar experience on Remembrance Day, 1987, when I was preaching to a packed congregation with the Royal British Legion parade present.
A note was passed to me telling of the Massacre at the Cenotaph in Enniskillen in which eleven people had been killed including six members of my former congregation and all good friends of mine. Sixty-three others were injured, some permanently disabled. This was devastating news to have to convey to the congregation and in the light of which to preach God's saving message in the sermon.
For 31 years I was Officiating Chaplain to the Forces at Thiepval Barracks, the army headquarters for Northern Ireland. During that time I witnessed vast changes from the days when Thiepval was a very open camp, through which we used to walk on a Sunday afternoon. Our children climbed in and out of tanks and armoured cars and clambered over field guns and all kinds of equipment, while no one ever took any notice of them. Gradually the whole scene changed until Thiepval became a heavily guarded fortress, sealing off completely the Magheralave
Road, which was previously a main thoroughfare to the country.
Another gruesome experience occurred on a lovely June evening in 1988. On Wednesday
15th June a local 'Fun Run' was organised for charity. Hundreds of young people and some older ones too were involved. When it was over a group of six young soldiers, who had enjoyed participating, climbed into their minibus to return to Thiepval Barracks. However once the vehicle moved a large booby-trap bomb placed beneath it by the IRA exploded, killing all the occupants as it burst into flames.
I happened to be driving through Smithfield Square when the explosion occurred in Market Street. Sensing immediately that there were bound to be serious casualties, I went straight to the Accident and Emergency Unit of the Lagan Valley Hospital where the
'stand-by' team was already in position. Within a few minutes victims began arriving with a variety of wounds and mutilations.
Then came the six charred bodies of the young soldiers so brutally murdered. I shall never forget the sight of those bodies. To this day I find it hard to fathom the utter depravity of people who could commit such acts of wickedness against fellow human beings. No one who has ever witnessed such scenes, and they have been all too numerous, could ever doubt the reality and the power of Evil in the world.
I remained at the hospital seeking to give help where I could to staff and patients and to comfort relatives and friends until they had all been cared for. When eventually I returned to the Manse I was unable to speak form hour
or more, so that Kathleen, who was not aware of what I had come through, became extremely concerned.
Later that evening the Senior Amy Chaplain, who had been away from home that day, came to see me and to hear in detail what had happened. We went together to the Hospital so that he
might see the bodies of the soldiers. A grim visit. Afterwards we visited the scene of the bombing and entered the cordoned-off area. There we knelt and prayed. The days that followed were tense throughout the community. A Civic Service was held the following Wednesday evening, when thousands of people gathered in the Market Street/Bow
Street area to identify with the expression of sorrow and sympathy. I had insisted on the Roman Catholic Parish Priest, Canon Joseph Cunningham, taking part in the Service, resulting in many of his parishioners attending, standing along Chapel Hill.
At the Service I gave the address in which I not only appealed for calm but also called the whole community to repentance, faith and unity. The response was electrifying. The people were united in their sympathy with those who had been so tragically bereaved and in their total renunciation of violence. The Service had a purging, purifying effect. The community remained calm and there were no retaliations.
During the thirty years of `The Troubles' over 3,500 people have been killed, tens of thousands injured, many of
them maimed for life and incalculable damage done to persons and property.
Eventually, on 31st August 1994, the IRA declared a `Ceasefire' followed by the Loyalist paramilitaries a month later. Sadly the IRA Cease-fire only lasted for 18 months, after which violence erupted again. A further `Cease-fire' was announced which enabled Peace Talks to progress resulting in the signing of the Stormont Agreement on Good Friday, 1998. In a subsequent Referendum 71% of the people supported the Agreement. As the result of this elections were held for the formation of a power-sharing Assembly. While the majority of Unionists supported the Agreement, a significant minority united in opposing it. A minority of Militant Republicans also opposed the Agreement and a faction of the Provisional IRA broke away,
styling themselves as 'The Real IRA'. They pursued a bombing campaign attacking towns such as
Markethill, Newtownhamilton, Moira and Banbridge. On Saturday I5th August 1998, they placed a car bomb in a shopping area in Omagh. They gave a misleading bomb warning with the result that the explosion caused massive damage, killing 29 people plus two unborn babies and leaving over 200 people seriously injured. More than half of those killed were Roman Catholics. Consequently the revulsion against
'The Real IRA' was virtually universal. The Provos ordered the Real IRA to disband or else take the consequences.
Whether Omagh will prove to be the end of 'The Troubles' or not remains to be seen. It is our hope and our prayer that after the tribulation of the last 30 yeas soon there will be the new Assembly heralding the dawn of a new Day of
In the Presbyterian Church a Minister promises that he will `yield submission in the Lord to the Courts of the Church, aiding in the government of the Church and discharging all other duties incumbent upon him as a Minister of Jesus Christ'.
In the light of that I always felt it my duty to respond positively, if it was within my power, to any call to serve the Church in the wider context of presbytery, Synod or General Assembly. This I believe was the right attitude. Undoubtedly I found myself in many difficult and challenging situations as the result, but I have always proved that if God calls anyone to serve He will always equip that person for the task.
(a) Congregational Missions
Over the years I was invited to conduct missions in a variety of churches. Some in Belfast, some in provincial towns and some in rural congregations. It was a great privilege to share fellowship with the ministers in the various churches and their members. Whether they were evangelistic or teaching missions they were always, in the words of Acts, chap 3, verse 19, "times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord". It is a great delight, sometimes years later, to meet people who remind me of the blessings they received through those services.
My former "boss", Dr. Austin Fulton, used to quote frequently the words of Emil Brunner -
"The Church lives by mission as the fire lives by burning. "
I believe mission lies at the heart of our Presbyterian understanding of the Faith, both mission to the congregation and the mission of the congregation to the wider community. Mission is like casting a stone into a pond so that its ripples continue, with ever widening circles, till they reach the edge.
Archbishop William Temple expressed most aptly the Church's task in evangelism as- "the Offering of the whole Christ by the whole Church for the whole man throughout the whole world. " This is a vision and an understanding, which the church must never lose.
(b) Irish Mission
Dr Rupert Gibson had been Superintendent of the Irish Mission for many years. He was also a very effective Evangelist and conducted a Mission for me in Enniskillen in 1959. The following year he invited me to become a member of the Irish Mission Committee. This gave me an appreciation of the work done by this oldest Mission of our Church seeking to advance Christ's Kingdom throughout Ireland. Two years later I was appointed by the General Assembly as Convener of the Mission working in close cooperation with Dr Gibson.
My involvement as Convener led to my writing many articles for the Mission's Magazine-The Christian Irishman.This led to the Publication of my first booklet entitled `Why the Reformation?' in which I traced the history of the Reformation and the reasons which gave rise to it. This little publication was well received and gained wide circulation throughout the Church.
The Mission had a fine team of faithful colporteurs who engaged in door-to-door visitation, selling the Scriptures and
engaging in conversation with people on spiritual matters. They also set up bookstalls in
fairs and markets throughout rural Ireland, sometimes also preaching in the
open air. Mostly they were well received but from time to time they ran into considerable opposition. I counted it a privilege to meet with these colporteurs regularly to hear their reports, to give them counsel, guidance and encouragement.
In 1971 Dr Gibson was elected to the Moderatorship of the General Assembly, an appointment which gave great pleasure to those involved in the Mission. In
turn Dr Gibson invited me to be one of his Chaplains. This was a new experience and one that gave me great pleasure.
Sadly the I.R.A. violence escalated during that autumn involving the Moderator in many situations of serious trauma and distress. All this exacted a heavy toll so that on 20 December 1971, Dr Gibson took a massive coronary and died instantly. The sense of shock and loss not only throughout the Church but also throughout the whole community was immense.
From that point on I had to assume full responsibility for running the Mission, editing the Christian Irishman and representing the Mission in the protracted negotiations with various Boards of the General Assembly. Considerable pressure was brought to bear upon me to persuade me to accept the
appointment as Superintendent. I thought and prayed much about it, but I believed my primary calling was to the parish ministry and so I declined the persuasions. Two short-term appointments were made to the Superintendency, first the Rev Douglas Armstrong, then the Rev James Hagan after whom the Rev Alan Mitchell became the Superintendent. Maintaining the work of the Mission was very demanding during those years with
'the finds of Change' blowing in all directions not only in the Church but also in the community, yet the work continued to prosper under the blessing of God.
At the General Assembly in 1978 I resigned as Convener of the Mission and requested the House to appoint my successor. The following resolution was recorded in the Minutes. Moved by the Rev J Girvan, seconded by the
Rev A Mitchell, and agreed:
" That the General Assembly thank the Rev Howard Cromie for his services as Convener of the Irish Mission.
Mr. Cromie served in this capacity during a period of change within the Mission as well as a time of turmoil and upheaval in
the field of the Mission's operations. The responsibility of administration in the work, along with the need of sympathetic care for and understanding of the
difficulties of the Colporteurs, were particularly heavy during no less than three vacancies in the Superintendency of the Mission. However, the additional
duties thus imposed were discharged by Mr. Cromie to the same patient and gracious manner so characteristic of his approach to every aspect of the world and throughout
the years of his Convenership he has given to the Mission and Committee the wise and confident leadership
(c) Church Extension
My appointment as Convener of Church Extension was a natural development from the Irish Mission and so I moved from the one Convenership
to the other at the 1978 General Assembly.
From my first experience of inviting the Church Extension Committee to undertake the establishing of a Church Extension charge in my parish area, which was eventually to become St
Colomba's Church, l was interested in this aspect of the Church's outreach. Consequently I served for about 20 years as Church Extension Agent in Dromore Presbytery and for much of that time also on the General Assembly's Church Extension Committee. It was a time of much development and I derived great satisfaction during my years as Convener.
Surveying sites for new churches, meeting Architects, negotiating with Church committees, planning officers, estate agents and lawyers was very time consuming. During that time I had as my lay Convener Mr George Kernighan, a Scotsman, a Quantity Surveyor and a man of wise judgement. We worked well together and carried through many very satisfying schemes, some of which had been initiated by my predecessor, the Rev Dr. Harold Graham and which we completed, including
the opening of Ballycrochan Church Bangor; Burnside, Portstewart; Ballyloughan, Ballymena; Woodlands, Carrickfergus; New
Mossley; Kilfennan, Londonderry; Elmwood, Lisburn.
Throughout this period terrorism was rampant and many people would have been inclined to question the wisdom of pressing ahead with this work at such an uncertain time. For that reason
I undertook a considerable amount of deputation work, giving people a vision of its importance. The result was generous support for the work of Church Extension and it is still drawing on the benefit of bequests from Wills taken out at that time. One of my advertisements had the words,
'Where there is a Will there is a Way .... to help Church Extension'.
My pen was constantly engaged in writing articles etc for Church Extension, many of these were published in the Presbyterian Herald. I remember quoting at the opening of one of our new churches some words which I had seen on a memorial tablet in an ancient church which had been built in troubled times. The inscription read:
"In 1653, a year when all things sacred were, throughout the nation, either demolished or profaned, Sir Richard Shirley, Baronet, founded this church, whose singular praise it was to have done the best of things in the worst
of times and hoped them in the most calamitous. "
Recollections of Life and Ministry in the 20th Century
There have been major movements of population in Northern Ireland since the end of the Second World War and particularly during the 30 years of Troubles since 1969. If it had not been for the work of Church Extension many of our people would have been lost to the Church. It is reckoned that nearly half of our Presbyterian people now belong to what were Church Extension Churches erected since the Second World War. This was exacting, challenging work, which brought a new dimension to my ministry.
When I resigned as Convener in 1982 tire Assembly passed the following resolution:
"That the thanks of the Assembly be given to the Rev H Cromie, one of our Conveners. Mr Cromie feels that the time has now come for him to lay down the reins and let someone
else take over. It isn't a matter of trying to get rid of a job that has been done badly, for Mr Cromie has managed to stay at the helm through what have been difficult times. The economic recession that has hit every aspect of the Church's life didn't pass Church Extension,
but due to the wise and judicious handling of its affairs, Church Extension still is able to show a bank balance that doesn't bring down the wrath of the
bank manager. The good state of Church Extension's affairs and the work and achievements of the past number of years are a glowing tribute to the fine partnership formed between Mr Cromie and His Co-Convener, Mr George Kernighan. His wise judgement, his years of experience in the ministry, his past knowledge of Church Extension, (for remember the new congregation of Ballymacash was largely carved out of Railway Street parish), his clear vision of the Church's task to win men for Christ, and his warm evangelistic fervour-all these qualities have enabled Howard Cromie to make a lasting contribution to the life of this Church
of ours. This House and Assembly, and indeed the whole Church stands deeply in Mr Cromie 's debt and it is only right and proper that the best thanks of the House should be extended to Mr Cromie and the congregation that has been behind him in this work "
(d) Union Commission
For about ten years, 1972-1982 I was actively involved as a member of the General Assembly's Union Commission, concerned with the linking of Congregations under shared ministry.
The Rev Dr George Fagleson was Convener of the Commission and together we travelled many hundreds of miles meeting and discussing with Kirk Sessions and Congregations. These meetings demanded the utmost in negotiating skills exercising much patience, confidentiality and diplomacy.
I remember one evening when we were seeking to effect a union between the Congregations of Moy and Benburb. The two Sessions met in separate
rooms at Moy. George and I shuttled back and forwards at least a dozen times with propositions before eventually agreement was reached and we were able to bring the two groups together in a very happy and agreeable mood, Jokingly they thanked us for the success of our 'Shuttle Diplomacy' _ the term used of Dr Kissinger, The American Diplomat, who was well known for his efforts to bring Jews and Arabs together!
My first foray into the world of publishing was the production of 'Why the Reformation?' This was a booklet first published as the result of articles printed in the Christian Irishman at the request of Dr Rupert Gibson, the Superintendent of the Irish Mission.
'Why the Reformation?' was a factual account of the reasons which gave rise to the Reformation and the course which
To mark the fourth Centenary of the Scottish Reformation I wrote 'Our Debt to John
Knox'. Seeing the Irish Presbyterian Church owes its origin directly to the Scottish Reformation, the publication of this account of the life and work of John Knox, the great Reformer, was warmly welcomed
Next came 'Livingstone of Africa'- an appreciation of the pioneer missionary work of David Livingstone, a man who became a legend in his lifetime. Livingstone's courage and his missionary zeal made him one of my boyhood heroes. Writing his biography gave me great pleasure, especially when it was being issued to mark the Centenary of his death. I was grateful to his grandson, Dr Hubert F Wilson, M.C., for writing a very appreciative foreword for the publication.
1976 marked the Bicentennial of the American Declaration of Independence. Being aware that so many
Scots/Irish immigrants had been involved in the movement for American Independence I decided that a concise account of the Scots/Irish contribution ought to be made available because so many people were ignorant of their history. It was a major task I set myself and most of my summer holiday that year in Barnstable was taken up with research, reading and writing. Eventually 'Ulster Settlers in America' was printed and published. It became an instant success and bad to be reissued several times. Many people bought copies to send to friends in other parts of the world, particularly in America.
A special edition was issued in 1984 during my Moderatorial year, which gave a considerable boost to its circulation.
(f) Historical Society
I became a member of the Presbyterian Historical Society soon after my ordination and some years later was elected a member
of the Council. The Society's rooms are a treasure house of information on all matters to do with the history of Presbyterianism in Ireland.
The Very Rev Dr J T Carson, the Society's Convener, undertook the compilation of a new
'History of Congregations'. This was an `opus magnum' - indeed a mammoth task. I was glad to give what help I could when Dr Carson asked me to share with others in its production. Its publication is a great historical asset to all those wishing to look up details on the history of individual congregations.
'The History of Congregations' was a very satisfying project, even though it still needed to be amplified and amended.
The Society has afforded me the honour of giving a number of lectures on subjects mainly relating to the Ulster-American connection.
I was pleased to be elected by the Society as one of its permanent Vice-Presidents.
A CLOSE CALL
The two weeks before Christmas are an exceptionally busy time for the Minister in most congregations. There are so many shut-ins, elderly and sick people to be visited. As well there are always so many meetings to attend which, because of one pressure or another, must be held before Christmas.
December 1982 seemed to be even busier than previous years. On Wednesday morning,
15th December, I loaded the luggage compartment of my car with the fruit parcels for the patients in the Psychiatric Hospital at Holywell near Antrim. As is so often the case, however, I planned to
'kill two birds with one stone' by first attending a meeting in Ballymena, some 30 miles away at 10.00 am, and then on my return journey visiting my patients at the Psychiatric Hospital, bringing them some Christmas cheer.
All went well with my journey to Ballymena. It was a dry, crisp morning, ideal for motoring. My meeting there was at Ballee Church Extension building to discuss some problems with the local Committee regarding the Church building. I had paid several visits to that Church as Convener of the General Assembly's Church Extension work. The building presented more than its share of problems since it had been opened. On this occasion one of the defects mentioned was the dangerous design of a
set of stone steps in the vestibule which were made of concrete and finished with a rather highly polished tile.
Having given instructions to have them renewed, the meeting concluded and I proceeded to descend these very steps. Suddenly my foot slipped on the second one from the top and I fell with the full weight of my body on my back, striking the edge of one of the steps with my spine and then proceeding to bump down several others before I came to a halt in a completely collapsed condition.
As soon as I hit the first step I felt an immediate crunch in my spine and I knew instinctively that I had done serious damage. The pain was excruciating. I have never felt or even imagined anything to equal it. As I lay at the bottom of the steps in sheer agony I found I could not breathe and I had lost all feeling in my hands and arms. Some ministers who saw what happened rushed to my aid and wanted to lift me but I appealed to them not to touch me in case further damage should be done. My face turned a blue/grey colour, so they told me afterwards, and they thought I was going to die. While straggling for breath but unable to breathe, coupled with the knife-sharp pain in my back and the paralysis in my arms, I also momentarily wondered if my hour had come. Mentally, however, I did not dwell on that thought, but rather concentrated all my thought, prayer and energy on getting a breath.
Somehow I managed to roll over in a crouching position on my knees and my lungs slowly began to function again. At the same time a tingling sensation began in my fingers and arms. I discovered afterwards that the damage which had been done to the sixth vertebra of my spine meant that the nerves which control the upper part of the body had caused the muscles which operate the lungs to go into spasm - hence the reason why I had been unable to breathe and also why I had lost the power of my
hands and arms.
Someone told me that an ambulance was on its way to take me to the Waveney Hospital in Ballymena. When I heard that I immediately visualised the inconvenience this would cause to my wife and family living over 30 miles away and I realised that if I were admitted there I might have to remain for an extended period. In such circumstances it is amazing what the human spirit will attempt. I protested that I did not wish to go to the Waveney Hospital and pleaded with my clerical brethren to help me to get into my car! By sheer determination I reached it and escaped from the car park of Ballee Church before the ambulance arrived.
By the Grace of God I reached Lisburn and my wife took me straight to the Lagan Valley Hospital where I was immediately admitted. Then began the detailed examinations. For 48 hours
I was scarcely ever left alone, being checked and re-checked every ten or fifteen minutes for blood pressure, heartbeat and mainly for feeling, movement and reflexes in my arms and legs. I was instructed to lie fiat on my back and at mealtime a nurse fed me and gave me drink either in a feeding cup or through a straw.
For the first few days I was given very little information about my condition, so I did not realise the full seriousness of it and imagined that with rest I would be fine in a week or two.
As the days passed my puzzle was that in spite of the rest the pain was not decreasing even though I was on very strong pain killing drags. Eventually I asked Mr Young the Head Surgeon, to explain to me what damage I had actually done. It was then that he told me I had a compressed fracture of the sixth vertebra and because of the nature of the damage the vertebra was reduced to two thirds of its normal size. He further told me that if I had done the same damage to the fifth vertebra I would most likely have been confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life. This was the reason for the constant checking of my limbs
for feeling and movement lest further damage had been done which the X-ray had not revealed. The sixth vertebra controls the nervous system affecting the arms and lung muscles - hence the initial danger at the time of impact lest I should not start to breathe again or that I should lose control of the upper part of my body.
I appreciated being given this information because it gave me a better idea of all with which I had to cope. It also made me very thankful that my life had been spared and I had the hope of recovery. It was a close call.
Recovery was slow and painful, but the Grace of God and the T.L.C. (Tender Loving Care) of my wife and family as well as a host of friends brought me through. It was the month of May before I was able to return to my pulpit and then only for very short sermons - and no one complained! The sermons may have been short but they were full of a new understanding of the Providential Care of God.
The General Assembly met in the Mansion House in Dublin that year during the first week in June. I was determined to attend for a few days. No doubt it was a risky thing to do for I was still suffering a lot of pain. However my wife came with me and she made sure I took as much rest as possible. My Ministerial friends gave me a great welcome and when I came forward to the Rostrum to propose a resolution regarding Church Extension the Assembly rose spontaneously and gave me a standing ovation while the Moderator, Dr T. J. Simpson expressed the Greetings of the House and their delight to see me present.
Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that by the following year I would be installed in the Moderator's Chair and be able to carry out all the duties of that high office. But with God all things are possible, and to His Name be the Glory.