First Lisburn Presbyterian Church

Despair to resurrection
Compiled by Wm Richer




Bomb and Aftermath

Around 5.00 p.m. on Wednesday, 5th August, 1981 a man parked a car in Market Street, just round the corner from the church and calmly walked away. Some forty-five minutes later a bomb planted in the car exploded, devastating the entire town centre.

My wife and I had just started our annual holiday in Ballycastle and had spent the day visiting the peaceful Glens of Antrim when an urgent call advised me of the tragedy and necessitated our returning home immediately.

No words of warning could have prepared us for the distressing scene which met our eyes. The explosion had virtually demolished the shops backing onto the church. Those opposite had suffered severe blast damage as had shops, offices and other business premises in nearby Smithfield Square, Market Square and Bow Street.

The saddest sight of all was our old church. There was glass and rubble everywhere, our seventeen precious stained glass windows lay in twisted formations of glass and lead or, as with some, had remained in place with gaping holes in them. What pieces remained were carefully gathered together, window by window. We immediately realised that no fragment, however small, should be thrown out. In the midst of the rubble an idea was already taking shape, to find expression years later in the Resurrection window. For now, however, it was a time for grief and tears. Visitors from other churches came to sympathise and console, standing in shocked disbelief when they entered our old sanctuary.

We do not believe that the bomb was intended for the church as such, but it must have been patently obvious that the church could not escape. How, we all wondered, could anyone so callously desecrate a hallowed place of worship and attempt to destroy a precious heritage?

While the loss of the windows hurt us most the church and halls had also suffered extensive structural damage. The plaster under the gallery had fallen in great chunks in some places and was cracked in others ready to fall down. The pulpit had been knocked sideways and might be unsafe. The lovely polished tongue-and groove woodwork of the ceiling had been ripped apart, some pieces being sucked inwards, others blown outwards in the strange effects of bomb-blast. Pews, Communion table, Baptismal font, organ and Choir stalls were scarred and pitted by flying glass.

Existing small cracks in the walls, particularly near the Barbour window, had been widened and many others had appeared. Wherever one looked there was damage of one kind or another.

The Minister and Session of Railway Street Church had kindly invited us on the Wednesday evening to join with them in worship the following Sunday morning and to hold our joint evening services, customarily held in First Lisburn during August, in their church until ours was again tenable. This generous offer was gratefully accepted by those elders present and a notice to that effect was published in the Ulster Star in Friday's edition.

However there was much unease over this decision and a special meeting of Session was duly called late on Friday evening, 7th August, and the issue was thoroughly discussed. Some held the view that if shop owners and other businessmen could bravely put up "Business as Usual" notices and carry on behind their boarded-up windows in the tradition that Ulster businessmen have followed during the long years of the "Troubles" then the church also should have the courage to keep its doors open. Were we going to give in to the I.R.A.? Were we going to let terrorists force us to close down worship in First Lisburn for the first time in almost three hundred years? - Not if it was humanly possible!

After much heart searching it was reluctantly decided to follow the technical advice of architect and surveyor: the building was considered to be unsafe. In the event we found ourselves not only welcomed by the congregation of Railway Street and their Minister, the Rev. Howard Cromie, but also comforted and consoled by them in our shock and loss. It was for us an experience akin to bereavement and they ministered to us even as we worshipped with them. We will never forget this experience of deep fellowship in Christ.

Nevertheless the deep sense of hurt remained. Members felt the attack on their church as a violation of something personal and sacred. One elder, the late Mr. Jim Beatty, expressed his feelings this way: "I have been in First Lisburn the same length of time as I have been in the house in which I live. I never feel like selling my house and moving down the road for if I did I would pass it every day, see it and know that I wasn't living in it. This is exactly what I feel about our church."

We did return "home" on Sunday, September 6th. The church was packed to capacity and the worship was a real celebration but there were mixed emotions - the joy of returning and the visual evidence of the extent of our loss.

We did not disguise our hurt and anger in our prayers. We wrestled mentally with The Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." We also prayed, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." We were uplifted as we remembered the sovereignty of God.

Dr. Boyd shared the leadership of this service. His presence helped us remember that the reality and continuity of the Church lies not in its buildings but in its people and its security in its Lord. We emerged considerably healed and fortified for the task which lay ahead.

On September 1st (only 26 days after the bomb) the Committee met to receive a full report on the extent of the damage to the building from Mr. Edward Bell, A. R. I. B. A., one of our elders, whom Session and Committee had appointed as architect for the restoration project immediately after the bombing.

As well as the problems already noted others had by now been diagnosed. The back gable wall of the church had moved about one inch at the top, the roofs of both church and halls required re-slating, the boiler was cracked and out of use and, most urgent of all, the plaster in the organ loft was threatening to crash into the organ's fourteen hundred pipes, some of them no larger than a drinking straw.

The Property Committee, under the energetic leadership of its Convenor, Mrs. Norah Boyle, already in action during August, now got down to the long and difficult task which lay ahead.

The organ pipes were removed and strewn around the church whilst the loft was repaired. We had one manual back in operation just in time for a Radio 4 broadcast on October 11th, a service which, related to the relatively near bombing, brought much response from all over Britain. The second manual was just ready for the recording of B.B.C. T.V.'s "Songs of Praise" programme early in November.

Over a period of months workmen repaired and redecorated the church with great care and skill. The shops were also repaired by the tenants in close consultation with the committee.

Tenders were sought and a contract placed for the restoration of the windows. On the financial side long and patient negotiations were undertaken with loss adjusters and the Northern Ireland Office.

The Congregational Committee, though anticipating a shortfall in compensation, never actually launched an appeal fund but members spontaneously organised fund raising activities: a coffee party and sale in a private house, a "Sharing Skills" scheme and an Olde Tyme Music Hall evening. The Young People's Association ran an auction and school children from Forthill Girls' School joined in a "Save our Heritage" sponsored walk in Wallace Park with many of the congregation, some running, others of more mature age taking a leisurely stroll-truly a congregational social day as well as a fund-raiser. There were individual contributions and generous donations from other churches of all denominations.

The total cost of the restoration of church and windows has been almost �100,000. The total compensation approximately �90,000. The amount raised or donated approximately �10,000.

The committee members have given generously of their expertise in finance, quantity surveying, the law, business administration, building, electrical and heating engineering and so on. We were fortunate to have such expertise available to us.

While quite obviously this vast scheme has focussed on property and finance the motivation for carrying it through to a successful conclusion has been love of the Church and its Lord. All has been done, in the words of the act of Re-dedication performed by the then Moderator of the General Assembly, the Very Rev. Professor John Thompson, on Sunday 3rd May, 1987, "TO THE GLORY OF GOD."

These years have affirmed the promise we recalled in the words of Isaiah that summoned us to worship on Sunday, 6th September 1981 (our homecoming) "`For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed but my steadfast love shall not depart from you and my Covenant of Peace shall not be removed,' says the Lord who has compassion on you."

R. J. Gordon Gray
Minister, First Lisburn Presbyterian Church


An Elder's View

Arriving on the scene early, as I thought, I had already been preceded by a small army of workers from the congregation who, without prior organising, had heard of the damage and raced to the church, many complete with

buckets, brooms, mops and other cleaning materials. Some just stood in a state of shocked disbelief at the sight before them; some wept; others reacted to the shock in a burst of physical activity, first to clear the rubble away and search for any stained glass pieces, yes, even those pieces embedded in the pews and other woodwork. Totally impervious to the danger of further falling plaster, woodwork or masonry they worked on, clearing, cleaning, dusting, polishing, determined that as far as they were concerned the church they loved would be ready for worship on the following Sunday. It was not to be. The question regarding structural damage decreed it should be otherwise.

on our eventual return in September we were further reminded of our greatest loss: the glow of subdued colour through our windows, which we had taken for granted for so long had gone. The window apertures were filled, some with wood, some with white muffed glass which gave a brighter, harsher light. It took much getting used to. Little did we know then that we were to have to live with this for a further six years.

I could not possibly have witnessed the scenes that I did and the reaction to them by the congregation without having my faith in God and my love for First Lisburn deepened. My task as Property Committee Convenor has ended. My hope and prayer is that what we as a committee and a congregation have left behind us, particularly the Resurrection window, will be an inspiration to all those who, in the years ahead when the bombing is but a distant memory, will continue to uphold and extend Fiist Lisburn both as a church and as a physical expression of faith in God and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Festival of Flowers


In the Spring of 1981 the Session and Committee of First Lisburn proposed to hold a Festival of Flowers, to take place in October. The idea of holding such a festival had grown in part from the fact that the church was both an old and historic building, whilst its magnificent stained glass windows windows provided a setting of beauty and an atmosphere of warmth and tranquility. The specific reason for such an event being held in that year yas to honour Mrs. Betty McCrory who, for over twenty-five years, had arranged the flowers for Sunday worship using her outstanding sense of design, colour and artistry.

The chosen theme was that of the Barbour window: "Bear ye one another's burdens" - to mark the international Year of Disabled Persons. All proceeds from the Festival were to be given to projects to aid the Handicapped.

Administrative plans were well under way by the Organising Committee in late Summer, and themes were worked out to tie in with the message of each stained glass window, later to be translated into a work of art by the team of flower arrangers.

However, as recorded elsewhere, a car bomb on 5th August removed the windows! Despite not knowing how far "first aid" restoration would have proceeded, on 1 st September Session and Committee met to review the situation facing the congregation and unanimously decided to go ahead with the Flower Festival in mid October, as an Act of Faith, an Expression of Hope and an indication of the continuing beauty of a sanctuary still lovely as a `dwelling-place of the most High'. The new theme chosen in response to the bombing experience and as a celebration of our faith was "Signs of Hope", when the message of the windows would be recreated in flowers. Together we worked out a new scheme to take up the motifs of each former window, now sadly holding plain frosted glass.

The weeks that followed saw the congregation drawing together, as teams of women planned and organised light refreshments to be served during the three days. The men planned lighting, background music, stewarding and car parking rotas, painted the boards that had replaced the large windows at either side of the pulpit, and many, many other tasks. The late Mr. Bertie Davidson, using his carpentry skill, had wooden backings made for each window silt to enhance the beauty of the flowers.

The chosen date for the Festival incorporated Harvest Thanksgiving Service on the Sunday, and this Service was to be broadcast on Radio 4. Three days before the Festival opened the flower arrangers led by Mrs. McCrory and Rev. William McMillan, Minister of Dunmurry Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church and a leading flower arranger, arrived complete with exotic blooms from all over the world - gerbera, lilies, gladioli, anthurium, freesias - an unending list, waiting in buckets for the skilled hands of the experts. Gradually the lovely old church was transformed into an ethereal temple of flowers and peace - so different from the devastated scene of two months before.

Because the bomb had affected the whole community and as an ecumenical gesture, it had been decided to invite the Archbishop of Armagh, the late Most Rev. John W. Armstrong, to perform the opening ceremony for the Festival. A Harvest Garland of chrysanthemums outside the church welcomed the congregation and visitors to the service on Friday, 9th October. The Archbishop performed the opening with dignity and sensitivity and his stirring comments greatly encouraged the assembled congregation. On behalf of the congregation the Very Rev. Dr. Wm. Boyd presented a carriage clock to Mrs. McCrory at this service, thanking her for her part in enhancing the beauty of the church week by week - a true and faithful servant, who gets much pleasure doing "something beautiful for God".

Space does not permit a full account of the nineteen magnificent and quite moving arrangements, but one area deserves special mention: the Harvest display in the vestibule with tall pedestal arrangements of Autumn flowers, with fruit and vegetables at their base, mixed with ornamental gourds - an array of orange and gold. In another corner a myriad of pink flowers, along with pineapple plants and exotic fruits, with the addition of farm implements, reminded us of God's bounty worldwide.

The Flower Festival brochure, so vividly written by Dr. Gordon Gray, carried a commentary on each arrangement. One quotation on the arrangement interpreting the window with the text "The desert shall ... blossom as the rose" reads: "Our province has become a wasteland, symbolised in burnt whip (fire and destruction) and barbed wire (division and pain). It is a desert where many hopes have run into the sand. The roses, as in the original window, with a flicker of colour give a hint of peace. But only a hint - premature hope leads to disillusion".

"Pause" - and this is what the visitors, who came not only from Lisburn but all over Northern Ireland, did-reflecting on the beauty of God's creation, in lovely, even if damaged, surroundings. They gave generously to the two projects - one being SHARE, a lakeside holiday centre in Fermanagh for the Disabled, and the other the Crippled Children's Centre for Arab children in Jerusalem, a Christian Aid Project. During the Festival it was wonderful to see many of the "Church Friends" - a group of church members who regularly visit the elderly and house-bound members of our congregation - bringing these folk to see the floral displays and share in the message of Hope; delightful also to see the children of Fleming Fulton School, and the young disabled trainees from Wallace Avenue Day Centre.

Many members worked tirelessly, but with joy, at many different tasks during the days of the Festival - a bonding family occasion.

Over 600,000 listeners heard the Radio 4 broadcast of Sunday Morning Harvest Worship, when Dr. Gray spoke movingly using the text "Bear ye one another's Burdens" - and with his gift of pen and eloquent speech gave comfort and vision to those in First Lisburn and across Gt. Britain. Many letters followed and a listener in England even sent a floral arrangement on the following Christmas Day for the congregation.

"Songs of Praise" televised part of the Flower Festival for their programme, which was hosted in First Lisburn, and recorded in November for broadcasting later. Following this a church in the isle of Wight requested photographs of First Lisburn building and one of our stained glass windows to incorporate in their Flower Festival, which also was in aid of a Christain Aid Project - many little ripples! Alas flowers fade, so the Festival had to end - but the message of the flowers and fruit still spread outwards and onwards, as they were distributed to members in hospital and at home.

The Lisburn business community sponsored the event by the generous sum of �811, and so it was fitting that such a beautiful event could be offered to them, as a Sign of Hope - and far beyond.

Undoubtedly the Festival was successful as an event in its own right- 3,000 people attended, and �2,300 was raised for the Handicapped. But it was more. A project that enabled the congregation to unite in positive therapeutic action, after suffering a grievous blow. It was more a magnificent Sign of Hope, and a celebration of faith in a Christ, still crucified, and still rising in the spirit of a congregation and community overcoming adversity.

E Patricia Crossley