Brownlow family had big part to play in forming of the parish

THE early history of Shankill Parish goes hand in hand with the establishment of the Brownlow family in Lurgan.

The English Parliament’s colonisation of Ulster with ‘planters’ led to the arrival of John Brownlow in Lurgan in 1609.

For worship Brownlow and his Anglican collective went to Oxford Island to a very ramshackle, old building there. This proved unsuitable and soon a better place of worship was erected in what is now Shankill graveyard, closer to the town.

In the latter part of the seventeenth century, the population of Lurgan increased exponentially and the parishioners of Shankill outgrew their church for a second time.

It was either necessary to enlarge the existing building or build a new church. It became evident however it would not be possible to extend the old church as the graves had been made under the shadows of the walls.

A building on a new site was the only solution, but the consent of the Irish Parliament was necessary. Arthur Brownlow engineered this and an act was passed giving the requisite permission.

The church still has a copy of the original letter requesting permission to build at the current site, sent in 1719.

The site chosen was ‘The Green Of Lurgan’ located where ‘The Street of Lurgan’ (Market Street), ‘The Back Lane’ (North Street), ‘The Road To Lough Neagh’ (William Street) and the road leading over the ‘Pound’ (Edward Street) met.

The site was chosen strategically with all streets and roads leading to it, rising to its elevated position. The site is a focus of all routes into the town centre and nearly 300 years later, is the single most outstanding and visible building there.

Building of the new church started in 1720 and was completed in 1725. On August 8 that year the building was consecrated by Ralph Lambert, Bishop of Dromore. The Deed of Consecration is extant and is in the archive of the present church.

The new church was named Christ’s Church and the Rector was an Englishman John Wetherby. He was rector for 10 years until his death in 1735.

There have been 27 rectors of Shankill since 1610. One of the rectors lasted 52 years (Holt Waring of the illustrious Waringstown connection) while two of them gave up after a year.

In 1734 the timber of the old church was sold for £25 and the stones were used to build a tower for the new church, which still stands today. In 1737 a spire was erected and a clock installed. The font, a gift of a former Rector Legard Blacker and dated 1684, is still used to this day. A communion goblet dating back to 1694 also exists.

When the first church was built a drum was used to summon worshippers. Subsequently a bell weighing 100 pounds was erected in the Market house. When the 1725 church was built the bell was brought to this building.

The church’s dimensions were 49 feet across by 96 feet long with a square tower 27 feet wide. The tower was approximately 80 feet high and about 30 years later a coppered wooden spire was added.

The spire has a chequered history. The timber one erected in 1756 was destroyed by fire in 1792. Apparently a workman was working inside the spire with a brazier and went home forgetting about the living fire he had left. The spire was set on fire and the large bell, used to summon parishioners to worship, fell through the floors to ground level. It was red hot and some well meaning souls doused it with cold water and it cracked.

The reconstruction saw 20 feet added to the height of the tower and a new timber spire erected. Another fabled night of the ‘big wind’ put paid to this spire in 1839.

The spire was then rebuilt and lasted till 1861 when the existing church was dismantled with the exception of the tower. The stone of that tower can still be seen today as completely different from the new basalt church it enhances.

A church for Shankill Parish has occupied this site since 1725 and the present building replaced the first church in 1863 with the tower of the old church incorporated.