CHRISTIANITY IN COMBER
CHRISTIANITY IN COMBER - by Desmond Rainey
Comber’s Christian heritage goes back a long, long way, well over 1,500 years in fact, to the days of St Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, said to have landed on the banks of the River Slaney near Downpatrick in AD432, and it was nearby at Saul that he built his first church. If we can give any credence to the ancient traditions, Patrick is said to have come to the Comber area. Unfortunately he did not receive a hearty Comber welcome. Rather, he was “sorely abused” by Saran, a son of the local chieftain. Saran’s brother Conla, however, was more sympathetic. He apologised for Saran’s behaviour and is said to have offered Patrick a “remarkable field” called the “Plain of Elom” on which to build a church. Patrick blessed Conla, and Comber got its first monastery.
Where exactly was the Plain of Elom? The short answer to this is that we don’t know. Some have speculated the site of the monastery to be on what is now the ground of North Down Cricket Club in Castle Lane. They base this assumption on the discovery of stone-lined coffins here in the mid 19th century. And indeed old maps mark a lane running from the Enler car park in the general direction of Castle Lane as the Monks’ Walk, perhaps the remnant of some ancient memory.
Comber monastery was part of the ancient Celtic Church, and was probably initially no more than a group of huts made of wood or basketwork. To find out what it may have looked like, we have only to visit the ruins of Nendrum, 6 miles away on Mahee Island. Comber, Nendrum, Bangor and Movilla were part of a network of monasteries in what became known as the Land of Saints and Scholars.
RUINS OF NENDRUM
Nendrum is the island of the nine ridges. Its foundation was ascribed to St Mochaoi, a disciple of Patrick, although it is doubtful whether it dates back quite as far as that. However, it is very ancient, and excavations have revealed the oldest tidal mill of its type in Europe and fragments of timber dated to AD620. A plaque on the wall of the church tells us that excavation work was carried out between 1922 and 1924. Other buildings have been identified as the school and the scriptorium, where manuscripts would have been laboriously copied in the days before printing was invented. Beside the church was a separate round tower. This would once have stood some 60’ high, and was intended to give warning of invasion and some sort of shelter from the attackers. However, it didn’t save the skin of Sedna O’Denman, the last abbot, who was “burned in his own house” in AD974. The Nendrum bell, now in the Ulster Museum, was probably hidden by the monks at this time. It was supposedly donated by Patrick himself and used to call the monks to worship.
Like the other monasteries in the region, Kill Combuir, the church of Comber, was attacked by the Vikings, who were making a nuisance of themselves around the Strang Fjord or Strangford Lough. For instance in 1031 the abbey was burned, 4 clerics killed and 30 carried off as captives. And in 1121 the Annals of the Four Masters record that Cormac, abbot of Comar, was killed. By this time the monastery had been taken over by the Augustinians, known as the Black Canons after the colour of their habit. The monastery likewise became the Black Abbey. It faded into obscurity when the later Cistercian abbey was built. Around 1644 Father McCana writes in his Irish Itinerary that not even the ruins remained. The Scots settlers had apparently used the stones to build houses for themselves.
During medieval times there were various small churches and chapels and other holy places in the Comber area. James O’Laverty, the parish priest of Holywood writing in 1880, mentions the site of a church at the Fairy Tree on the Belfast Road, and a number of graves were uncovered here around 1830. Until the 1950s the site was marked by a ring of boulders, the fairy ring where the fairies were said to dance. O’Laverty also tells us that the garden of Killynether House at Scrabo occupies the site of an ancient cemetery. Nearby was a well where people afflicted with warts came to wash their hands. Close to it was a rude stone shaped like a chair, and here a holy man called Old Cowey came to pray and drink the waters.
When the Normans under John de Courcy invaded Ulster in 1177, they erected mottes for defence. One of these was on the Newtownards Road at the Moat Corner. This was in the parish of Ballyrickard, which no longer exists, and there was once a church here. Another church mentioned in medieval times is Rogerstown, possibly in the townland of Ballyaltikilligan.
A number of monasteries were founded by the Normans, for instance Greyabbey dating from1193. De Courcy also re-housed Nendrum with Benedictine monks, but it then disappears from the records until 1306 when it is valued at 7 marks in the papal taxation roll. There is no mention at this time of any monastery, so it seems that Nendrum had become a simple parish church. In the 15th century a new church at Tullynakill replaced it. Nendrum then lay forgotten for many centuries. Until the antiquarian Bishop Reeves rediscovered it in 1844, identifying the stump of the round tower in what was supposedly an old lime kiln.
Comber got a new monastery, said to have been founded by Brian Catha Dun in 1199. Monks were brought over from Albalanda in Carmarthenshire to man it. These were Cistercians, known as White Monks after the colour of their habit. There are strong links between Comber and Greyabbey, also a Cistercian foundation. Mason’s marks found at both sites indicate that the same group of workmen built both. Unfortunately the Comber mark has disappeared. And not only were the workmen the same, but the building itself would have been similar, as all Cistercian foundations had to conform to certain rules of construction. So, judging by Greyabbey, it was quite a large building or rather group of buildings.
Where exactly was this monastery in Comber, for like the Black Abbey, all trace of it has gone? It lay just off what is now Comber Square in the angle between the Enler and Glen Rivers. St Mary’s Parish Church is believed to occupy the area once covered by the nave of the abbey church. And the burial ground of the monks lies beneath the Square. Human remains were uncovered in 1844 when digging the foundations for the Gillespie monument.
PLAN DIAGRAM OF COMBER ABBEY
This diagram is based on Greyabbey, and shows how the buildings would have looked. They surround an open area called the garth. The church would have been the highest building, and beside it was the Chapter House, where the monks met daily for business. You will notice the reredorter or necessarium. This was an early type of flush toilet. Traces of a broad stream were unearthed when building a new hall at St Mary’s in 1983, and this may be the remains of the medieval drainage system. The Refectory was the dining room where the monks had their meals, taken in silence except for the reading of Scripture by one of their number.
Comber Abbey was of moderate importance, and we read of Andrew, Abbot of Cummor, at a visitation by the bishop to Bangor Abbey in 1251. It was quite prosperous, but when Henry VIII fell out with the Pope and set himself up as Head of a separate Anglican Church, he decided to close the monasteries and take their wealth for himself. The axe fell in 1543. An Inquisition or investigation in 1605 found that the last abbot, John O’Mullegan, had been deprived of 7 townlands – Ballymonaster (the land adjoining the abbey), Carnesure, Cullintraw, Cattogs, Troopersfield, Ballynichol and half of Ballygowan.
The abbey lay abandoned for many years. Then in 1571 Elizabeth I granted territory in North Down to an adventurer called Sir Thomas Smith. The problem was that the land was already owned by the chief of Claneboye, Bryan McPhelim O’Neill. When Smith’s son arrived to stake his father’s claim there was bound to be trouble. O’Neill didn’t want to afford any shelter to the English, and so he adopted a scorched earth policy. That meant that anything that could be of assistance to the enemy had to be destroyed. And that included the old abbeys of the region, including that of Comber. They were all put to the torch. Stones from the burnt out shell of the abbey were later used in 1622 to build Mount Alexander House in Castle lane, itself long since gone. This was in the early days of the Scots settlement of County Down and was a wedding present from Hugh Montgomery, Viscount Ardes, to his son. Abbey stones were also used by the Scots settlers in the construction of various walls and buildings in the area. And so the abbey gradually disappeared bit by bit.
But do we have a remnant of the abbey in this group of stones, built up in the garden of Aureen in 1931 by Tom Campbell, the gardener there? He is said to have brought them from the Old House of the Andrews family, where he had previously worked. The head represents that of a king, and the stones have been dated by archaeologists to the 15th century. It seems plausible that they once belonged to Comber abbey. The stones have been dismantled and cleaned, and there are plans to install them in the new South Transept at St Mary’s.
About 1610 the Scots settlers under Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton fitted out part of the abbey ruins at Comber as a church, the original St Mary’s Parish Church. There is a description of it from the 1830s. “There is no tower or steeple. It is built like a common house with merely a small arch erected on its southern gable, in which is a bell”. A bell was necessary in those days when people didn’t have clocks. Montgomery supplied bells for the churches on his estate, but the original Comber one was lost. Another of his gifts was a Geneva or “breeches” bible for each of his churches. This English translation had been prepared by Protestants in exile, and its nickname came from the use of the word “breeches” in Genesis 3:7 instead of “aprons”.
Worship was Episcopalian in form, as both Hamilton and Montgomery were of that persuasion. This meant belief in the Anglican tradition of rule by bishops. It had to be that way, as the church came under the patronage of Hamilton and Montgomery, and they paid for the rebuilding. Hamilton gave one-third of the money and Montgomery two-thirds, in ratio to the amount of land they owned in the parish of Comber. We have the name of the first minister – James Fresall, who wasn’t appointed until 1622. It is assumed that he held Episcopalian views, although we know absolutely nothing about him.
But, although Hamilton and Montgomery were Anglican, the majority of the Comber people were Presbyterian. This would eventually cause friction, but at first the situation was harmonious enough. Ministers with Presbyterian views were indeed often ordained into Anglican churches by the bishops, men like Robert Blair of Bangor and John Livingstone of Killinchy. They eventually left in 1634 on the Eagle Wing for a new life in America. But Atlantic storms drove them back, and they ended their days as ministers in Scotland.
Thomas Wentworth, also known as Black Tom Tyrant, was Charles I’s Lord Deputy in Ireland. Charles would eventually end up fighting with his Parliament in the English Civil War, but for many years he tried to rule without them. This meant he was always looking for ways to raise money. One way of raising money was for non-attendance at church, the so-called recusancy fines, mainly aimed at the Roman Catholics. Yet many believed the religious policies of Charles and his archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, were too close to Rome. This was part of the problem he faced with a largely Puritan parliament in England. It also led to war with the Presbyterian Scots, who signed a National Covenant, condemning recent innovations imposed on them by Charles. Wentworth was determined to prevent support for the Covenant among the Ulster Scots, who were required to take the Black Oath repudiating it.
Then in 1641 the Roman Catholics rebelled. They felt aggrieved about the loss of their lands and the suppression of their religion. This was a bitter religious war and rumours would have reached Comber of great cruelty being meted out to the settlers in other places. Comber came under attack as the rebels approached from the Killinchy direction. But the settlers were victorious. At a place named as Battletown by the author of the Montgomery Manuscripts the rebels were defeated and put to flight. Battletown is an old name for Drumreagh. A Scots army arrived in Ulster with the task of putting down the rebellion on behalf of the English, who were paying them. This was largely a Presbyterian army, and in 1642 they formed the first presbytery on Irish soil to provide for their spiritual needs. Applications were made by a number of parishes to be taken under the care of this presbytery, and Comber was one of them.
In 1657 James Gordon is reported as a preacher in salary with a dwelling house and 6 acres of land. Then in 1660 the exiled Charles II was restored to his throne. It was hoped he would support the Presbyterians as he had signed the Covenant. But in 1661 he brought back the bishops. Jeremy Taylor was appointed as Bishop of Down, and he gave ministers the option to either conform to the Anglican form of worship or be thrown out. Gordon was thrown out, and replaced by William Dowdall.
But there was trouble when Dowdall was attacked in the church, an incident reminiscent of one in 1637 when a riot broke out in St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh. On that occasion Jenny Geddis famously threw a stool at the preacher. Dowdall merely had his robes pulled off. Once again, the culprits were mainly women, who were brought for trial to Downpatrick. Here one of them boasted “These are the hands that poo’d the white sark ower his heed”.
Gordon had no church for the next ten years or so. But it seems he remained active. In 1663 Colonel Thomas Blood tried to seize Dublin Castle and murder the Lord Lieutenant. Gordon and a number of other ministers were accused of involvement in Blood’s Plot, and arrested. No evidence could be found against most of these men, and after a few weeks they were given a choice to either leave the country or remain in prison. However, somehow Gordon was allowed to return to Comber, and it seems that he had Lady Montgomery to thank for that. He is mentioned as a tenant in Ballyhenry in the Mount Alexander Rent Roll of 1684.
High Street was the Coo Vennel or Cow Lane of the Scots settlers. Around 1670 the Presbyterians built a meeting house here. This is now 1st Comber. The lease of the present church is dated 1st September 1686, and the property is described as “two tenements and a half in the Coo Vennel in the towne of Comber”. The original meeting house was a simple low thatched building. It was whitewashed both inside and out and had no pews. The men generally stood, although women could bring stools to sit on. And this was in a day when the sermon could last for hours. By 1686 James Gordon was probably dead. His successor was John Hamilton, and it seems that a school was established in connection with the church in 1685 with John Binning as master. When war broke out in 1689 between William and James it closed down.
Comber had its part to play in this war. For it was on 3rd December 1688 that an anonymous letter was found in the street, addressed to the Earl of Mount Alexander, and warning of a planned general massacre of Protestants. 1641 was still fresh in people’s memories, and copies of this letter circulated far and wide. It was being read out to the citizens of Derry when they received word that a Catholic army was approaching. 13 apprentice boys seized the keys and closed the gates against them.
The Jacobites took over most of eastern Ulster. Among those who fled from Comber were John Hamilton, the minister, and John Binning, the schoolmaster. They never returned. Religious services were suspended, and we read of the Rev. Gilbert Kennedy of Dundonald preaching in the Glens near Comber. But resistance was organised by Captain Henry Hunter, an experienced soldier. One of the towns that he temporarily cleared of James’s troops was Comber. However, not until Schomberg’s army landed at Groomsport in August 1689 was there to be peace in the region.
The number of Presbyterians in Ulster doubled between 1660 and 1715. One major reason for this was harvest failure in Scotland, leading to famine there, and it is estimated that some 50,000 Scots families came over to settle after the Williamite War. The number is probably an exaggeration, but there were enough of them to set alarm bells ringing in Episcopalian circles. Because most of the newcomers were Presbyterian, and they threatened to overwhelm the established church.
Many of the early Scots settlers lie buried in the graveyard at St Mary’s. This includes Presbyterians as well as Anglicans, because this was the only graveyard in Comber. Most of the early graves are marked by nothing more than a simple headstone with an inscription, for instance “Here lyeth the body of Hugh McCaie who dyed the 18 of Dec. 168(5)”. But there is an interesting slab of red Castle Espie limestone fixed to the wall of the church. “Here lyeth the body of Isaac Meredith of Kilbreght gent, who departed this life the 10th day of July 1723”. And then we are given the information “aged 127 years”. Can this really be the resting place of Comber’s oldest man? I don’t think so. A close look would indicate that someone has rather mischievously inserted the 1 at a later date.
HEADSTONE OF ISAAC MEREDITH
Some old monuments were transferred from the old church to the new St Mary’s. One such can today be seen on the inside wall of the tower. It bears two dates – 1633 and 1637, along with two coats of arms and two sets of letters. Likewise there are two mottoes – “thus unjoyned by God” and “there is no way which vertue gois not through”. I wonder what it all means. And what about the font inside the present church? It is very old, and indeed not even of local stone. It is made of a polished red stone called porphyry, native to parts of Italy and the Mediterranean. Almost certainly it was in the old church, and may even pre-date that.
Around 1692 David Maxwell became rector of St Mary’s. But he only lasted 7 years and his burial is recorded as having taken place at Comber on July 30th 1699. Then came Edmund Bennett. A badly worn memorial stone to him at the gable end of the church has been replaced in recent years. “Near this place lyeth the body of ye Rev Mr E.B., ye late learned and pious minister of this congregation and chaplain to the Earle of Mount Alexander. He died on 15th February 1710, very much lamented”. James Montgomery followed in 1712 and Patrick Hamilton in 1716. A tablet inside the church tells us that Hamilton was minister of Comber for 18 years, and subsequently went to Killyleagh, where he died in 1750. But both he and his wife were buried at Comber. Annesley Bailie succeeded Hamilton in 1733. It was in his time that the glebe house was erected in 1738. This was to be the home of the rector until the Rev Manning moved to the present rectory around the time of the First World War. The glebe house was demolished in 1958. Bailie died in 1758.
St Mary’s Parish had more than spiritual responsibilities. For the parish was the unit of local government, and it was up to the church to collect the parish and county cesses. The cess was a local tax, set in 1720 at 10 guineas. However, £12-6-6½ was actually spent in that year, so there was a problem. Road maintenance was one of the tasks to which this money was put. But there were also social issues, such as the 30 shillings for the maintenance of Josh Gorley's child in 1744.
1744 was the year when Walter Harris published his survey of County Down, and in it he refers to St Mary’s as a “decent church”. St Mary’s was part of what became known as the Protestant Ascendancy. But not all Protestants could be part of this. Presbyterians, as well as Roman Catholics, were for a time virtually excluded from public life by the Penal Laws. In 1704 a Popery Bill passed through Parliament. One clause in this stated that any person holding public office must produce a certificate as proof that he had received the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in the Anglican form. Catholics were already excluded, so this was obviously directed at the Presbyterians. In addition, Presbyterian clergymen were no longer recognised by the law, and it was somewhat inconvenient, to say the least, that the Established Church did not recognise Presbyterian marriage. It was all very unfair, especially as Presbyterians had to pay tithes to the Established Church. But there was some light at the end of the tunnel. The Toleration Act of 1719 relieved them of most of the restrictions and, although the Test Act remained on the statute book, it was never seriously enforced against the Presbyterians, who were by far the largest denomination in Comber. A return of 1764, completed by a “gauger” or excise officer, indicates that there were 1,220 Protestant Dissenters, as opposed to 315 members of the Established Church and 165 Papists.
The Presbyterians were ruled over by the Kirk Session, which set very strict standards. It was really a court of morals, and nobody was exempt from its judgements. The most serious cases were probably those relating to adultery, drunkenness and the taking of the Lord’s name in vain. If the offender showed repentance, he or she would be made to stand before the congregation on the stool of repentance. And you couldn’t join a new church without a certificate from your former congregation certifying you free from scandal. It was all very serious stuff.
Thomas Orr was ordained as Presbyterian minister in 1695, and he was succeeded in 1724 by John Orr, who was probably his son. Soon there were major problems. Because this was a time when there was a split in the Presbyterian Church into Subscribers and Non-subscribers. Subscribers adhered to the Westminster Confession of Faith, while Non-subscribers did not. They believed the Bible to be sufficient without any additions, and that the individual should come to his own understanding of the Scriptures through the reason given to him by God. This was also known as New Light theology. At Comber John Orr adopted Non-subscribing principles. The congregation tried to throw him out, and there was a legal action taken against 49 persons who took possession of the meeting house by force and refused to let the minister in. Orr would have to be removed by legal means, and so it was that James Maxwell, a man over 80 years old, rode to Dublin for the necessary papers, returning the next day. Orr was brought to trial, although on what grounds I am not sure. The judge described him as “more like a wolf or tyrant to conspire against the people as he had done”. Orr subsequently joined the Episcopalian Church, and became Dean of Raphoe. It seems there was a breakaway congregation for a period at this time, to whom the General Synod were sympathetic and supplied ministers for its services.
As might be expected Orr’s successor was not appointed for some time, as the congregation did not want a repeat performance of the fiasco that had just occurred. Finally in 1728 Robert Cunningham was ordained. He was to have a long innings, laying down his charge due to infirmity in 1772. During Cunningham’s time, in 1740, an extension was made to the meeting house. This had a gallery and outside steps. Some years ago a stone was found in an outhouse of the manse, inscribed “This house was built in the year 1740, the Rev Robert Cunningham minister”. It was subsequently placed in the wall of the church at the north entrance. A report of the time stated that there were only two slated houses in the Parish – the Glebe and Ballybeen House, so the new meeting house was probably thatched.
Ist COMBER CHURCH 1864
It was also during Cunningham’s ministry that John Wesley, the leader of the Methodists, made an appearance in Comber. In fact he came three times, in 1758, 1760 and 1762. There was opposition from the Comber ministers, and Cunningham expelled from the Lord’s Table all who had become Methodists. However, he subsequently relented and sent out his elders to invite them back. We have some detail of Wesley’s 1760 visit. He began to preach, presumably in the open air, as soon as the normal church service was over, and we are told that four out of five of the audience behaved well, probably not a bad proportion for those days. The Comber Society prospered at first, but in 1766 it suffered a setback. Two of its leaders had died in quick succession, and there was no-one qualified to take over. To quote: “The only person who had the gifts was lacking in the required grace and was eventually expelled. He was thus deprived of the presence of the preachers in his house, the only one then open in the town for their entertainment”.
In the early days there was no church building, and the conventicles met in private houses. It was not until 1820 that the Comber Methodists built what was then called a Mission Station in Newtown Street, now Bridge Street. It was formally opened on 22nd December 1822 when Charles Mayne and John Matthews preached to crowded congregations. The minister was Matthew Lanktree. A plaque built into the stonework recorded the original name and the date 1820, also the words in an outer ring "Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth peace good will toward men”. A porch was added in 1891. Until 1871 the Mission Station was regarded as part of the overseas work of the English Wesleyan Missionary Committee. In that year it became one of 38 congregations who received an annual grant from the Irish Conference, and changed its name to church.
OLD METHODIST CHURCH BRIDGE ST
NEW METHODIST CHURCH BRIDGE ST
At one time serious consideration was given to closing the Methodist Church, because attendance was so low. However, new housing developments brought new families to the town, and numbers grew again. But the building itself was deemed unsafe and was knocked down in somewhat controversial circumstances in 1995. Since then services have been held in the hall, which was opened in 1977.
But let’s get back to the 18th century. A tablet in St Mary’s was erected in 1855 by Guy Stone of Barnhill. On it he mentions his grandfather, the Rev Guy Stone, described as Prebendary of Kilroot and also for 26 years curate of Comber and Newtownards. It was he who took out a lease on Barnhill farm in 1767 and started to build the house. Somewhat surprisingly, he does not mention the Rev Guy’s brother Samuel, who was rector of Comber from 1758 to 1783. He was also vicar of Killaney, which had no church, and of Culdaff in Co Donegal, where he lived from 1769, only visiting Comber in the summers. I get rather confused between these two brothers. Did Guy deputise for his brother until his own death in 1779? Did Comber then have an absentee minister until Robert Mortimer was appointed in 1783? Why did Samuel Stone give up Comber when he did? His death is recorded in 1798.
There are close links between the Stone and Mortimer families. Robert was married to Jane, daughter of the Rev Guy Stone. She was also his cousin. He was rector at the time of the rebellion in 1798. These must have been frightening times for those of an Anglican persuasion, for the Presbyterian majority in Comber supported the rebellion. Colonel Stapleton and the York Fencible Regiment set out in pursuit of the rebels. They were accompanied by Mortimer, in his role of magistrate, and his nephew. However, close to Saintfield the government troops were ambushed by the rebels and put to flight. Mortimer and his nephew were among the first to be killed. There is some mystery about Mortimer’s burial place. One version of the story relates that his body was found against a gatepost, completely naked. It was then buried in a mass grave at a place still known as York Island, because most of the dead were members of the York Fencibles. But there is another tradition that the body was secretly brought back to Comber and buried under the aisle of St Mary’s.
A memorial tablet in St Mary’s is dedicated to three officers of the York Fencible Regiment. Captain Chetwynd, Lieutenant Unit and Ensign Sparks were all killed in the action at Saintfield. The rebels made off towards Ballynahinch, where they would eventually be defeated. Stapleton and his remaining troops retreated to Comber, where they quartered themselves in the Presbyterian meeting house. Some years ago a bayonet was found in the church when renovations were being carried out. It is thought to have been left behind by the soldiers. The troops are also suspected of plundering books and documents from the church, as there is a noticeable gap in the records at this period.
What had been happening at the Presbyterian congregation in the latter part of the 18th century? When Robert Cunningham stepped down in 1772, there were once again bitter disputes over his successor. These were so bad that the congregation was placed under the care of the General Synod in 1774. A call was eventually given to the Rev William Henry, who had been minister of Dromore since 1753. When he died, he was succeeded by John McCance, ordained on 15th June 1790.
Guy Stone’s diary informs us that John McCance suffered a stroke in 1837. Soon after this he retired. McCance was a man of liberal views, who never subscribed to the Westminster Confession of Faith, although this did not prevent him becoming Moderator of the General Synod in 1815-16. It seems that he erred towards Unitarian doctrine, and what is so surprising is how he managed to control the Comber congregation for so long. We have the record of a communion service held on 16th October 1814, when Mr McCance was assisted by Rev Samuel Watson of Killinchy and Rev James McClelland of Ballynahinch. “There were four full tables and a third part filled of the fifth, containing upwards of 400 persons, in which number 40 young communicants are included”. In those days people sat at actual tables set up in the aisles, which must have been a lot broader than those of today. John McConnell’s bill for wine was £3-12-6, Pat Kennedy’s baker’s bill was 16/-, while James Anderson charged 13/7½ for cleaning the cups. Preparation Sabbath had been held the previous Sunday, followed by a fast day on the Wednesday and another service on the Saturday. Communion was taken very seriously, and was one of the best attended services, unlike today.
The usual Sabbath collection could be anything from 2/9 to 14/1, although on Communion Sunday it could get close to £2. Out of this, between £2-3 a month was given to assist the poor, to people like Widow Johnston, Old McVeigh, and Blind Marshall. This was the only assistance such people got until a House of Industry was erected in 1824 in what was known as Poorhouse Lane. Wealthy people such as Lord Londonderry subscribed to its upkeep, and the inmates had to work for their keep. They produced items such as oatmeal, potatoes and cabbage, which would then be delivered weekly to some 70 poor people who were too frail to work. The churches provided money from the Sabbath collections and an annual charity sermon. We are told that by the 1830s support for the Poorhouse was waning.
In the early years of the 19th century, we find a father and son ministering at St Mary’s. A memorial tablet inside the church pays tribute to them. George Birch was installed in 1799 and remained until his death in 1827. His successor was George Watson Birch, who died in 1830, a young man in his 30th year. They seem to have been well thought of.
It was during the Birch’s time that a school opened in 1813, built jointly by Lady Londonderry and the Erasmus Smith Charity. In 1838 this was the largest school in Comber with 233 pupils, and this included 8 Roman Catholics. The Roman Catholics had only recently been given full emancipation by the Act of 1829. A house was erected for the master in 1832. This school continued until 1938, when all the Protestant schools in the town amalgamated into Comber Elementary School. The building was replaced by the present Parish hall in 1954. Another school was established in 1831 at the Presbyterian meeting house under the Hibernian Society.
The next rector was an Englishman, the Rev. Robert Ferrier Jex-Blake. He stayed at Comber until 1851, when he returned to his native Norfolk. It was during his time that St Mary’s was rebuilt. Considerable money was continually being spent on repairs to the ancient building, and in 1829 the decision was taken to erect a new church on the existing site, using the existing foundations and raising the floor so as not to disturb any graves. Guy Stone tells us in his diary that he made his first donation to the new church on 30th August 1837, following a personal visit by Rev Blake himself. He felt his subscription of £15 to have been “more than I should have give either from income or in comparison with other subscribers who have a far greater interest in the Parish than I have”. For one with such little interest, it might seem surprising that he attended Vestry meetings in connection with a proposed enlargement of the churchyard, which was assessed at £40.
St MARY'S CHURCH OF IRELAND
Rebuilding took place during 1838 and 1839, with the new church opening for worship in 1840. The bell in the tower dates from that time, as does the clock, which was taken down and renovated in 1996. The clock was presented by Viscount Castlereagh in 1841, along with a large chandelier holding many candles, which illuminated the interior of the church for a number of years. We are going to find not just one new church opening in 1840, but no fewer than three.
Because after Rev McCance resigned at the meeting house in 1837 the storm burst. The spectre of Unitarianism had raised its head again. A number of the congregation were sympathetic to it, and thought the time right to establish a new church. The first move was taken by John Miller, one of the partners in the Upper Distillery. Miller had been brought up a Methodist, but by the time he came to Comber in 1823 had become a Unitarian. He lived at Aureen in The Square, and made a room available for meetings in his home. But this was not big enough, and in 1837 the upper part of a barn was fitted out as a meeting place. Guy Stone went to the first meeting in Barry’s old barn on 2nd April 1837, probably more out of curiosity than anything else, for he seems to have been an irregular church-goer. 300 people packed in to hear Dr Montgomery, a well-known New Light minister, preach for 2 hours.
James Andrews, who by now was an old man in his 80s, left 1st Comber at this time along with most of the Andrews family. One reason may have been a sermon preached by Rev Anderson of Killinchy at the old meeting house. In it he referred to Unitarian Sophists speaking forth impious blasphemies from their polluted lips. James Andrews is recorded as officiating as an elder at these early Unitarian meetings.
And it was James Andrews who donated the ground for a new church on Windmill Hill. Originally the church was to have been opposite the Upper Distillery, where 2nd Comber is today. But politics intervened, and Lord Londonderry refused to grant the Unitarians a lease of the land. What looks like a windmill is marked on the site of the Unitarian church on the 1834 map, and this was to play a part in its history. For on the night of January 6th-7th 1839 a mighty storm hit Ireland. This was the Night of the Big Wind. Among other things the top of the windmill blew off on to the roof of the new church, which was about to be opened. That opening thus had to be delayed for over a year, until March 1840.
The first minister was William Hugh Doherty. Guy Stone offers an opinion on his preaching. “His style of language and mode of delivery did not please me, although his matter was pretty good”. Doherty was to remain until 1850, when he emigrated to America. Comber must have held sad memories for him, for a headstone in the Church of Ireland graveyard records the deaths of 2 young sons, Eugene in 1847 and William Hugh in 1849. Perhaps he wanted to leave these memories behind.
Back to the 1830s, when Henry Cooke, today immortalised as the Black Man in Belfast and the most influential leader of Presbyterianism at the time, suggested that the time might be right to establish another congregation in Comber. There was certainly a need for more accommodation. But many were also unhappy with the new minister at 1st Comber. This was Isaac Nelson, who was later to gain some notoriety as a controversialist, writing a sketch of the 1859 Revival entitled “The Year of Delusion” and ending his days as Nationalist MP for County Mayo. He only stayed for 4 years in Comber, but already there seems to be a hint that all was not well. Some members tried to get rid of him. Apparently, when the voting list had been read out, the minister doing so had omitted to mention how much money each individual had paid into the church. So the election in their eyes was illegal. They wanted a new one. They got a new congregation instead.
The new congregation of 2nd Comber met for the first time in 1838 in a loft in Millings’ yard at the bottom of High Street. There were about 70 families, and in 1839 they ordained Rev John Rogers as minister. On the same day the foundation stone of a new meeting house was laid in Killinchy Street, and the new church became the third to open for worship in Comber in 1840.
2nd COMBER PRESBYTERIAN
John Rogers remained as minister for some 30 years, after which he was chosen to succeed Henry Cooke as Professor of Sacred Rhetoric at Assembly’s College, Belfast. During that time he was elected as Moderator in 1863 and 1864. He also saw a new manse erected in 1860 and a schoolhouse built in 1861. This became known as Smyth’s School, after John Smyth of New Comber House, who donated £700 to the manse and school funds. Like the other Protestant schools in Comber, it became part of Comber Elementary School in 1938.
The decade of the 1840s was a very difficult one. This was the time of the Great Potato Famine, and Comber was affected. Christianity of a practical kind was called for. This included a soup kitchen, supplying free bread and soup to 230 families a day, while another hundred families could buy soup for a halfpenny a quart. Meal and coal were also sold at reduced prices.
Then in 1859 came a great religious revival in Ulster. Comber was not exempt. At 2nd Comber a number of new converts are recorded, but it seems to have fallen to a greater extent on 1st Comber, which was visited by a group from Ballymena. Soon afterwards the Rev Killen was addressing a prayer meeting, where many people were reduced to tears on account of their sins, and some had to be removed after fainting. In Mr. Killen’s words: “The whole town and neighbourhood were roused. Many did not retire to rest the first night at all, and for several days great numbers were unable to attend to their usual avocations, but gave themselves almost unceasingly to the study of the scriptures, singing and prayer… Altogether we have had above three hundred and fifty cases of visible awakening in our congregation… Drunkards have been reformed, prostitutes reclaimed, thieves have become honest… Our converts include children of seven and old men and women of upwards of seventy years of age”.
The Rev James Miller Killen had been ordained in 1st Comber in 1843. Today, his name can be found on a weathered inscription on the outside wall of the Minor Hall, opened as a new schoolhouse in 1869. He was succeeded in 1880 by John McKeown, who resigned in 1885 after receiving a call to Birmingham. Then came Robert Hanna, an Englishman from Croydon, and although he was minister for only a very short time from 1886 to 1888, it was an important time in the history of the congregation. For in 1887 there were major renovations to the church building. The steps and gallery were removed at this time, along with the roof, flooring and pews, and the interior of the church completely reconstructed.
The Unitarians also continued to grow. Or perhaps we should call them the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians of the Remonstrant Synod, as the majority do not appear to have held Unitarian views at all. In 1838 there were 38 seat holders, people who rented out their own seat in the pew, but by 1850 this had increased to 56. This was the year when John Orr was installed as minister. During his time a manse was built in 1859, the burial ground was consecrated in 1863 and a hall erected in 1878. In 1871 John Miller had the exterior of the church finished in Portland cement entirely at his own expense.
There have been six ministers since John Orr, beginning with Thomas Dunkerly in 1879. He ministered in Comber until 1915, and a plaque to his memory can be found in the church. When he died in 1925, his ashes were interred in the Unitarian graveyard. Kenneth Dunbar had a short ministry from 1915 to 1919, and then came two Welshmen, the long-serving James Glynne Davies (1919-64) and Robert Islwyn Pritchard (1965-9). Again, a memorial plaque for Rev Davies is inside the church, and he was buried in the graveyard in 1970. William Rowan was minister for 14 years from 1970 to 1984, the first Ulsterman to occupy the pulpit for over 50 years. He was an ex-service man, who took a great interest in the affairs of the British Legion. The present minister is Ian Gilpin, installed in 1986.
Three stained glass windows in the church commemorate various members of the Andrews family. One of these was erected by Willie Andrews in memory of his mother. The mother is personified as Love, and we see her with 6 children, 4 boys and a girl who grew to adulthood, and in her arms the baby who died as an infant. The family home of Ardara is in the background. Willie was a keen cricketer, which may explain why a cricket bat and ball appear on the window.
Many members of the Andrews family are buried in the Unitarian graveyard, including Thomas of Ardara and his wife, and 3 of their sons, John Millar Andrews, the prime minister, James Andrews the Lord Chief Justice and Willie Andrews. But not the 4th son Thomas, buried somewhere in the North Atlantic along with the ill-fated Titanic, which he helped to design.
The earlier members of the Andrews family were interred in St Mary’s churchyard, and in 1867 William Glenny Andrews erected a mausoleum over the site. The Andrews’ were not members of St Mary’s, but it is interesting to note the inscription on one of the entrance pillars erected in 1774 by Thomas Andrews and James Lemont of Gransha. Although Presbyterians, both men were also, strangely enough, churchwardens at St Mary’s, an anomaly from a time when the functions of the parish were not solely religious.
At St Mary’s William Thomas Delacherois Crommelin became minister in 1851. He was followed by George Smith in 1868. Canon Smith’s portrait can today be seen on the banner of one of Comber’s Orange lodges, LOL 1035. He was known as a great benefactor to the poor and needy, especially orphans. He died in 1911, and such was the esteem in which he was held, that the new North Transept to the church was consecrated to his memory in 1913. Smith’s successor, Charles Campbell Manning, became a chaplain to the Forces in the First World War. It was also in his time that the present rectory was erected in Laurelvale. Manning only stayed until 1918, but then came Canon John Sheffield Houston, who lasted right through until 1954.
It was in Canon Houston’s time that St Mary’s received its most famous visitor – in 1946, when our present Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, was godmother at the baptism of Elizabeth Lavinia Sarah King, daughter of her lady-in-waiting. A new minister came in 1954, Richard Clayton Stevenson, along with a new church hall in place of the old Londonderry schoolhouse. Since then there have been 4 further ministers –Robert Joseph Norman Lockhart (1960-62), Hamilton Leckey (1962-79), F.D. Swann (1979-87) and Jonathan Barry.
St MARY'S CATHOLIC CHURCH
The Roman Catholics of Comber did not have a church of their own until 1872. In 1863 they had been worshipping in a building in The Crescent, which later became a blacksmith’s shop. Then Father Close, the parish priest of Newtownards, got permission to celebrate mass every Sunday in the Market House in Killinchy Street. The foundation stone of the church was laid in 1868, and the building was dedicated for worship by the Most Reverend Dr Dorrian in 1872. Like its Protestant counterparts, it had a school, dating from the time of Father Crolly, parish priest from 1903-12. This became too small, and a new school was opened in 1955. Much renovation was carried out to the church in 1960, and in 1972 an impressive ceremony was held to mark the centenary. Among the guests was the Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Philbin. Relations between Protestants and Catholics in the town have generally been good down the years, although there was a sad incident in 1993 when damage was caused to the chapel by an incendiary device.
The Presbyterians remain the largest denomination in Comber. Shortly after the major renovations of 1887, Thomas Graham, originally from Lisbellaw, became minister. During his time a large pipe organ was installed in the church. He died in 1916 and was succeeded by John McKean. The early 20th century is notable for a number of long-serving ministers in the town, and Rev McKean was no exception, remaining until 1956. He was Moderator of the General Assembly in 1952 when the memorial gardens in Comber Square were dedicated. The Rev William Robert Brown moved into Comber from Carnlough in 1957, and into a completely new manse. A new hall was built in 1960 to meet the growing needs of the congregation. Rev Brown retired in 1986. Since then we have had David Gray, and the present minister Wilson Gordon.
1st COMBER PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
At 2nd Comber, when John Rogers left in 1869, there was no minister until Stuart James Niblock was appointed in 1873. He had been minister of Riverside congregation in Newry. In 1877 he went off to Scotland, and was replaced by David Taylor. When Rev Taylor’s father died in 1896, he sought permission to retire, but he still maintained an interest in the church, becoming Moderator in 1899. He retained a connection with 2nd Comber, and is still listed as minister in the 1925 Ulster Directory. He died in 1941.
Rev Robert James Semple was ordained in 2nd Comber in 1897. He founded the Boy’s Brigade Company in 1899. Rev Semple was followed in 1911 by Thomas McConnell. Like Rev Manning at St Mary’s, Thomas McConnell enlisted with the Forces during the First World War, and in 1919 left 2nd Comber for Canada. Then came Rev Breakey (1919-27), who then became minister of Abbey Presbyterian Church in Dublin. In 1955 he would be elected Moderator of the General Assembly.
James E Jones, a native of Lurgan, was ordained in 1927, and is still remembered with affection, having ministered for 42 years until 1969. He saw many changes, including the installation of a pipe organ in 1931, the opening of a Youth Hall in 1951, a re-modelling of the grounds in 1952, and a major refurbishment of the church in 1955. Sam Wilson was minister from 1970 until 1978, during which time a new hall was built in 1975. There have been 3 ministers since – John Chambers (1979-84), Paul Erskine (1985-94) and Roy Mackay, installed 1995. In 1993 the old Smyth schoolhouse was demolished and replaced with a new suite of halls.
Other denominations have come to Comber in recent years, including the Baptists in Mill Street. They first met in 1966 in the Laureldale Hall. The present church building opened in 1975. We also have the Free Presbyterians on the Newtownards Road, the Brethren at the Gospel Hall on the Belfast Road and Comber Christian Centre at Laureldale.
FREE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
COMBER CHRISTIAN CENTRE
There have been many changes in the 1,500 or so years since Christianity came to Comber. Today we are experiencing a decline in church membership throughout the Province. But the churches remain committed to the Christian message. In Comber there is support for initiatives such as the Alpha Course and the Net drop-in centre in Bridge Street run by Youth for Christ. There is much cause for optimism. I wonder what the next 1,500 years will bring?
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