The historic church of St John the Baptist, Parish of Upper Falls, will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2011.
To mark the occasion, the church is planning to publish a book commemorating 150 years of dedicated worship within its walls.
The book will be compiled by Diocesan Reader Jim Neil, a lifelong member of the parish, with the assistance of local historian Michael Humphries. The two have issued an appeal for photographs, letters, documents and any form of memorabilia relating to the parish.
Memories of parish life will also play a vital role in this historical record, and they would like to hear from anyone with a special memory of life in the church, or organisations associated with the parish.
The history of the church dates back to the 1830s when the only church in the area was George’s Church in High Street, Belfast. At that time George’s Church held the title ‘Perpetual Curacy of Upper Falls’ because its territory extended from Waring Street to Suffolk. In those years occasional services were held in Roseland School House and the barn of Trench House
In 1855 the Rev W McIlwaine, Perpetual Curate of Upper Falls, gave the Rev Joseph Rawlins, assistant curate of Knockbreda, special responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the people of the Suffolk area, and four years later in 1859 he gave much of his territory to form the new parish of Saint John the Baptist.
The Rev Thomas Millar, Vicar of St Anne’s, and the Rev Robert Gregg, Perpetual Curate of Christchurch, also gave parts of their territory to the new parish. One of the churchwardens, John Stouppe Charley, gave land for the church
Two years later, in 1861 St John the Baptist was consecrated to be the parish church of Upper Falls, and George’s Church in the High Street became the Parish Church of St George.
As many more homes were built in the area, including the Suffolk Estate, Presbyterian and Methodist churches were also built. But the Troubles had a major impact on the parish, and St John’s Parish Hall was destroyed in 1977. Mortar bombs fired at Woodburn Army Base in the early 1980s caused considerable damage to the church which was closed for a time for repairs.
People fled the area. Jim Neil recalled: “In the 1960s the church population was 650 families. I was Canon TG Haughton’s Church Warden in the sixties and we would have had 350 at the morning service and 100 at the evening service. But the Troubles led to a mass exodus of people. Now we have an average of 40 at morning service and less in the evening.”
In 1995 the church was altered and pews were removed to accommodate a creche and a room for robing. The parish still has a well attended BB Company and strong Sunday Club.
The shift in population also impacted on the local Suffolk Primary School, now threatened with closure. In 1966 it was the largest primary school in Northern Ireland with 985 pupils. Now there are just 24 in the primary school and 52 in the nursery. Suffolk Primary School will feature in the anniversary book.
Jim said he was sad to see the decline in the population of the area and its impact on the church and school. “The anniversary book will allow older people to reminisce, and it might generate interest locally in the church. There are now a lot of young families in the area,” he said.
Anyone with a memory or item of memorabilia they would like to contribute to the book can contact Jim on 028 9267 4895 or Michael on 028 9080 7703 or email Michael at Michael.email@example.com