Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Ballyfrenis Presbyterian Church

Oh boy. It really should be no surprise - it's been in my blood all along... here's my latest Covenanters discovery!

This church (now closed and turned into a house) is where my mother's side of the family (Wilsons) worshipped at the townland of Ballyfrenis in the middle of the "Low Country", halfway between Carrowdore and Millisle, for many generations up until the 1950s. The church published a small booklet entitled "The Story of a Century" by Rev John Forbes in 1946. I have a photocopy of it.

It was established in 1843, as an offshoot of the "Associate Presbytery of Ireland" which had been formed in 1810 by a Rev James Bryce of Killaig, County Antrim. The booklet says of the new Ballyfrenis congregation that "many of the Covenanting faith of that day joined the new church and took a leading part in its life and work...". Perhaps some of you who understand the politics of Presbyterian history in Ulster can fill me in on the background.

The other member churches of the Associate Presbytery were in County Antrim - Cullybackey, Loanends, Killaig - and for three years the people of Ballyfrenis had no church building to worship in. So "the congregation held their religious services in the open air... there were thirteen communicants at the first celebration of the Lord's Supper, which was held in the "Green". This form of worship was commonly practised by the Covenanters during the persecutions in Scotland, and this may be the reason why the Ballyfrenis people were known as 'Covenanters' at this time..."

The booklet even specifies where the outdoor meetings (and in inclement weather, the farms and barns where the indoor meetings) were held, in the townlands of Ballyfrenis, Drumawhey, Ballybuttle and Islandhill (where the Wilson family home, where my mother and her 8 siblings were reared, still stands - a single storey cottage with a corrugated iron roof)

In 1846, Rev John Ewing was ordained by the Associate Presbytery of Ireland as the first Minister of Ballyfrenis. In 1858 the Associate Presbytery of Ireland was admitted into the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

The 1859 Revival hit Ballyfrenis too, "a most promising revival of religion in the neighbourhood, and our little church has occupied the most prominent part in it. The attendance has very greatly increased, being in the forenoon more than double that of what it used to be; in the evening three of four times as great as formerly..."

In 1900, the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Free Churches of Scotland merged to form the United Free Church of Scotland. Ballyfrenis remained with the United Free Church up until 1922, when they joined the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. In 1932, the then Minister Rev Hugh F Kirker, retired having been the minister at Ballyfrenis since 1886 - 46 years! The Wilson family has a deep affection for the memory of Mr Kirker. He even co-ordinated the local signings of the Ulster Covenant in 1912, and signed it himself - see the evidence here.

In 1932 the congregation merged with Carrowdore, where my uncle Vincent is to this day a member of the Kirk Session.

So, a potted history of my mother's folk. And surprise surprise, they were 19th century Covenanters!!