North Belfast, Northern Ireland

Holy Family Parish in North Belfast: A Symbol of Forgiveness and Reconciliation

April 15, 2008

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Sean Emerson

Holy Family New ChurchHoly Family Parish is an inner city parish in North Belfast, Northern Ireland. It is a large parish by Irish standards with 10,600 registered parishioners and many more not registered. There are three churches within the parish community and six schools, catering for children between four to eighteen years of age. The parish celebrated its centenary in 1993 and has grown rapidly over the years.

I arrived in the parish as Administrator in August 1990 and continued the work of the previous priests in the parish. A Finance Committee and Pastoral Council were set up and an audit was done of parish needs in both these areas. The Finance Committee identified the need to address some of the maintenance work in all of our parish buildings, especially Holy Family Church. A number of surveys were carried out and it was agreed to examine the need to renovate Holy Family Church as soon as possible.

In 1993, we began the work of appointing an architect; the Parish Finance Committee interviewed four architects. They looked at the work of the architects and decided to appoint Mr. Eamon Hedderman from Dublin to lead this project. Mr. Hedderman had a long experience in church architecture and impressed the committee with his opinions and possible solutions in regard to Holy Family Church. The church had been built in 1912 and was considered to be the mother church of the parish. It had the capacity for 1,000 parishioners and was very important to the parish community.

Holy Family Old ChurchOver the next year or so, Mr. Hedderman carried out a survey and found that there were some concerns in regard to the church having moved off its foundation. A possible explanation for this was that during World War II, there had been some bombing of this part of the city, which may have caused the church to move off its foundation. To remedy this probably would have meant a major change to the interior of the church. Coupled with the cost of approximately £1.8 million, this was considered to be a major task. At this point, the architect suggested that the parish should consider the possibility of demolishing the old church and building a new church on site. The Bishop, Most Reverend Patrick Walsh, and the Diocesan Building Committee, along with the Parish Finance Committee, examined the options and reluctantly agreed that the building of a new church would be the best solution. A period of consultation with parishioners took place, and in many ways this helped prepare for the sense of loss. In the meantime, a number of options were produced by the architect and after much deliberation, there was agreement on one of the concepts.

Holy Family Presence StreetIn discussion, a brief was agreed upon by the Committee, with the support and professional advice of Mr. Hedderman. First, it was agreed that the church should have real presence on the Limestone Road, a road which, according to police records, had witnessed over ninety-two riots in the year 1993. It is an interface area between Loyalists and Nationalists and has witnessed many tribulations during the period of the “Troubles” in the North of Ireland. It was hoped that the church would be a witness to the Gospel and to Christ’s call to forgive and to be reconciled, not just in terms of society and politics, but for families and individuals. It would be a place where people could come and see and feel the peace and reconciliation that God gives.

Holy Family DesignA second important principle was that the church would be a place where liturgy in accordance with the church’s teachings would be celebrated easily and well. The third principle was that the church would be a place of welcome and importantly, would encourage a strong sense of community. Finally, in a survey of poverty conducted in the United Kingdom in 1989, the area in which the church was built was considered to be the eleventh poorest area. Therefore, the church needed to be a place of beauty that would encourage people to believe in their dignity as human beings and baptised people.

There were a number of delays and circumstances that enabled the whole design of the church to slowly evolve. There were many changes and considerations to be given and times of consultation with different parishioners. However, eventually the old church was demolished in September 2005 and work began on a new church. The architect involved two artists: Mr. George Walsh who designed the stained glass and Mrs. Laura O’Hagan the mosaic floors. Together, they designed and created the Stations of the Cross.

Narthex Holy Family ChurchOn 25th March 2007, Holy Family Church was dedicated. There is a beautiful large space at the entrance that we refer to as the Welcoming Area. It allows people to come in from the busy world and prepare to enter the sacred space. It is bright and welcoming and arouses people’s curiosity to enter into the mystery that we celebrate. The Holy Water font is connected to the baptismal font in the liturgical space by a beautiful mosaic floor that encourages the sense of God, the Giver of all life, the Creator. You enter through large wooden doors and are then faced with beautifully coloured stained glass doors that encourage you to choose the route you follow into the liturgical space.

Altar Holy Family ChurchAt the centre of the liturgical space is the altar, and people are gathered around this so that everyone can clearly feel and be a part of the liturgical celebration. There are no steps within this space in order to encourage a sense of belonging, equality, and opportunity for all. The elements, the stained glass windows and the Stations of the Cross all exude a sense of celebration, joy, and hope, and encourage people to think of the beauty of God’s presence.

Connection altar and FontThe church seats 450 people and most importantly, encourages a good celebration of the liturgy. The baptismal font and the altar are clearly connected, and at times of funerals, the water sprinkled on the coffin is taken directly from the baptismal font, having a very clear symbolism that is easily understood by all who witness. It is a church that is welcomed and enjoyed by the community with a great deal of pride, but most of all, it is a church that was designed for good liturgy to be celebrated in, thus enabling people to give praise to God.

Rev. Sean Emerson serves as the Administrator of Holy Family Parish in North Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Photos provided by Mr. Eamon Hedderman of Dublin, architect for the project.

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