Northern Ireland

'Dangerous building' notice for Sailortown church

St Joseph's Church, Sailortown
Image caption The former church is now surrounded by modern apartment blocks

A campaign to save a deconsecrated church from demolition has been dealt a blow after council officials served it with a "dangerous building" notice.

​St Joseph's Church, Sailortown, in the Belfast docks area, was closed by the Catholic Church in 2001, despite a parishioners' campaign to keep it open.

It is now owned by a community group which wants to renovate the building and turn it into a heritage centre.

But there are safety fears after a column fell from the spire last month.

The Sailortown Regeneration Group has owned the building on a 150-year lease since 2008, after what it described as "a sustained battle" with the Catholic Diocese of Down and Connor.

Much of the nearby land has already been redeveloped, and the late 19th Century church is now surrounded by modern apartment blocks.

Image caption The church was closed in 2001

Its owners aim to redevelop the church as a community venue, which would showcase Sailortown's maritime and industrial heritage.

The dockland area was once home to hundreds of families, but in the 1970s the area drastically changed with the construction of the Westlink.

Many homes were demolished under the Belfast Urban Project initiative, resulting in local families moving away.

The Sailortown story: Louise Cullen

Sailortown is one of the oldest communities in Belfast and St Joseph's church, one of the oldest buildings in it. It was closed and deconsecrated in 2001. But now, age is taking its toll.

Earlier this year, the Sailortown Regeneration Group got money to make the church watertight, remove some of the weeds growing from its gutters and walls and evict the pigeons. It was a small step closer to the dream of turning it into a heritage centre to tell the story of Belfast's birthplace.

But soon after, a pillar fell from the spire. It damaged the newly repaired roof and guttering, before landing on an apartment balcony next door. Building Control was called and the group was served with a Dangerous Building notice.

That has left them with the prospect of a huge bill and possibly the loss of the 140-year-old church.

However, the building is in a state of disrepair and the owners have "had to stop access to the interior as our insurance would not cover injury".

They recently received a letter from Building Control, notifying them of an order to either remove, repair or secure the building.

A falling marble column caused damage to adjoining Clanmil Apartments, and created "another large hole in the main roof".

The required safety work could cost an estimated £30,000.

Terry McKeown, from the Sailortown Regeneration Group, said: "Since we received the dangerous building notice it means we now have to put up hoarding and netting and that will cost a substantial amount of money.

Image caption The roof of the building is damaged

"We have to repair, restore or remove the building.

"We are in the process of trying to restore it. To repair it, I think the bill is going to come in at tens of thousands of pounds, I'm not even sure of the figure yet. So it has scuppered our long-time plans completely."

She warned that if repairs were not completed, the church may have to be demolished.

"We really want to make a centre for the people of Belfast, so they can see the story of this place and of the people who worked at the docks," she said.

"A church is the focal point of any community and it means so much to people.

"It marks major events in their life - birth, marriage and death."

It is understood that the building will be inspected and surveyed in coming months in order to gauge the full cost of restoration.

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