Northern Ireland

Sailortown church reopened by Belfast Lord Mayor

Patrick Benson, Terry McKeown and the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Nuala McAllister Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Patrick Benson and Terry McKeown (centre) of Sailortown Regeneration Group with the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Nuala McAllister

A deconsecrated church building in the Belfast docks area has been officially reopened by the city's Lord Mayor Nuala McAllister.

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

Last year, the church was served with a "dangerous building" notice.

But the threat of demolition was staved off after a funding campaign by the Sailortown Regeneration Group.

The group has owned the building on a 150-year lease since 2008, and it wants to "fully restore" the building and eventually create a digital heritage interpretation centre.

"Today the Lord Mayor is officially opening the building; over the last year and a half there have been a lot of repairs and safety remedial work," Terry McKeown of Sailortown Regeneration Group said.

"Now we can open the building for meanwhile use - that means we can have events in it for the community.

"The first event last Friday was a night of music, poems and a film about Sailortown and what it means to the people.

"It was a fantastic night."

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption St Joseph's Church, Sailortown, was closed by the Catholic Church in 2001 despite a campaign by parishioners to keep it open

The dockland neighbourhood was once home to hundreds of families but in the 1970s the area drastically changed with the construction of the M2.

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

"Over the last year we have had a lot of work to do to it because there was rain flooding in, the walls were absolutely soaking," Ms McKeown said.

"If anybody knows the history of the area, Sailortown itself was decimated by the building of the motorway.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption The Sailortown Regeneration Group wants to 'fully restore' the building

"It was isolated from north Belfast and from the centre of town.

"This was where the generations of the family came: they were married here, they were christened here - one of our people goes back six generations in this area.

"It is not just a huge religious memory but a community memory for them, that's why they felt so strongly about it."

Image caption Sailortown in 1974 as the area was demolished to make way for the Belfast Urban Project

Ms McKeown said the second phase of the preservation project would see a two-year programme of events and the group presenting a business case for "getting a full restoration of the building and to regenerate the area of Sailortown".

If successful, it would then move on to the third phase of creating a digital heritage interpretation centre.

"If we want to get full restoration of the building, it will cost a couple of million pounds," Ms McKeown added.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption People were able to view an exhibition about the restoration project at the official reopening on Tuesday

"We are sitting in the middle of an area that is poor and neglected but around us there are developments being planned that will cost hundreds of millions of pounds, we are just looking a couple of million.

"Many old buildings are being knocked down around Belfast, we own the last vestige of history of Old Sailortown and we want to keep it for the people here.

"We would hope phase three would be a full restoration of the building and the creation of a digital heritage interpretation centre."

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