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Church History

First Holywood Presbyterian Church has been present in the town of Holywood for over 400 years. The history of the congregation has been long researched by one of the congregation, Jim Robinson, a summary of which can be found here. 

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The congregation worshipped in the Old Priory Church until 1661 when following the Act of Uniformity, Donald Richmond, the then minister, was ejected for non-conformity and the congregation finally vacated the parish church. They then worshipped in a 'meeting house' but there is no definite information as to where this wooden building was, although the general consensus is that it lay on the seaward side of the present railway embankment, but the site has long since disappeared as a result of sea erosion of the foreshore. (At this time only the Establishment had the right to use the term 'church', the Presbyterians met in 'meeting houses' and Roman Catholics in 'chapels'.)

18th Century - Times of change

Holywood congregation separated from Dundonald about 1704 when the Rev Thomas Cobham resigned from Dundonald and became minister of Holywood until he died in 1706.

In 1725 the next major event in the history of the congregation occurred when the Rev Michael Bruce did not subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith but became associated with the 'New Lights' or people who were 'non-subscribers' and they formed a Presbytery by themselves, the Antrim Presbytery.

Those of First Holywood Congregation who sided with Mr Bruce separated themselves from the Synod of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and had to find a new meeting-house. They tended to be the poorer section of the congregation and had to content themselves with a thatched cottage in Strand Street (called Gospel Lane in derision by the Non-Subscribing Party). The new congregation, under the Rev Michael Bruce was called 'First Presbyterian' a name it still retains until today as seen on the noticeboard of its present building in High Street.

In 1729 a new minister, William Smith, was ordained in Second Holywood, as it was known at that time, with the princely salary of £17 per annum. In the late 1740's, under the leadership of the next minister, William Rodgers a new 'meeting house' was erected in Strand Street and this was used as the place of worship for almost 100 years.


19th Century - The move to the Bangor Road site
In 1841 the congregation moved to the present building on the Bangor Road opposite the old Priory which at that time was still used by the Parish Church.

The old meeting house in Strand Street then became a school and in the late 1870's and early 1880's used by the Church of Ireland as a mission hall. The new site for First Holywood had been acquired from William Patton, owner of a windmill, the ruins of which can still be seen beside Martello Terrace. In 1839 the lease for the present site of the church was made between William Patton of the one part and Samuel Patton, George Jackson, David McCutcheon and James Jackson of the other part as trustees.


This church was designed by the minister, the Rev William Blackwood, who also superintended its construction and was built at a cost of £1,500. It was built in the Gothic Revival style, then coming into fashion for public and private buildings, and at that time was cruciform in shape with a 70 feet high tower, forming part of the west gable and centrally positioned, echoing in appearance the old Priory Church.


Another development in the history of the Presbyterian Church in Holywood occurred in 1855 when 52 families from Bangor Road congregation sought permission from the Belfast Presbytery to establish a second Presbyterian congregation in the town and in 1856 a new church started in a small mission hall, at the bottom of Downshire Road, which until recently has been used as the Golden Age Club. The present High Street church was opened in 1858 with the Rev J S Denham as minister.


The 20th Century
During the 20th century the congregation continued to enjoy the building erected in 1841. In 1939 the Rev Robert Houston came to First Holywood Church from Raffrey Congregation and this was the start of an association with our congregation which lasted almost 60 years. When Mr Houston came in 1939, one of the gifts from his former congregation was a Jersey cow which was able to graze in the orchard of the Manse. This piece of land then became a tennis court which was used by the young people of the congregation and now is the site of the new manse! We are proud of the long record of Mr Houston in the church and he was loved by old and young in the congregation.

When Mr Houston retired in 1972 he was replaced by the Rev Arthur Clarke who ministered in Holywood until 1990. During Mr Clarke's time Bibles were placed in the pews, two services were broadcast from the church and women were elected to the session.

In 1991 Mr Clarke was replaced by the Rev Harry Robinson, who left in 1996 to take up an appointment at Union Theological College. During Mr Robinson's ministry the New International Version of the Bible was placed in the pews, Mission Praise was introduced into public worship, a deaconess was appointed to help with the pastoral work and a new amplification system installed.

The Rev Noble McNeely became the 23rd minister of First Holywood in September 1997.



The New Millenium
The Worship Centre was opened in 2004 replacing the front of the Houston Halls. This has enabled many changes to take place in congregational activities.  The new facilities consist of a Welcome area, Minister's room, church office and additional small halls and have proved to be a useful addition to the church's amenities.  


In 2017, Rev McNeely became the 178th Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. The very Rev Dr Noble McNeely retired in 2019. During the proceeding time of vacancy, the Covid 19 pandemic hit the world and in 2020 the congregation had to make the move to worship online. 


The Rev Stuart McCrea was inducted as minister of First Holywood Presbyterian Church in November 2021.

First Holywood Presbyterian Church

7 Bangor Road


Co Down

BT18 0NU

028 9042 5035

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