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Derry City Cemetery Series: The minister who revitalised Burt Presbyterian Church
18 Jul 2019
Robert William Ross was born in Co Cavan in 1862 and upon completion of his training in the Presbyterian Church he was made a licentiate of the Derry Presbytery in 1894 and was ordained at Burt on Christmas Eve 1895. Reverend Ross’ immediate challenge was to oversee the much needed repairs to the church building. The Committee then asked architect William Barker to estimate the cost of the renovations to the old building as well as the cost of a plain new place of worship. Mr Barker’s financial quote for the construction project said that the revamp of the old church would cost £890 and a new church would be £1,120. To put the overall estimate into perspective, today the combined 1895 figure of just over £2,000 would be worth over £250,000. The records of Burt Presbyterian Church show that a Committee meeting on February 5, 1984 it was decided upon the casting vote of Rev Ross to abandon the renovation scheme and the idea of building a new church was then put before the congregation at a meeting on February 19, 1894. The go-ahead for the new building was dependent upon the congregation subscribing an additional £200 more than they had already promised. When that was agreed by the congregation, plans to construct the new church were given the green light for the year 1895. Financial pressure on the project was immediately eased when Lord Templemore subscribed the entire £200, but further collections were made in Derry, Newtoncunningham, Crossroads, Raphoe, Strabane, St Johnston and Carrigans, Knowhead, Fahan and Inch. Rev Ross himself reported back that he had gathered another £120 in Belfast and Lisburn. With the money in place, William Barker was tasked to prepare plans for a meeting house that could accommodate 400 people, to have a plain roof, double windows, buttressed walls finished with cement dashing and windows with cement plaster. The church pews were to be pitch pine with walnut top rails. The location of the new church, it was decided, was to be in the upper corner of the ground filled by the old building with the entrance door facing the present gateway in line with the entrance of the old meeting house. Two Porrett stoves sunk in each aisle were to provide the heating. The lineage of Presbyterianism in Burt is one that stretches back over three-and-half centuries. But, as the city of Derry began to grow after the Plantation of Ulster, the Presbyterians of Burt travelled there. In the city at this time, Episcopacy, or the governance of the church by a clerical hierarchy was established by law. But, services were conducted at St Columb’s Cathedral and St Augustine’s Church on the walls to suit the views of Presbyterians. Back in 1661, a Presbyterian minister in Derry was deposed for failing to conform to the views of the Episcopacy and another 13 fled from the city to avoid being imprisoned. By 1670, the Presbyterian Congregation in Derry was still languishing when attempts were begun to bring preachers over from Scotland. As evidence of the persecution of those of the Presbyterian tradition, a William Hampton, who had been brought into the city by Presbyterians such as Campsie, Burnside and Early was implicated for preaching at a large meeting house which they had built within the city’s walls and just a few yards away from the mansion of the established church’s Bishop. This ‘affront’ to the Anglican tradition could no longer apparently be tolerated by the church authorities. On Sunday, September 1, 1670, the Bishop decided to take action and with the Mayor, a judge, the city’s Sherriff and other officers they visited the meeting house where they found the Presbyterian congregation praying with William Hampton. It was recorded that they were: “Praying and preaching openly, and not according to the established Liturgy and order of the Church of Ireland.” A “riotous” confrontation took place, the leaders arrested and the church was promptly shut down. This situation continued until August 21, 1671 when devoid of anyone to lead them in prayer, the Derry Presbyterians asked for Hampton’s services until another preacher could be appointed. In 1672, Rev Robert Rule of Kirkcaldy in Scotland accepted a call to minister in Derry and was installed that year. Some 220 years before Rev Ross set foot in Burt and application was made to the Presbytery of Laggan by an Alderman of Derry, John Craigie and a merchant, Mr John Fisher together with William Cunningham of Burt to divide the Parish of Templemore into two congregations. This came about in 1673 and the previously pilloried Rev William Hampton returned from Scotland and was ordained at Carnamaddy on October 15 that year. Another 20 odd years later, there was a dispute over parish boundaries within the Presbytery of Derry when in 1695 the people of Elagh, Coshquin and Ballynagalliagh refused to belong to Derry. But, it took until January 1689, for the Synod to order “that the liberties of the City on that side of the water wherein the City standeth should be the bounds of the Congregation.” It seems the Burt people weren’t happy with that decision and appealed it, but without success. Another point of interest about Presbyterianism in Burt is that in 1831 the worshippers from Inch who had attended Burt since 1673 formed their own congregation under the Derry Presbytery. The mode of transport to Burt from Inch Island had always been boats. It’s said that on Sunday’s someone sat at a window in the Gallery of Burt church watching the tide and when it was just right, the person stood up and announced that ‘the Inch folk may go now.’ During the 24-year ministry of Rev Robert Gray (1833-1857) the old church had fallen into a state of disrepair. There were no pews and the aisles were covered by cold flagstones. But, previous to that there was only an earthen floor and no heating at all. In 1846, the church had a new roof and ceiling installed. Prior to that it was recorded that it was a common thing for the rain to pour down on the heads of the congregation. Nevertheless, the Presbyterian denomination in the district was flourishing. In 1834, the Parish of Burt had 2,288 Presbyterians, 320 people belonging to the Church of Ireland and 1,443 Catholics. When it came time to finalise the plans for the new church under the watch of Rev Ross in 1894, the final estimate of William Barker was £1,520 and tenders for the construction project were advertised on April 2. Three bids were received. One came from R Colhoun in Derry who bid £1,533 for the church and £165 for its boundary wall. Another came from Joseph Colhoun, also from Derry who bid £1,695 for the church and £185 for the boundary wall. The final tender came from Matthew McClelland from the city who tendered £1,600 for the church and £205 for the wall, who having made the lowest bid won the contract. It was agreed that contractor was bound to have the house roofed, the outside of the walls finished and the windows installed by September 30, 1895 and ready for opening by March 1, 1896. In the presence of shirt industry magnate, William Tillie, the High Sherriff of County Derry and many members of the congregation and people from the surrounding area, the foundation stone was laid on July 1, 1896. The builder, Joseph Colhoun presented Mr Tillie with an inscribed silver trowel to lay the stone and a sealed bottle acted as a time capsule which inside were placed copies of the Derry Standard, the Derry Journal, Londonderry Sentinel, Northern Whig, Missionary Herald, Christian Banner, a photo of the old church and some coins. Lunch was provided for the dignitaries in the lecture room which was highly decorated with flowers and plants. The contract deadline was narrowly missed and the church opened in early May, 1896. The opening services on Sunday, May 3, 1896 were conducted by the then Moderator of the General Assembly, Rev Dr G Buick from Cullybackey and the following week by Rev William Colquhoun of Fitzroy Avenue, Belfast. The minister’s room and toilet in the church as well as the pulpit and choir platform were provided as gifts by Mrs JB Mullin of Buncrana who was the sister of Rev Ross and the wife of John Brice Mullin the Deputy Lieutenant of County Donegal. Fundraising events for the upkeep of the church were however still of course necessary. In 1907, it was reported that Rev Ross organised a very successful Sale of Work and Summer Fete which were held on July 11, 12 and 13 that year. The events took place in the Lecture Hall and a marquee in the church grounds and began at 3.30pm each day. The proceedings were opened on July 11 by Mrs McMaster of College Avenue in Derry and the Mayor of Derry, Alderman JP Thompson oversaw the events. There was an Empire Work Stall, a Shamrock Work Stall, a Provision stall, a Sweet Stall, a Children’s Stall and Refreshment Stall. The Amusement Committee organised a large number of competitions that included shooting events. On the nights of the 11 and 12 July, a variety concert took place in the Lecture Hall. Over the three days, a firm called Neely’s operated a sidecar service ferrying people from Bridgend Railyway Station to the church and back again. The combined rail and admission ticket cost 11d and a specially laid on train took people back to Derry from Bridgend each night at 10.30pm. The funds raised in July, 1907 helped to renovate the Lecture Hall and other church buildings and to properly lay out the church grounds. As with many other congregations of all denominations across Ireland, the First World War impacted upon Burt Presbyterian Church. To reflect this, in August of 1919 the Church Committee proposed to obtain an organ and a Memorial Tablet at the entrance of the church. Three of the congregation, John Buchanan, Stewart Buchanan and Joseph Downey were killed between 1914-1918. And, in October 1919 it was reported that £182 had been collected for the organ and the memorial. The tablet was unveiled on Sunday, January 11, 1920 by Mrs Bowen, wife of Colonel William Bowen DSO and the preacher on this occasion was Captain Rev WP Hall and a Guard of Honour travelled to Burt from Ebrington Barracks in Derry for the event. The tablet also remembered 21 more men and women from Burt congregation who had served in WWI. After the Great War and the partition of Ireland in 1921, many of the working-class families connected to Burt Church moved into Derry city and other part of the North and many more who had served in the war had not returned to the area as work was scarce in this era. The drop in numbers within the congregation was reflected by the names recorded in the Communion Roll Book between 1914-1922. Rev R W Ross resigned from active duty as Minister of Burt Presbyterian Church on July 7, 1931 and he died aged 69 at the City and County Infirmary in Derry on Sunday, July 19 after a long illness. The Church Session and Committee met later that day and paid tribute to the long and diligent service that had he had given. A deputation from the church was due to travel to Belfast the next day to meet with the Presbyterian Union Commission and they went ahead with the plans despite Mr Ross’ death as there would not an opportunity for another meeting for at least another two months. The Union Commission was proposing that Burt and Netwoncunningham congregations should be amalgamated under one minister, but the Session and Committee of Burt flatly rejected the suggestion. In June of 1932 the Committee looked at the issue of enquiring at the price of a memorial for the late Rev Ross and a stained glass window and in February of 1934 a Mr Haslett submitted sketches for a memorial tablet and his proposals were accepted. The memorial tablet was unveiled by Rev Ross’ widow Bessie on Sunday, June 24, 1934. Rev Robert William Ross had married Bessie in 1890 and in his will left a total of £251 17s 5d. He was buried in Derry City Cemetery. Upon her husband’s passing Bessie lived firstly at Castlehill Road, Belfast and later at Bognor Regis and then Pallant, Chichester. Following her death on July 26, 1941 she was buried there. Bessie bequeathed a total of £1,589 4s 9d to her two sons, Leslie Norman Ross and Arthur Gordon Ross, who were both doctors. A third son, George Harold Ross was born on May 17, 1984 in Derry. George was educated at Campbell College in Belfast and began a career in banking after emigrating. He enlisted in the 89
th Canadian Battalion at the rank of Liuetenant on November 2, 1915 and later transferred to the 10
th Canadian Battalion. He saw action at the Somme in July, 1916 and in April, 1917 at Vimy Ridge where he was wounded and suffered injuries to his left femur and left foot. He was demobilised in July, 1919 and returned to Canada where he became a farmer. CAPTION: The Reverend Robert William Ross.
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