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Christianity in Comber

Christian traditions in Comber stretch back some 1,600 years. St Patrick is said to have come here. Unfortunately he did not receive a hearty Comber welcome. Rather, he was “sorely abused” by Saran, a son of the local chieftain. Saran’s brother Conla, however, was more sympathetic. He apologised for Saran’s behaviour and is said to have offered Patrick a “remarkable field” called the “Plain of Elom” on which to build a church. Patrick blessed Conla, and Comber got its first monastery.

 

Where exactly was the Plain of Elom? Some have identified it with the ground of North Down Cricket Club in Castle Lane. Indeed the Monks’ Walk, marked on an old map, runs from what is now the Enler car park in the general direction of Castle Lane, perhaps the remnant of some ancient memory.

 

Comber monastery was part of the ancient Celtic Church, and was probably initially no more than a group of huts made of wood or basketwork. To find out what it may have looked like, we have only to visit the ruins of Nendrum, 6 miles away on Mahee Island. Comber, Nendrum, Bangor and Movilla were part of a network of monasteries in what became known as the Land of Saints and Scholars.


Ruins of Nendrum

 

Nendrum is the island of the nine ridges.  The monastery’s foundation was ascribed to St Mochaoi (Mahee), a disciple of Patrick, although it is doubtful whether it dates back quite as far as that. However, it is very ancient, and excavations have revealed the oldest tidal mill of its type in Europe and fragments of timber dated to AD620. A plaque on the wall tells of the excavation work carried out between 1922 and 1924.

 

Buildings have been identified as the school and the scriptorium, where manuscripts would have been laboriously copied in the days before printing was invented. There was also the sundial. What use would this have been in our dull climate? Beside the church was a separate round tower. This would once have stood some 60’ high, and was intended to give warning of invasion and some sort of shelter from the attackers. However, it didn’t save the skin of Sedna O’Denman, the last abbot, who was “burned in his own house” in AD974. Probably hidden at this time was the Nendrum bell, supposedly donated by Patrick himself and used to call the monks to worship. It was discovered during the excavations, and is now in the Ulster Museum.

 

Like the other monasteries in the region, Kill Combuir, the church of Comber, was attacked by the Vikings, who were making a nuisance of themselves around the Strang Fjord or Strangford Lough. For instance in 1031 the abbey was burned, 4 clerics killed and 30 carried off as captives. And in 1121 the Annals of the Four Masters record that Cormac, abbot of Comar, was killed. By this time the monastery had been taken over by the Augustinians, known as the Black Canons after the colour of their habit. The monastery likewise became the Black Abbey. It faded into obscurity when the later Cistercian abbey was built. Around 1644 Father McCana writes in his Irish Itinerary that not even the ruins remained. The Scots settlers had apparently used the stones to build houses for themselves.  

 

Killynether House at Scrabo is today no more than a memory. The garden occupied the site of an ancient cemetery. Nearby was a well where people afflicted with warts came to wash their hands. Close to it was a rude stone shaped like a chair, and here a holy man called Old Cowey came to pray and drink the waters.  

 

When the Normans under John de Courcy invaded Ulster in 1177, they erected mottes for defence. One such was on the Moate Road between Comber and Newtownards. This was in the parish of Ballyrickard, and there was once a church here. Another church mentioned in medieval times is Rogerstown, possibly in the townland of Ballyaltikilligan.

 

A number of monasteries were founded by the Normans, including Greyabbey, dating from 1193. De Courcy also re-housed Nendrum with Benedictine monks, but it then disappears from the records until 1306 when it is valued at 7 marks in the papal taxation roll. There is no mention at this time of any monastery, so it seems that Nendrum had become a simple parish church. In the 15th century a new church at Tullynakill replaced it.

 

Comber got a new monastery, said to have been founded by Brian Catha Dun in 1199. Monks were brought over from Albalanda in Carmarthenshire to man it. These were Cistercians, known as White Monks after the colour of their habit. A monk features prominently in the Cistercian window in the South Transept of St Mary’s Parish Church.

 

Where exactly was this monastery in Comber, for like the Black Abbey, all trace of it has gone?  It lay just off what is now Comber Square in the angle between the Enler and Glen Rivers. St Mary’s Parish Church is believed to occupy the area once covered by the nave of the abbey church. And the burial ground of the monks lies beneath the Square. Human remains were uncovered in 1844 when digging the foundations for the Gillespie monument.


Plan Diagram of Comber Abbey

 

Comber Abbey was fairly important, and we read of Andrew, Abbot of Cummor, at a visitation by the bishop to Bangor Abbey in 1251. It was quite prosperous, but when Henry VIII fell out with the Pope and set himself up as Head of a separate Anglican Church, he decided to close the monasteries and take their wealth for himself. The axe fell in 1543. The last abbot, John O’Mullegan, was deprived of 7 townlands – Ballymonaster (the land adjoining the abbey), Carnesure, Cullintraw, Cattogs, Troopersfield, Ballynichol and half of Ballygowan.

 

The abbey lay abandoned for many years, and in the wars of the 1570s was destroyed by fire. It was subsequently used to provide stone to build houses for settlers who arrived from Scotland. But do we have a remnant of the abbey in a group of stones, built up in the garden of Aureen in 1931 and nicknamed “The Monk”? Archaeologists dated these to the 15th century and thought it plausible they were part of Comber Abbey. They have now been reassembled in St Mary’s in something like their original form.


Monk Keystone

 

About 1610 the Scots settlers under Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton fitted out part of the abbey ruins at Comber as a church, the original St Mary’s Parish Church.  We have this description of it from the 1830s. “There is no tower or steeple. It is built like a common house with merely a small arch erected on its southern gable, in which is a bell”.  Montgomery supplied bells for the churches on his estate, but the original Comber one was lost. Another of his gifts was a Geneva or “breeches” bible for each of his churches. This English translation had been prepared by Protestants in exile, and its nickname came from Genesis 3:7 – when Adam and Eve saw that they were naked they made breeches for themselves.

 

Worship was Episcopalian in form, as both Hamilton and Montgomery were of that persuasion. This meant belief in the Anglican tradition of rule by bishops. It had to be that way, as the church came under the patronage of Hamilton and Montgomery, and they paid for the rebuilding. Hamilton gave one-third of the money and Montgomery two-thirds, in ratio to the amount of land they owned in the parish of Comber. We have the name of the first minister – James Fresall, who wasn’t appointed until 1622. It is assumed that he held Episcopalian views, although we know absolutely nothing about him.

 

But, although Hamilton and Montgomery were Anglican, the majority of the Comber people were Presbyterian. This would eventually cause friction, but at first the situation was harmonious enough. Ministers with Presbyterian views were indeed often ordained into Anglican churches by the bishops. But trouble was brewing in Scotland where the Presbyterians signed a National Covenant, condemning recent religious innovations imposed on them by King Charles I. Thomas Wentworth, also known as Black Tom Tyrant, the Lord Deputy in Ireland, was determined to prevent support for the Covenant among the Ulster Scots, who were required to take the Black Oath repudiating it. Many fled back to Scotland.  

 

Then in 1641 the Roman Catholics rebelled. They felt aggrieved about the loss of their lands and the suppression of their religion. This was a bitter religious war and tales of great cruelty abounded. Comber came under attack but the rebels were defeated at a place named Battletown. This is an old name for Drumreagh. A Scots army arrived in Ulster with the task of putting down the rebellion on behalf of the English, who were paying them. This was largely a Presbyterian army, and in 1642 they formed the first presbytery on Irish soil to provide for their spiritual needs. Applications were made by a number of parishes to be taken under the care of this presbytery, and Comber was one of them.

 

And so a Scotsman named James Gordon came as a Presbyterian minister to Comber in 1645. He was minister at St Mary’s, as this was the only church in Comber. However, it is interesting that the congregation of 1st Comber dates its formation from Gordon’s arrival. This date is quoted on the church’s noticeboard.

 

In 1657 James Gordon is reported as a preacher in salary with a dwelling house and 6 acres of land. Then in 1660 Charles II was restored to his throne and he brought back the bishops. Gordon was thrown out, and replaced by William Dowdall. But there was trouble when Dowdall was attacked in the church, reminiscent of an incident in 1637 when a riot broke out in St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh. On that occasion some women threw stools at the preacher. Dowdall merely had his robes pulled off. Gordon meanwhile had a spell in prison, allegedly involved in Blood’s Plot in 1663, an attempt to seize Dublin Castle and murder the Lord Lieutenant. There was no evidence, and he returned to Comber where we find him as a tenant at Ballyhenry in 1684. Many still recognised him as their minister.

 

The present 1st Comber Church sits at the top of High Street, the Coo Vennel or Cow Lane of the Scots settlers. The lease dates from 1686. This was originally a simple low thatched building, whitewashed inside and out, with no pews. The men generally stood, although women could bring stools to sit on. And this was in a day when the sermon could last for hours. By 1686 James Gordon was probably dead. His successor was John Hamilton, and it seems that a school was established in connection with the church with John Binning as master. When war broke out in 1689 between William and James it closed down.

 

Comber had its part to play in the war. For it was on 3rd December 1688 that an anonymous letter was found in the street, addressed to the Earl of Mount Alexander, warning of a planned massacre of Protestants. This led to the gates of Derry being closed against the Catholic army of James II. Comber would have been occupied by the Jacobites. Among those who fled from Comber were John Hamilton, the minister, and John Binning, the schoolmaster. They never returned. Religious services were suspended, and we read of the Rev. Gilbert Kennedy of Dundonald preaching in the Glens near Comber. Not until Schomberg’s army landed at Groomsport in August 1689 was peace restored.

 

Many of the early Scots settlers lie buried in the graveyard at St Mary’s. This would have included Presbyterians as well as Anglicans, because this was the only graveyard in Comber. The number of Presbyterians in Ulster doubled between 1660 and 1715. One major reason for this was harvest failure in Scotland, leading to famine there.

 

An interesting slab of red limestone is fixed to the wall of the church. “Here lyeth the body of Isaac Meredith of Kilbreght gent, who departed this life the 10th day of July 1723”. And then we are given the information “aged 127 years”. Can this really be the resting place of Comber’s oldest man? I don’t think so. A close look would indicate that someone has rather mischievously inserted the 1 at a later date.


Headstone of Isaac Meredith

 

 Another stone, at the foot of the tower, commemorates Edmund Bennett, an early rector. Did he die in 1710 or 1711? That depends on which version of the calendar you use – year starting 1st January or 25th March.

 

Some old monuments were transferred from the old church to the new St Mary’s. One such can today be seen on the inside wall of the tower.  It bears two dates – 1633 and 1637, along with two coats of arms and two sets of letters. Likewise there are two mottoes – “thus unjoyned by God” and “there is no way which vertue gois not through”.  I wonder what it all means.  And what about the font inside the present church? It is very old, and indeed not even of local stone. It is made of a polished red stone called porphyry, native to parts of Italy and the Mediterranean. Almost certainly it was in the old church, and may even pre-date that.

 

A glebe house is marked on the 1722 map of Comber. It was rebuilt in 1738 and was the rector’s home until the Rev Manning moved to a new rectory just before the First World War. The glebe house was demolished in 1958. 

 

St Mary’s Parish had more than spiritual responsibilities. For the parish was the unit of local government, and it was up to the church to collect the cess, which was a local tax. Road maintenance was one of the tasks to which this money was put. But there were also social issues, such as the 30 shillings for the maintenance of Josh Gorley's’child in 1744.

 

Walter Harris, writing in 1744, refers to St Mary’s as a “decent church”. St Mary’s was part of what became known as the Protestant Ascendancy. But not all Protestants could be part of this. Presbyterians, as well as Roman Catholics, were excluded from public life by the Penal Laws. To hold public office you had to prove that you had received Communion in the Anglican form. The Toleration Act of 1719 relieved Presbyterians of most of the restrictions. But Presbyterian marriage was not officially recognised, and this remained a problem until the Marriage Act of 1845, even though Presbyterians had to pay tithes to the Established Church.

 

Presbyterians were by far the largest denomination in Comber. In 1764 we learn that there were 1,220 Protestant Dissenters, as opposed to 315 members of the Established Church and 165 Papists.  But there were major difficulties during the ministry of John Orr, who succeeded his father Thomas in 1724. Because this was a time when there was a split in the Presbyterian Church into Subscribers and Non-subscribers. Subscribers adhered to the Westminster Confession of Faith, while Non-subscribers did not. They believed the Bible to be sufficient without any additions, and that the individual should come to his own understanding of the Scriptures through the reason given to him by God. This was known as New Light theology. John Orr adopted New Light theology which put him in conflict with the majority of his congregation. At one stage the congregation took possession of the meetinghouse and refused to let the minister in. Orr was forced out and ended up in the Episcopalian Church.

 

It was in the time of Robert Cunningham that major work was done to the church building. A stone dated 1740 marking the occasion was found in an outhouse of the manse and placed inside the church in one of the porches. The church looked very different then with outside steps leading up to a gallery. The steps and gallery were removed during the renovations of 1887.


1st Comber Church 1864

 

It was also during Cunningham’s ministry that John Wesley, the leader of the Methodists, made an appearance in Comber. In fact he came three times, in 1758, 1760 and 1762. Wesley would wait until the normal church service was over and then begin to preach in the open air. We are told that in 1760 four out of five of his audience behaved well. There was opposition from the Comber ministers, and Cunningham expelled from the Lord’s Table all who had become Methodists. However, he subsequently relented and sent out his elders to invite them back.

 

In the early days there was no Methodist church building, and the conventicles met in private houses. It was not until 1820 that the Comber Methodists built what was then called a Mission Station in Newtown Street, now Bridge Street. It was formally opened on 22nd December 1822 when Charles Mayne and John Matthews preached to crowded congregations. The minister was Matthew Lanktree. A plaque built into the stonework recorded the original name and the date 1820, also the words in an outer ring "Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth peace good will toward men”. A porch was added in 1891.

 

And the porch was the last remaining part of the church. Because in 1995 the building was deemed unsafe and was knocked down. The porch was left standing as it contained the electric works. Nowadays services are held in the hall, which was opened in 1977.



Old Methodist Church Bridge Street
New Methodist Church Bridge Street

But let’s get back to the 18th century. A tablet in St Mary’s was erected in 1855 by Guy Stone of Barnhill. On it he mentions his grandfather, the Rev Guy Stone, described as being for 26 years curate of Comber and Newtownards. It was he who took out a lease on Barnhill farm in 1768 and started to build the house. The Rev Guy’s brother Samuel also officiated at Comber, although much of the time he was absent in Donegal where he was also rector of Culdaff. He was succeeded in 1783 by Robert Mortimer who had family connections with the Stones.

 

Robert Mortimer was rector at the time of the rebellion by the United Irishmen in 1798. And he managed to get himself killed at the Battle of Saintfield. He had probably accompanied the troops there in his role of magistrate. There is some mystery about Mortimer’s burial place. One version of the story relates that his body was found against a gatepost, completely naked. It was then buried in a mass grave at a place still known as York Island, because most of the dead were members of the York Fencibles Regiment. But there is another tradition that the body was secretly brought back to Comber and buried under the aisle of St Mary’s.

 

A memorial tablet in St Mary’s is dedicated to three officers of the York Fencible Regiment. Captain Chetwynd, Lieutenant Unite and Ensign Sparks were all killed in the action at Saintfield. The Government troops retreated to Comber, where they quartered themselves in the Presbyterian meeting house. Some years ago a bayonet was found in the church when renovations were being carried out. It is thought to have been left behind by the soldiers.

 

What had been happening at the Presbyterian congregation in the latter part of the 18th century? When Robert Cunningham stepped down in 1772, there were once again bitter disputes over his successor. These were so bad that the congregation was placed under the care of the General Synod in 1774. A call was eventually given to the Rev William Henry, who had been minister of Dromore since 1753. When he died, he was succeeded by John McCance, ordained on 15th June 1790. He had a long ministry, retiring in 1837 soon after suffering a stroke. He was a man of liberal views who never signed the Westminster Confession of Faith. At that time ministers were not compelled to do so. It seems that he erred towards Unitarian doctrine, and what is so surprising is how he managed to control the Comber congregation for so long. 

 

We have the record of a communion service held on 16th October 1814, when Mr McCance was assisted by Rev Samuel Watson of Killinchy and Rev James McClelland of Ballynahinch. “There were four full tables and a third part filled of the fifth, containing upwards of 400 persons, in which number 40 young communicants are included”. In those days people sat at actual tables set up in the aisles, which must have been a lot broader than those of today. Preparation Sabbath had been held the previous Sunday, followed by a fast day on the Wednesday and another service on the Saturday. Communion was taken very seriously, and was one of the best attended services.

 

The usual Sabbath collection could be anything from 2s 9d to 14s 1d, although on Communion Sunday it could get close to £2. Out of this, between £2-3 a month was given to assist the poor, to people like Widow Johnston, Old McVeigh, and Blind Marshall. This was the only assistance such people got until a House of Industry was erected in 1824 in what was known as Poorhouse Lane. Wealthy people such as Lord Londonderry subscribed to its upkeep, while the churches provided money from the Sabbath collections and an annual charity sermon. The inmates had to work for their keep. They produced items such as oatmeal, potatoes and cabbage, which would then be delivered weekly to some 70 poor people who were too frail to work.

 

In the early years of the 19th century, we find a father and son ministering at St Mary’s. A memorial tablet in St Mary’s pays tribute to them.. George Birch was installed in 1799 and remained until his death in 1827. His successor was George Watson Birch, who died in 1830, a young man in his 30th year. They seem to have been well thought of.

 

It was during the Birch’s time that a school opened in 1813. In 1838 it was the largest school in Comber with 233 pupils, and this included eight Roman Catholics. The Roman Catholics had only recently been given full emancipation by the Act of 1829. This school continued until 1938, when all the Protestant schools in the town amalgamated into Comber Elementary School. The building was replaced by the present Parish hall in 1954. Another school was established in 1831 at the Presbyterian meeting house.

 

An Englishman, the Rev. Robert Ferrier Jex-Blake, was rector from 1830 until 1851. It was during his time that St Mary’s was rebuilt. Considerable money was continually being spent on repairs to the ancient building, and the decision was taken to erect a new church on the existing site. Guy Stone tells us in his diary that he made his first donation to the new church on 30th August 1837, following a personal visit by Rev Blake himself. He felt his subscription of £15 to have been “more than I should have give either from income or in comparison with other subscribers who have a far greater interest in the Parish than I have”.

 

The new church opened for worship in 1840. The bell in the tower dates from that time, as does the clock, which was taken down and renovated in 1996. The clock was presented by Viscount Castlereagh in 1841, along with a large chandelier holding many candles, which illuminated the interior of the church for many years. We are going to find not just one new church opening in 1840, but no fewer than three.


St Mary's Church of Ireland

 

Because after Rev McCance resigned at the meeting house in 1837 the storm burst. A number of the congregation were sympathetic to Unitarianism, and thought the time right to establish a new church. The first move was taken by John Miller, one of the partners in the Upper Distillery. Miller had been brought up a Methodist, but by the time he came to Comber in 1823 had become a Unitarian.

 

He lived at Aureen in The Square, and made a room available for meetings in his home. But this was not big enough, and in 1837 the upper part of a barn was fitted out as a meeting place. Guy Stone went to the first meeting in Barry’s old barn on 2nd April 1837, when 300 people packed in to hear Dr Montgomery, a well-known New Light minister, preach for 2 hours.

 

One of those who left 1st Comber at this time was James Andrews. And it was James Andrews who donated the ground for a new church on Windmill Hill. What looks like a windmill is marked on the site of the church on the 1834 map, and this was to play a part in its history. For on the night of January 6th-7th 1839 a mighty storm hit Ireland. This was the Night of the Big Wind. Among other things the top of the windmill blew off on to the roof of the new church, causing much destruction. The opening was delayed until March 1840.


Non-Subscribing Church

 

The first minister was William Hugh Doherty who remained until 1850 when he emigrated to America. Comber must have held sad memories for him, for a gravestone in the Church of Ireland graveyard records the deaths of his two young sons.

 

Many were unhappy with the new minister at 1st Comber. This was Isaac Nelson, who was later to gain some notoriety as a controversialist, writing a sketch of the 1859 Revival entitled “The Year of Delusion” and ending his days as Nationalist MP for County Mayo. He only stayed for 4 years in Comber, but already there seems to be a hint that all was not well. Some members tried to get rid of him. Apparently, when the voting list had been read out, the minister doing so had omitted to mention how much money each individual had paid into the church. So the election in their eyes was illegal. They wanted a new one. They got a new congregation instead.

 

And so we come to Millings’ yard at the bottom of High Street. It was in a loft here in 1838 that the new congregation of 2nd Comber met for the first time. There were about 70 families, and in 1839 they ordained Rev John Rogers as minister. On the same day the foundation stone of a new meeting house was laid in Killinchy Street, and the new church became the third to open for worship in Comber in 1840.


2nd Comber Presbyterian Church

 

John Rogers would become a passionate advocate of tenant-right, and was well-known in Ulster politics. One of the tenant-right meetings took place in 2nd Comber church when 500 people crammed in to hear resolutions passed against the distressed state of agriculture. John Rogers remained as minister at 2nd Comber for some 30 years, after which he was chosen to succeed Henry Cooke as Professor of Sacred Rhetoric at Assembly’s College, Belfast. During that time he was elected as Moderator in 1863 and 1864.

 

He also saw a new manse erected in 1860 and a schoolhouse built in 1861. This became known as Smyth’s School, after John Smyth of New Comber House, who donated £700 to the manse and school funds. Like the other Protestant schools in Comber, it became part of Comber Elementary School in 1938.

 

The Rev James Miller Killen was ordained in 1st Comber in 1843. Today, his name can be found on an inscription on the outside wall of the Minor Hall, opened as a new schoolhouse in 1866. He has left us an account of the great religious revival of 1859 which affected his congregation to such a large extent. He recalls a prayer meeting where many people were reduced to tears on account of their sins, and some had to be removed after fainting. In his own words: “The whole town and neighbourhood were roused.  Many did not retire to rest the first night at all, and for several days great numbers were unable to attend to their usual avocations, but gave themselves almost unceasingly to the study of the scriptures, singing and prayer… Altogether we have had above three hundred and fifty cases of visible awakening in our congregation… Drunkards have been reformed, prostitutes reclaimed, thieves have become honest… Our converts include children of seven and old men and women of upwards of seventy years of age”. Second Comber was affected as well, and a large meeting took place in a field on the Newtownards Road presided over by Rev Rogers.

 

Rev Killen was succeeded in 1880 by John McKeown, who resigned in 1885 after receiving a call to Birmingham . Then came Robert Hanna, an Englishman from Croydon, and although he was minister for only a very short time from 1886 to 1888, it was an important time in the history of the congregation. For in 1887 there were major renovations to the church building. The steps and gallery were removed at this time, along with the roof, flooring and pews, and the interior of the church completely reconstructed.

 

The Unitarians also continued to grow. Or perhaps we should call them the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians of the Remonstrant Synod, as the majority do not appear to have held Unitarian views at all. In 1838 there were 38 seat holders, people who rented out their own seat in the pew, but by 1850 this had increased to 56. This was the year when John Orr was installed as minister.  During his time a manse was built in 1859, the burial ground was consecrated in 1863 and a hall erected in 1878. In 1871 John Miller had the exterior of the church finished in Portland cement entirely at his own expense.

 

The present minister is Rev Ian Gilpin, installed in 1986. There have been six ministers since John Orr, beginning with Thomas Dunkerly in 1879. He ministered in Comber until 1915, and when he died in 1925, his ashes were interred in the church graveyard. Kenneth Dunbar had a short ministry from 1915 to 1919; he founded the first Scout troop in Comber. Then came two Welshmen, the long-serving James Glynne Davies (1919-64) and Robert Islwyn Pritchard (1965-9). William Rowan was minister for 14 years from 1970 to 1984, the first Ulsterman to occupy the pulpit for over 50 years. He was an ex-service man, who took a great interest in the affairs of the British Legion.

 

Three stained glass windows in the church commemorate various members of the Andrews family. One of these was erected by Willie Andrews in memory of his mother. The mother is personified as Love, and she is depicted with six children, four boys and a girl who grew to adulthood, and in her arms the baby who died as an infant. The family home of Ardara appears in the background. Willie was a keen cricketer, which may explain why a cricket bat and ball appear on the window.

 

Many members of the Andrews family are buried in the Non-Subscribing graveyard, including Thomas of Ardara and his wife, and three of their sons, John Millar Andrews, the prime minister, James Andrews the Lord Chief Justice and Willie Andrews. But not the 4th son Thomas, buried somewhere in the North Atlantic along with the ill-fated Titanic, which he helped to design.

 

The earlier members of the Andrews family were interred in St Mary’s churchyard, and in 1867 William Glenny Andrews erected a mausoleum over the site. The Andrews’ were not members of St Mary’s, but it is interesting to note the inscription on one of the entrance pillars erected in 1774 by Thomas Andrews and James Lemont of Gransha. Although Presbyterians, both men were also, strangely enough, churchwardens at St Mary’s, an anomaly from a time when the functions of the parish were not solely religious.

 

George Smith was rector from 1868 until just before his death in 1911. His portrait appears on the banner of one of Comber’s Orange lodges. He was known as a great benefactor to the poor and needy, and such was the esteem in which he was held, that the new north transept to the church was consecrated to his memory in 1913.

 

Smith’s successor, Charles Campbell Manning, became a chaplain to the Forces in the First World War. He was awarded the Military Cross. It was also in his time that a new rectory was erected in Laureldale. Manning only stayed until 1918, but then came Canon John Sheffield Houston, who lasted right through until 1954.

 

It was in his time that St Mary’s received its most famous visitor – on 19th March 1946, when our late Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, was godmother at the baptism of Elizabeth Lavinia Sarah King, whose grandmother had been her lady-in-waiting.

 

1954 was an important year at St Mary’s, with the arrival of a new rector, Richard Clayton Stevenson, and the opening of a new Parochial Hall in place of the old Londonderry schoolhouse. A new organ was also installed in the church. Since then there have been 5 further rectors – Revs Lockhart, Leckey, Swann, Barry, and the present incumbent, Samuel Johnston.


St Mary's Catholic Church

 

A major event took place on 1st February 2009 with the dedication of the South Transept. Dominating this is the Cistercian Window by David Esler with its figure of a Cistercian monk, recalling the earlier Comber Abbey. Also there are the Abbey Stones, dedicated on 7th November 2010 by the Archbishop of Armagh, Most Rev Alan Harper.

 

The Roman Catholics of Comber did not have a church of their own until 1872. In 1863 they had been worshipping in a building in The Crescent, which later became a blacksmith’s shop. Then for a while Father Close, the parish priest of Newtownards, got permission to celebrate mass every Sunday in the Market House in Killinchy Street. The foundation stone of the church was laid in 1868, and the building was dedicated for worship by the Most Reverend Dr Dorrian in 1872.

 

 Renovation work was carried out in 1960, and again in 1993 following an unfortunate incident when an incendiary device caused substantial smoke damage. 2010 also saw major work carried out which included the fitting of a gallery and a new altar. Impressive ceremonies were held to mark the centenary in 1972 and the 150th anniversary in 2022.

 

The parish priest also serves the church at Newtownards, and the present incumbent is Father Martin O’Hagan, well-known as one of the Singing Priests. A school dates from 1904, in the time of Father Crolly. The original building still stands, but a new school was built in 1955.

 

The Presbyterians remain the largest denomination in Comber. Shortly after the major renovations of 1887, Thomas Graham, originally from Lisbellaw, became minister of 1st Comber. During his time a large pipe organ was installed in the church. He died in 1916.

 

Dr Graham was succeeded by John McKean. The early 20th century is notable for a number of long-serving ministers in the town, and Rev McKean was no exception, remaining until 1956. He was Moderator of the General Assembly in 1952, and during his year in office dedicated the memorial gardens in Comber Square. 

 

The Rev Robert Brown moved into Comber from Carnlough in 1957, and into a completely new manse. A new hall was built in 1960 to meet the growing needs of the congregation. Rev Brown retired in 1986. Since then we have had David Gray, Wilson Gordon, and the present minister Graham Connor. The suite of halls was extended in 2013.


1st Comber Presbyterian Church

 

At 2nd Comber, when John Rogers left in 1869, there was no minister until Stuart James Niblock was appointed in 1873. He had been minister of Riverside congregation in Newry. In 1877 he went off to Scotland, and was replaced by David Taylor. Rev Taylor resigned the pastorate of Second Comber in 1896, finding that his duties as secretary to the Orphan Society took up much of his time. But he still maintained an interest in the church, becoming Moderator in 1899. He remained as 2nd Comber’s senior minister until his death in 1941.

 

Rev Robert James Semple was ordained in 2nd Comber in 1897. He founded a Boys’ Brigade Company there in 1899. He left in 1910 to become Professor of English and History at Magee College, Londonderry.

 

Thomas McConnell came next. He went out to France in 1917 to do YMCA work among the troops. And while he was away there was a period when united Sunday morning services were held between 1st and 2nd Comber, alternating between each church.  Rev McConnell left for Canada in 1919, and he was followed by James Breakey, who subsequently became minister of Abbey Presbyterian Church in Dublin. In 1955 he would be elected Moderator of the General Assembly.

 

Some will remember Rev James E Jones, a native of Lurgan, ordained in 1927. He ministered for 42 years until 1969.  He saw many changes, including the installation of a pipe organ in 1931, the opening of a Youth Hall in 1951, a re-modelling of the grounds in 1952, and a major refurbishment of the church in 1955.

 

A new church hall was built in 1975, in the time of Rev Samuel Wilson. Since then we have had Rev John Chambers, Rev Paul Erskine, Rev Roy Mackay, and the present minister, Rev Andrew Conway. In 1993, in Rev Erskine’s time, the old Smyth Schoolhouse was demolished and replaced with a new suite of halls.

 

Other denominations have come to Comber in recent years. The Baptist congregation was formed in 1966 and initially met in the Laureldale Hall. Eventually a church building was erected in Mill Street, and opened on 1st May 1976. Jim Garrett became the first full-time pastor in 1978. He was followed by Wesley Crawford in 1994, Peter Firth in 2005 (whose daughter wins all the swimming medals), Stuart Burnham in 2011, and Neal Gordon in 2021.


Baptist Church

 

We also have the Free Presbyterians on the Newtownards Road. Originally services were held in the Orange Hall and in 1989 Rev Samuel Murray was installed as first minister of the congregation. A temporary hall was opened on the Newtownards Road in 1989, and the current church building opened on 15th May 1999.


Free Presbyterian Church

 

The Brethren are at the Gospel Hall on the Belfast Road. And for a while the Assemblys of God met in the  Laureldale Hall under the name of Comber Christian Centre. The Salvation Army once met in Mill Street, while the Cooneyites are reported as holding open air meetings in the Square in 1906. A drop-in centre in Bridge Street run by Youth for Christ opened in 1998.



 

Who would have thought that church services would be suspended? But that was the case in 2020 when we were hit with Covid 19. But we improvised with Zoom. And the churches eventually did open again. Then we had to sing with masks on!

 

There have been many changes in the 1,600 or so years since Christianity came to Comber. There have been many ups and downs over the years, and today we are experiencing a decline in church membership throughout the Province. But the churches still remain committed to the Christian message in the world of today.  

 


 

 

 

 

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

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