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St Mary’s Parish Church, Comber
The following was given as a talk to Comber Historical Society by Desmond Rainey on 14th March 2011.
Illustrations for this page will follow in due course.

There are many impressive monuments in St Mary’s Parish Church, Comber. One such is fixed to the west wall of the nave, just above the door. It is in memory of James Birch of Ballybeen, who died in 1859. The Birches were connected with St Mary’s; indeed two of the family were ministers there. James Birch himself lived at Ballybeen House, which is near Moneyrea and was destroyed by fire in 1903. This memorial was once on the south wall of the church. In September 2007, just before work started on the construction of the South Transept, the memorials were removed from the walls for safekeeping. Behind the Birch Memorial was found a recess containing a green glass bottle, held in place with an iron clasp. In the bottle was a wad of paper, which is now with experts at the Ulster Museum who will treat it to make the writing legible. At present one can only speculate as to what this manuscript contains. One exciting possibility is that it is a time capsule, placed in the newly built church in 1840. What might it tell us of the dim and distant past?

St Mary’s sits in the south-east corner of Comber Square. It has a long history, dating way back beyond the present building of 1840. On this site we can travel right back to the Middle Ages and Comber’s Cistercian Abbey. Tradition relates that St Patrick founded a monastery in Comber on the Plain of Elom. We don’t know where this was, but speculation has placed it at North Down Cricket Ground. A path marked as the Monks’ Walk on old maps leads from what is now the Enler Car Park in the direction of Castle Lane. Later this monastery was taken over by the Augustinians and became known as the Black Abbey on account of the black robes of the monks. Fr McCana, writing around 1644, says not even the ruins remain, as the stones have been taken away by the Scots settlers to build houses.

The Cistercian foundation was probably much larger. It is said to have been founded in 1199 by Brian O’Neill (Catha Dun). The site was in the angle of the Rivers Enler and Glen. These rivers were essential for both fishing and sanitary purposes. Even in those days they had a primitive form of flush toilet (the reredorter). Traces of a bed of a fairly broad stream, in the form of smooth damp clay, were uncovered when digging foundations for a new hall at St Mary’s. The Glen River was only a few yards away, and a channel cut from it could have been used for the reredorter or to carry away refuse from the kitchen.

St Mary’s is believed to occupy the choir of the Abbey Church. The older part of the graveyard is probably where the cloisters were situated. And the burial ground of the monks may lie underneath The Square – human remains were discovered when digging the foundations of the Gillespie Monument. Not much remains of Comber abbey today, although an excavation of the site might prove interesting. A couple of pieces of medieval pottery dated to c. 1250 were indeed found before work commenced on the South Transept. And a few years ago an interesting stone was found in the river near the Marsh Bridge by the late Sam Currie Senior. It is thought that this might be a bullaun stone, which is a stone with a depression in it like a bowl. Many of these stones have been found on monastic sites. No-one really knows their purpose, but they predate the Christian period and are linked to magical or religious beliefs, for instance that rainwater collected in the hollow of a stone has healing properties. Sometimes round pebbles are found in bullaun stones, cure or curse stones that would be turned while praying for or cursing somebody.

There are strong links between Comber and Greyabbey, also a Cistercian foundation. Similar masons’ marks have been found at both sites. The Comber stone, found as part of an old building, has unfortunately disappeared, although one of the 19 abbey stones now in the South Transept also bears a Mason’s Mark.

Cistercians wore white habits and thus are called the White Monks. The Order originated at Citeaux, not far south of Dijon in France. It was founded by Robert of Molesme in 1098. Their most illustrious member was St Bernard of Clairvaux. The original settlement of Comber was from a monastery in South Wales (Alba Landa or Whitland in Carmarthenshire). The Cistercians sought to observe strictly the Rule of St Benedict. They set themselves apart to a life of prayer and meditation, with an emphasis on austerity, strict rules on diet and silence. But there was also a strong work ethos involving manual labour – the Cistercians were largely responsible for developing agriculture, so in them we have Comber’s early farmers. It is also probable that some of the stone fish traps found on the north-west shore of Strangford Lough were associated with Comber Abbey e.g. that on Ogilby Island. The Abbey also had a good landing place for small sea craft at Carnesure.

Comber Abbey was of moderate importance, 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 at Comber in 1543. An Inquisition or investigation of 1605 found that the last abbot, John O’Mullegan, had been deprived of 7 townlands – Ballymonaster (the land adjoining the abbey), Carnesure, Cullintraw, Cattogs, Troopersfield, Ballynichol and half of Ballygowan.

The Abbey lay derelict for almost 30 years. Then in 1572, when Sir Thomas Smith tried to establish an English colony in North Down, Comber Abbey was burnt down by Brian O’Neill to ensure that it could not be used by the English for shelter. When the Scots settlers arrived under Hamilton and Montgomery, stones were removed for building purposes, and can still be found in old walls and buildings round Comber. Many were used in the construction of Mount Alexander Castle, a wedding present from Hugh Montgomery, Viscount Ardes, to his son in 1622. This in turn has also disappeared long ago.

An interesting group of ancient stones was presented to the people of Comber by the Willis family. They had been built into a monument known affectionately as The Monk in the garden of Aureen in 1931 by Tom Campbell, the gardener there, who supposedly brought them from the garden of the Old House of the Andrews family in Castle Street. It is assumed that these stones belonged to Comber Abbey. But the figure of the head is not that of a monk. Archaeologists say that it is a king, and the stones are 15th century, so they date from a later phase of building at the Abbey. They formed a window or doorway, and are now displayed in the South Transept at St Mary’s round a doorway in their original shape. 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. There is a 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”. It was capable of accommodating around 300. A bell was necessary in those days when people didn’t have clocks. Montgomery supplied bells for the churches on his estate, but the original Comber one was lost. We also know that originally the church had a wooden roof, as a report by a Commission in1625 states that the roof of the church at Comber had been taken from the woods. Another of Montgomery’s 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 the use of the word “breeches” in Genesis 3:7 – “They sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves breeches”.

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. However, in 1642 a Scots Presbyterian Army came to Ulster in the pay of the English government to put down the native Irish Rebellion. They set up the first Presbytery in Ulster, and applications were made by a number of parishes to be taken under the care of this Army Presbytery. Comber was one of them.

And so in 1645 the Presbyterian James Gordon was appointed to Comber. Gordon was a Scotsman from Morayshire, born around 1620. And he began as minister at St Mary’s, as this was the only church in Comber, under the authority of the Presbytery, not of the bishops. St Mary’s would have had a Kirk Session at this time! It is interesting that the congregation of 1st Comber dates its formation from Gordon’s arrival, although no actual Presbyterian meeting house existed until around 1670. Incidentally, it is from this period, in 1646, that the author of the Montgomery Manuscripts mentions the Goodwife of Busby, who walked to Communion at Comber at the age of 85.

Gordon’s position was helped by the widow of the 2nd Viscount Montgomery, the former Lady Jean Alexander. She was a staunch Presbyterian, although relations became strained in 1649 over the baptism of her granddaughter, the 3rd Viscount’s infant daughter. He had been brought up as a Presbyterian, but when he accepted a commission in the army of Charles II without telling the Kirk Session, he was condemned and changed to Episcopalianism. Gordon refused to baptise the child unless the Viscount would acknowledge his offence and repent, which he refused to do.

In 1657 James Gordon is reported as a preacher in salary with a dwelling house and 6 acres of land. Then in 1660 the exiled Charles II was restored to his throne, and he brought back the bishops. Jeremy Taylor, Bishop of Down, gave ministers the option to either conform to the Anglican form of worship or get out. Gordon was thrown out, and replaced by William Dowdall. But there was trouble when Dowdall was attacked in the church, an incident reminiscent of the 1637 riot in St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh. On that occasion Jenny Geddis famously threw a stool at the preacher. Dowdall merely had his robes pulled off. Once again, the culprits were mainly women, who were brought for trial to Downpatrick. Here one of them boasted “These are the hauns that poo’d the white sark ower his heed”. However, despite the opposition, Dowdall remained, and continued his ministry until around 1692. The earliest parish records date from Dowdall’s time, in 1683. Among the baptismal records is that of Robert Rollo Gillespie in 1766. St Mary’s must have lost a lot of parishioners around this time to the Presbyterian congregation who probably built their first church around 1670 at the top of High Street, the Coo Vennel.

Dowdall was succeeded by David Maxwell. He only lasted 7 years and his burial is recorded as having taken place at Comber on July 30th 1699. Then came Edmund Bennett. A badly worn memorial stone to him at the gable end of the church has been re-carved in recent years. “Near this place lyeth the body of ye Rev Mr E.B., ye late learned and pious minister of this congregation and chaplain to the Earle of Mount Alexander. He died on 15th February 1710, very much lamented”.

There are other early monuments about the church. One such was originally a stone tablet fixed to the south wall. Today it is split into two halves and can be seen on the inside wall of the tower. There are 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”. Other early stones are mentioned in Memorials of the Dead (quoted by Clarke in Gravestone Inscriptions Vol 5). Memorials of the Dead, published in 1914, is an important early reference work on tombstone inscriptions. For instance the book mentions a small stone in the church inscribed “E.B. 1637”. There is also a stone formerly built into the south wall of the church, but at the time lying loose in two worn fragments. It was dated 1658 and had a Latin inscription beginning “O Spectator quam dolende”. And a flat stone is mentioned in the south side of the churchyard nearly in line with the western end of the church – “I.I. Elder 1634. I.I.T. the 2 1675 Dec 19”.

The graveyard contains many early burials dating back to the 17th century, including an interesting headstone to William Murdoch, described as “the eminent distiller of Comber”, who died in 1805. And I cannot fail to mention the memorial to Isaac Meredith of Kilbreght, a stone in red Castle Espie limestone attached to the front of the church. Mr Meredith died on the 10th July 1723, but are we really to believe that he lived to the ripe old age of 127 years?

Also in the graveyard is the mausoleum of the Andrews family, erected in 1867 by William Glenny Andrews. The mausoleum itself contains no burials, although there are a few cremations inside, but underneath is the family burial vault. Among those buried there are Thomas Andrews the miller (1698-1744), who founded the family interest in milling; John Andrews “the great” (1721-1808), who transformed Comber from Walter Harris’ “mean little village” into a hive of industry; James Andrews (1762-1841), who was one of the founders of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church; and John Andrews (1792-1864), who built the Spinning Mill.

There isn’t a lot of information about the early rectors. Edmund Bennett was followed in 1712 by James Montgomery, and then Patrick Hamilton in 1716. A tablet inside the church tells us that Hamilton was minister of Comber for 18 years, and subsequently went to Killyleagh, where he died in 1750. But both he and his wife, along with 12 of their children, were buried at Comber. There is a map of Comber dating from Hamilton’s time in 1722. In it you can see Comber’s mercat cross in the middle of the Square. You can also find marked the old church of St Mary’s and the glebe house. Indeed in 1721 it is reported that there is a glebe house, barn, stable, cow house and brew house all in sufficient repair, with a garden bounded on the north side with the church yard.

The glebe house was rebuilt in 1738, in the time of Annesley Bailie, who succeeded Hamilton in 1733. It was to be the home of the rector for many years. The house was demolished in 1958. Bailie died in 1758. It must have been the only dwelling house in Comber with a slated roof at the time, as indicated in a document of 1743. The roof of the old church itself was now slated, and in 1719 a contract had been entered into with John Kelly of Ballycreely to keep the roof in repair and the windows constantly glazed for 21 years. Later that year he was to be allowed one pound square for that part of the roof which had been entirely slated and sarked, and one pound ten shillings for mending other parts of the roof. Work seems to have been ongoing for a number of years, but not always to the satisfaction of the Vestry. In 1724 it was agreed that the part of the roof lately slated by John Kelly should be re-slated, and that four pounds shall be levied of the parishioners to pay Hugh Glass for the work. In 1719 £8 was levied from the parishioners to add a new window, and in 1720 a further £10 for another window. And in 1727 agreement was reached with Robert Murdogh, mason, about building all the west end and the remaining part of the south side of the churchyard wall, and to throw down the old wall and the foundation, and that he was to be paid at the rate of ten pence per perch.

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 parish and county cesses. The cess was a local tax, set in 1720 at 10 guineas. However, £12-6-6½ was actually spent in that year, so there was a problem! Road maintenance was one of the tasks to which this money was put, and in April 1737 it was enacted that “5 shill be laid on ye town of Cumber for picks for ye highways”. But there were also social issues, such as the 30 shillings for the maintenance of Josh Gorley's child in 1744. You also get strange payments such as “10d for pipes and tobacco at the poor child’s funeral” in 1728.

Samuel Stone was rector from 1758 until 1783. It was he who took out the lease of Barn Hill farm on the Belfast Road in 1767 and started to build the house there in 1768. He was also vicar of Killaney from 1770 and of Culdaff in Donegal from 1769, and he seems to have lived for most of the time in Donegal, although he returned to Comber in 1796. He died at Barn Hill in 1798.

It is strange that Samuel Stone’s name does not appear on the Tablet erected by Guy Stone in 1855 as a memorial to his ancestors, although I suppose he wasn’t a direct ancestor. However, on the Tablet we do have a record of his brother, Guy’s grandfather, another Guy Stone, who died in 1779. The Tablet tells us that, among other things, he was “Curate or incumbent of this parish, and that of Newtownards” for 26 years. While his brother was absent in Donegal, it seems that he officiated in Comber, and his signature appears on Vestry minutes. He also finished building Barn Hill house. He died in 1779 and was buried under the aisle of St Mary’s.

Comber was still largely Presbyterian, and in 1764 we learn that there were only 315 members of the Established Church compared with 1,220 Presbyterians and 165 Papists. The date 1774 is to be found on one of the entrance pillars to St Mary’s, along with the names of Thomas Andrews and James Lemont. These men were churchwardens and apparently paid for the erection of the pillars. Some other 18th century churchwardens were John Bowman, Jacob McMeehan, Robert Dixon, Alexander Montgomery, Samuel Kennedy and John Williamson, probably an innkeeper.

Not all were so wealthy. Support of the poor was necessary, and in 1778 a voluntary subscription was set up for the relief of poor householders of all denominations. It was also resolved that the poor of Comber who “go from house to house” should henceforth wear a badge to distinguish them from “Strollers”, who would no longer be allowed to intrude on the privileges of the Comber poor. Again, in 1783, “the parishioners, affected by the pressing severity of the times, and anxious to relieve by a well-timed liberality the great distress of the Poor of their parish, have entered into a voluntary subscription for that purpose, to be continued for three months from this date, and as they are determined to encourage none but those who are really indigent and unable to support themselves, they will not relieve any vagrants, but exert themselves to banish them from said parish”. In 1784 Rev Mortimer received £5 from the Comber Volunteers, the profits from a play they performed for the benefit of the poor.

Robert Mortimer had succeeded as rector in 1783. He was connected to the Stone family, being married to Jane, daughter of Rev Guy Stone. They had 13 children. In 1796 the Belfast Newsletter tells us of a raid on his orchard when a number of trees and shrubs were maliciously cut down. It was before Mortimer in 1797 in his role as magistrate that 733 people from the town and neighbourhood of Comber subscribed to an oath of allegiance. It was probably also because of his duties as magistrate that Mortimer accompanied the York Fencibles to the Battle of Saintfield during the 1798 Rebellion by the United Irishmen. There he was killed, along with his nephew. What happened to his body? One story relates that it was found propped up against a gatepost, completely naked, and was buried in a mass grave in Saintfield at a place known as York Island, because most of the dead were members of the York Fencibles. Another story would have us believe that his horse carried him back to Comber. There is indeed a tradition that he was secretly buried at Comber underneath the church.

Inside St Mary’s is a memorial tablet erected in memory of three members of the York Fencibles killed at Saintfield – Captain Chetwynd, Lieutenant Unite, and Ensign Sparks. The tablet was erected by their brother officers and is the only one in the province dedicated to regular Government troops. It is believed Chetwynd was in command of the van of the column. He was allegedly shot while trying to rally his troops by a farmer from Tonaghmore called Daniel Millin.

George Birch was installed as rector of Comber in 1799. In 1801 the Masonic Lodge No 822 were thanking him for the sermon delivered to them in St Mary’s on St John’s Day – 24th June. It was in George Birch’s time in 1813 that a school was set up on the site of what is now the parochial hall. This was built jointly by Lady Londonderry and the executors of the Erasmus Smith Charity. The school was a single-storey building with two rooms. There was a small playground, originally a garden, in front. In 1837 we read that this was the largest school in the town with 233 pupils (137 male and 96 female). Interestingly 8 of these were Roman Catholic, only 8 years after the Act of 1829 had given emancipation to the Catholics. The master got £30 a year from the Erasmus Smith Charity and a halfpenny from each of the pupils who were able to pay it. Lord Londonderry considered it to be in a state of neglect in 1841, both “in interior cleanliness and outward management – the garden and premises indicating sloth and filth”. He also thought that “the glebe house side might well be spared some decent rough-cast or whitewashing”, and stated that “the strange spouts put up on the side of the house are perfectly unaccountable and ridiculous”.

In 1832 a house was built at the rear of the school for the master; in 1831 this was Joseph Boles. Later, this became the residence of the sexton, before being re-modelled as a house for the curate. The school eventually closed in 1938 when Comber Elementary opened and the building was demolished in 1954. The Parochial Hall was built in its place.

George Birch died in 1827, to be succeeded by his son, George Watson Birch. But he died in 1830 in his 30th year. The Birches were well thought of, and there is a memorial plaque in the church in their memory. Mary Watson Birch, who died in 1891, was a sister of George Watson Birch. The Dorcas Window, now in the South Transept, is in her memory. Like Dorcas in the Book of Acts, she was known as a benefactress of the poor. The Birches were related to Thomas Ledlie Birch, Presbyterian minister of 1st Saintfield, who was involved in the 1798 Rebellion. They were also related to the Birch family of Ballybeen House, and we have already come across the memorial to James P Birch of Ballybeen who died in 1859. There are also memorials to Edward Hume Birch (1837-87), also to Henry Claude Birch, drowned while bathing in 1899 at the age of 19. Another relative was the Rev George Birch Oceanus Hill, curate of Newtownards who died in 1837, aged 27. There is a large memorial in the church in his memory.

Robert Ferrier Jex-Blake became rector in 1831. He was an Englishman from Norfolk, and we know from Guy Stone’s diary that his wife died in 1838 after giving birth to a stillborn child. It was in Rev Blake’s time that the church was rebuilt. It seems that so much money was being spent on repairs that there was no choice. The advice of Lord Londonderry, as owner of the town, was sought, and the decision taken. The new church would be built on the existing site and foundations of the old one. In that way there would be no disturbance of any graves.

There is in fact a theory that the west wall of the present church, which is 6 feet in depth, is the actual wall of the old church, and that this in turn was the wall of the Abbey - too thick for a small 17th century Plantation Church. This arises from the fact that it was discovered that in the wall above the door there was formerly a window, which must pre-date the tower. William Farrell, architect to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, was appointed to design the church, and building commenced in 1838. The Rev Blake thought nothing of going round his parishioners touting for money. Guy Stone tells us in his diary for 1837 how he arrived out with him at Barnhill, having just returned from 3 months in England where he had been very ill. Guy gave him £15, which he thought was more than he should have given. Rev Blake must have been very persuasive.
The new church opened in 1840, one of 3 new churches in Comber that year, the others being the Non-Subscribing and 2nd Comber. It is described as being in the later style of English architecture. The bell in the tower was made by Thomas Mears of London. There was an ancient custom that the bell was rung for five minutes at nine o’clock on Sunday mornings. In 1841 Viscount Castlereagh, the son of Lord Londonderry, presented a clock, made by Robert Neill of Belfast. This clock has a pendulum 90 inches long, and was once driven by two huge weights suspended on cables which travelled the depth of the church tower to work the cogs and bell. However, in May 1996 the clock was pulled out, stripped down and rebuilt to incorporate modern electronic winding equipment. There is an inscription on the pendulum – “Be on time. Time at best is very short”. Also presented by Viscount Castlereagh in 1841 was a large chandelier, which was removed at some time in the first half of the 20th century. The graveyard may also have been extended in the late 1830s; in 1837 Guy Stone talked to Rev Blake about its proposed enlargement.
Several monuments were transferred from the old church to the new. It is also assumed that the baptismal font transferred over, for it is very old and most unusual, being made of porphyry, a stone only found in Mediterranean countries. How did it get to Comber? Interestingly, there is also a font made of porphyry in Killyleagh Parish Church.
In 1851 Rev Jex-Blake returned to Norfolk and was replaced as rector by William Thomas Delacherois Crommelin, son of Nicholas Delacherois Crommelin of Carrowdore Castle. The Downpatrick Recorder tells of a Sunday School fete in 1855. Apparently it poured all morning, but when the 160 children started to assemble at 2.30 pm the rain stopped and the sun came out. The schoolhouse was decorated with evergreens and flowers along the walls, while wreaths and garlands were suspended from the ceiling. Rev Crommelin welcomed the children, while Rev Edmondson of Saintfield addressed them. There was tea and currant bread, followed by hymn-singing and games. Then at 7 pm all assembled in front of the glebe house for a closing hymn and parting words from the rector. A large bonfire was lit in the Square.
There are two tablets in St Mary’s to the Stone family of Barnhill. The first was erected in 1855 by Guy Stone, the man who wrote the diary. On it are commemorated several of Guy’s immediate ancestors. We have his great-grandparents, Samuel and Margaret. Samuel rose to be a major in the army and died in 1757 (he is buried at Killyleagh). Guy’s grandparents come next, Guy and Margaret, both buried at Comber. We have already discussed this Guy, who was curate of St Mary’s and died in 1779. And finally, we have Guy’s parents, Samuel and Anne. Samuel was Adjutant, Captain and Paymaster of the Londonderry Militia. When he died in 1825 he was buried at the Cathedral there. Anne is buried at Comber.
The second tablet was erected by Elizabeth (Bessie) Stone in 1922. On it are commemorated Guy Stone the diarist who died in 1862 and his wife Anne; also members of their family – Guy born 1829, an engineer who predeceased his father in 1854, Catherine (1843-1859), Frances Elizabeth (1834-1903) who married John McConnell who along with his brother James had a successful whiskey blending business in Belfast (J & J McConnell Ltd), Mary (1837-1906) who married Major Walter Fry an army surgeon in the East India Service, Anne (1831-1910), Margaret Jane (1841-1922) who married Arthur De Wind (they lived for a while in Singapore), and Samuel (1846-1921).
There is indeed a third tablet, to Elizabeth Stone (1849-1943). On it she is described as the last member of the family of Guy Stone.
Samuel Stone was an active member of St Mary’s. We are told on the memorial that he was “from Disestablishment continuously for 21 years Diocesan Synodsman, and for 33 years Parochial Nominator of this Parish and took an active part at that time in raising its Endowment Fund”. What was disestablishment? Well, from 1871 when Gladstone’s Irish Church Act came into force, the Church of Ireland was no longer the official state church, and its representation in the House of Lords at Westminster ceased. It became responsible for its own government under the General Synod as parliamentary authority over it was withdrawn. And it lost financial support from the State, with the withdrawal of tithes. Financial management was now in the hands of a Representative Church Body. The church was compensated to the tune of some £8 million, but it was a bitter blow.
George Smith was rector of St Mary’s at the time, having been appointed in 1868. He was known as a great benefactor of the poor and needy, and his portrait can be seen today on the banner of Comber True Blues LOL 1035. He was made a Canon in 1889. Rev Smyth was married to Katherine Mary, eldest daughter of Charles Andrews QC, who died in 1886. He remarried in 1900 to Louisa Julia, widow of the Rev H D Sheppard. Unfortunately, that lady took her own life at Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) at the end of 1901. She had suffered from nervous depression.

The first Select Vestry was formed in 1870. It consisted of William Glenny Andrews, James Atkinson, George Allen, Robert Waddell, Hugh Hamilton, Samuel Stone, Jacob Gibson, James Burns and Robert Dickson. The churchwardens were Robert Chamberlain and Robert Heaney. In 1871 the officebearers were – George Allen and Samuel Stone (churchwardens); Charles Andrews and Samuel Stone (diocesan synodsmen); William Glenny Andrews, Robert Waddell, Samuel Stone (parochial nominators). These were the first parochial nominators for the parish. Hitherto the rectors had been nominated by Lord Londonderry.
In January 1878 the Newtownards Chronicle reported on a concert given by the church choir, who numbered about 20. On this occasion Rev Smith complimented them on the great improvement they had made, urging them to be more regular in attendance at the practices and to pay attention to the instruction given by the choirmaster, Mr Arthur De Wind, who was honorary organist and choirmaster for 40 years. In 1880 they got their reward with new choir seats, provided out of the proceeds of yet another concert. The chancel was added in 1896, being consecrated on 4th January. Also given at this time were two windows. We have already mentioned the Dorcas window. The other was the East Window, presented by Mrs Allen of Unicarval in memory of her late husband George who had died in 1886. George Allen was a farmer who had built up one of the best pedigree herds of Shorthorn cattle in the United Kingdom. He sold it at a massive auction in 1883. The window depicts Faith, Hope and Charity. The pulpit dates from 1900 and was designed by Mr T Frew, the Diocesan Architect.
At the Easter Vestry meeting in April 1911 regret was expressed at the absence, through illness, of Rev George Smith. This was the first time he had been absent from an Easter Vestry meeting for nearly 37 years. In July he was forced to resign as rector, and by August he was dead. So well was Canon Smith regarded that the new North Transept was erected “by the parishioners and other friends as a memorial of his long and faithful ministry and as a token of their affection and regard”. It was dedicated by the Bishop of Down on 18th January 1913. Also used for the first time on this occasion was a new organ presented by Mrs Culverwell of Ashdene and Mrs John Allen of The Square. This replaced the harmonium. The intention had been that, after Canon Smith’s resignation, he would be allowed to remain living in the Glebe House and a new house would be provided for the new rector. The building of the new rectory in Laureldale went ahead, and a 2-day bazaar in aid of rectory funds was opened by lady Londonderry in May 1913. This raised £857. At a vestry meeting in April 1914 it was reported that the rectory was well on its way to completion.
Canon Smyth’s successor was Charles Campbell Manning, previously rector of Muckamore. When war broke out, Rev Manning joined the Ulster Division of the army as a chaplain. Rev H Gordon was given charge of the Parish in his absence. Captain Manning was mentioned in despatches and won the Military Cross for gallantry, attending to the wounded under heavy shell fire. He himself was wounded in 1917. In 1918 Rev Manning was transferred to Drumbeg Parish, being succeeded by John Sheffield Houston, the rector of Magherahamlet. He was to have a long innings, staying until 1954. In 1919 he nominated Mr G P Culverwell as minister’s churchwarden, Mr H Dawson being elected people’s churchwarden. Mr Culverwell had been churchwarden for 19 years, but unfortunately, he died later that year. There is a plaque to his memory in the church. He was well known as an engineer on the Belfast & Co Down Railway.
Two memorial tablets were dedicated in 1918 – one to the late A H De Wind, who had served as organist and choirmaster, (who died in 1917) erected by the parishioners, the other to the late Rev L Burton Smith, rector of Strangford. The hymnboard was a gift of the De Wind family.
On 1 October 1922 a tablet in the porch was dedicated by the Bishop of Down. This had been erected by subscriptions from members of the church and contained the names of 13 members of the congregation who fell in the Great War, and 62 who served and returned. This memorial is now in the church itself. Over 70 ex-servicemen marched to St Mary’s on the occasion of the dedication, headed by the Comber Amateur Flute Band. The bishop drew attention to the large number who had volunteered for service, and to the many decorations won.
He drew particular attention to Lieutenant Edmund de Wind, posthumous winner of the VC, killed in March 1918 defending the Racecourse Redoubt near Grugies in Picardy. This was the son of the late Arthur de Wind. There are several reminders of Edmund de Wind in St Mary’s today. Apart from the War Memorial tablet, there is a tablet to Edmund himself. We also have the plaques from the gun which used to sit in Comber Square between the wars. This was presented to the town in honour of Edmund de Wind, and the plaques were also formerly in the porch. We also have a plaque commemorating Captain James Bruce, also killed in 1918.
In the winter of 1921-2 the old coke heating stove was removed, and the church heated by means of a high-pressure pipe heating apparatus. And in 1928 the tower, from which patches of the cement coating had fallen, was stripped and finished in roughcast. This was also the year in which Mrs Gracey, who played the organ, presented the Prayer Desk as a memorial to her father, John Bell. In 1932 the church was closed for major renovation work, re-opening on 4th November.
On this occasion various gifts were dedicated, including the Holy Table, the gift of John Allen in memory of his mother Jane, and the Prie Dieu presented by Bessie Stone in memory of her brother Samuel. Improvements included the widening of the entrance to the churchyard, which entailed taking down the pillar inscribed with the names of Thomas Andrews and James Lemont and re-erecting it two feet back so that new wider gates could be hung. New steps were placed at the entrance of the porch, the floor of which was laid in terrazzo (a mosaic covering for concrete floors consisting of marble or other chips set in cement and then polished). A Baptistry was formed, and new pitch pine seats were put into the nave, matching those which had been put in the North Transept in 1913. The new seats were wider and more comfortable than the old. Electric floodlights from the beams of the roof now replaced the former gas lighting, and this may have been when the chandelier of 1841 was removed. Finally, the church was painted.
Another gift of the Allen family of Unicarval was the stained glass window in the North Transept, dedicated in 1938. This was in memory of John Allen, who had died in 1934. The dedication was by the Archdeacon of Down, none other than Charles Campbell Manning, the former rector of St Mary’s. 19 March 1946 was a unique occasion in the history of St Mary’s. It was on that day that Princess Elizabeth, our present Queen, acted as Godmother at a baptism in the church. The baby was Elizabeth Lavinia Sara, daughter of James Osborne and Elizabeth Patricia King of Carnesure.

1954 was an eventful year. To begin with, there was a new rector, Richard Clayton Stevenson, who replaced Canon Houston. He would remain until 1960. There was also a new organ, dedicated on 30th May 1954. This would later be rebuilt and restored in 2000. Saturday 3rd July 1954 saw the opening of the Parochial Hall by the Dowager Marchioness of Londonderry and the Right Rev Kerr, Bishop of Down and Dromore. The hall was extended in 1993.

Robert Joseph Norman Lockhart was rector from 1960 to 1962, and he was followed by Hamilton Leckey 1962-79. It was during his time in the 1960s that the church was re-roofed. Then came Derick Swann (1979-85). Work got under way on a new hall on 2nd May 1982 and this was completed in just over a year. It was dedicated on Wednesday 8th June 1983 by the Bishop, along with a number of gifts. The former Scout’s Den was incorporated into the new hall. The old green hut was demolished at this time. The present rector is Dr Jonathan Barry, installed in January 1986. In recent years, a Garden of Remembrance was dedicated in 1994. An important milestone was marked by a Flower Festival, celebrating 2000 years of faith, held on 28-31 May 1999.
But structural problems were emerging. In the early 20th century one of the church’s large windows had been blocked up so that a vestry/rector’s room could be constructed on the south wall. This was demolished around the 1960s to provide a new building – the “shoebox” vestry. Design of this was flawed, and by the 2000s it was starting to subside with large cracks and dampness appearing on the inner wall of the church due to the failure of the stonework in the original blocked window. This was the wall housing the ancient monuments of the church. It was declared unsafe and some pews had to be roped off. It was deemed necessary to remove the tablets from the wall, but to do this the wall itself needed to be removed. It was decided that a new south transept was the answer to many of the problems being encountered.
And so in 2007 work commenced on a major building project, the erection of a new South Transept, which also entailed the demolition of the Shoebox Vestry. The South Transept was dedicated at a service attended by both the Bishops of Down and Connor on 1st February 2009, along with the magnificent Cistercian window by David Esler, the Quarry Window and the repositioned Dorcas Window, as well as new chandeliers and lights.
Yet another dedication took place on 7 November 2010 – that of the Abbey Stones, now placed in the South Transept. The stones were dedicated by the Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Rev Alan Harper. Which brings us back full circle to the Cistercians and Comber Abbey all those years ago. If only stones could talk!
Desmond Rainey.


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