AN historic Belfast city centre church, which opens its doors seven days, a week has received a £200,000 cash boost from the City Council which will help it to develop an alcohol-free night-time venue for young people.
The grant to May Street Presbyterian Church has been ratified by the full council following a proposal from the all-party area working group.
It is conditional on the church securing match funding, and it is designed to help the church upgrade its basement area in order to accommodate activities ranging from entertainment to chat, music and dance.
The announcement of the award was made by the Lord Mayor, Alderman Gavin Robinson, during a breakfast visit to the church’s Urban Soul Cafe with his chaplain, the Rev Albin Rankin, of Stormont Presbyterian Church.
The Lord Mayor said: “I am delighted to be able to announce the granting of this award which I hope will lead to the church being able to realise its vision of a new future for the building.
“The council is pledging that assistance of up to £200,000 is available and we will work with the church as it seeks to source match funding.”
Alderman Robinson added: “I am much impressed by both the physical and the spiritual aspects of this project and I think this proposed new facility will be a valuable asset to Belfast city centre.
“The idea of a new night-time amenity which will provide an exciting attraction for young people but also a safe environment caught the imagination of local politicians on Belfast City Council.”
Alderman Christopher Stalford, DUP chairman of the City Hall development committee, said: “I am delighted that we have taken this important first step in this exciting and innovative project.
“Ever since the folks from May Street contacted me, I was determined to push this project through to completion.
“As a student of Presbyterian history, May Street Presbyterian Church has a special place in my heart and I am very enthusiastic about the plans for its renewal and redevelopment.”
Alderman Stalford added: “I hope that the church purpose-built for the Rev Dr Henry Cooke will once again be packed with people enjoying all it has to offer. Not only will the project breathe new life into a hallowed old building, but it will significantly add to the city’s cultural capacity.”
Arthur Acheson, clerk of sSession at May Street, welcomed the support from the City Hall, and said it was a major step forward.
He said: “Since our church opened in 1829, when it was on the very edge of the small town of Belfast, our strategy has been to minister to the ever-changing needs of the place and its people.
“Although our congregation has shrunk in recent decades, we are convinced of the need to make the most of our pivotal position right in the heart of the city by creating a Christian resource centre.
“We are blessed by having a neutral location and we believe we can help to respond to the needs of young people who are attracted to the city centre at night and at weekends.
“Our proposal is to secure an entertainment licence and open a buzzing night time facility which will offer young people the opportunity to relax, unwind and socialise in a secure setting.
“We are already in process of approaching other funding bodies to build on this much appreciated pledge of support from Belfast City Council.”
The proposed upgrade will include improved facilities for disabled people which will enable the church and café to meet their obligations under disability access legislation.
May Street Church already provides a base at weekends for the Street Pastors’ organisation, which sends teams out to safeguard young people outside various nightclubs in the city centre.
A new venture is the opening of The Underground, a Sunday evening rendezvous, run by the Rev Lee Eagleson which is aimed at the under-40 age group.
The building also houses the offices and Saturday Academy of Music Theatre for Youth.
As well as being a venue for church services on Sundays and Thursday lunchtimes, the May Street sanctuary – with its noted acoustics and 100-year-old organ – is now a popular venue for concerts.