At the turn of the 20th century, one could argue that the stretch of road between Carlisle Circus and Donegall Street represented the religious heart of Belfast. At one end, the imposing façade of St Anne’s, whilst the two spires of St Enoch’s and Carlisle Memorial towered over the city at the other. The skyline of North Belfast has changed significantly over the last century, with the effects of conflict, progress and urban decay taking their toll on this historic stretch of the city. However, many sites have survived the turbulent events of the 1900s and are still active today. One example of this is the site of Redeemer Central, formerly the Donegall Street Congregational Church.
Nestled between a modern office block, and the towering brick wall of the new Belfast Campus of Ulster University, Donegall Street Congregational Church, originally known as ‘The Tabernacle’., has occupied the site on Donegall Street since 1804. The original building was very different from the ornate gothic structure which eventually replaced it. It was designed by the experienced Belfast architect James Harper and was a simple brick building described as a meeting place of “spartan simplicity”, originally intended to house 600 people. Whilst this building met the needs of the fledgling congregation at the time, over the next 50 years the church flourished, especially under the care of Reverends James Hodgens and John Bagley. As a consequence, the need arose for a new building, for which construction began in 1858, following plans drafted by the mercurial William Raffles Brown.
Brown, the son of a congregational minister, designed a number of churches, including church of St Chrysostom, Everton, which was demolished in 1970, and St John the Divine, Holly Road, Liverpool. He also designed the Mechanics Institute and Town Hall in Lurgan and entered the competition to design the Albert Memorial Clock. His designs drew inspiration from the Gothic Revival movement which was favoured during the 18th and 19th centuries. An apparent staple of Brown’s religious architectural designs was the addition of substantial, prominent buttresses as architectural features, which accentuated other gothic features, such as the pointed arch or tracery windows. Such features are also present in this rendition of the Donegall Street church, however, it does not appear to mimic other churches designed by Brown. The most noticeable difference was the absence of a substantial spire, however, the building did retain a number of the gothic features previously mentioned, and his trademark use of buttresses was on full display. Whilst work commenced in 1858, the foundation stone was laid a year later in 1859, by Mrs R. Workman, with construction completing in 1860.
With the building now complete, further alterations and improvements were made to facilitate the changing needs of their congregation. This included the alteration of the façade and expansion into neighbouring buildings. The front entranceway was stripped back, and a staircase was added, whilst the belfry was replaced by a finial. The areas to either side of the church were also developed to mirror the gothic style with access off the new stone stairway. Whilst the façade of the church itself remained recessed from Donegall Street, the addition of the stairway and the adjacent buildings created a more impressive structure when viewed from the street.
This building remained a staple of Donegall Street until 15th March 1931 when, in the early hours of the morning, the church caught fire. The blaze took 2 ½ hours to subdue, leaving just the external walls standing: blackened and scorched. The alarm was first raised by a night porter working at the Metropole Hotel, which once occupied the corner of Donegall Street and York Street. The surrounding buildings were saved, however, the church was irreparably damaged.
After the devastating fire, the church quickly rebuilt. Construction was started in 1932, using plans from Belfast architect John Seeds, a prominent architect of Ulster Congregational Churches. By this time the Gothic Revival architectural movement had begun to fall out of favour, however, in homage to the history of the site, the new church retained numerous gothic design elements:
“Seeds’ brief was that of ‘no radical departure from the style of the old building’ and a ‘feeling of continuity.’” Donegall Street Congregational Church, p. 33.
In Seeds’ design the pointed arch and tracery windows featured prominently, whilst two small decorative gothic spire-like features accentuate the main façade. This building was opened in 1934, by Viscountess Craigavon, accompanied by the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Lord Craigavon.
Sadly, this would not be the last time the church would suffer significant damage. A few years later it suffered heavily as a result of Luftwaffe bombing during the Belfast Blitz. The North of Belfast was heavily bombed, with the International Bar beside St Anne’s Cathedral left completely gutted, and Clifton Presbyterian Church suffering a direct hit during the raid. The Nave of Donegall Street Congregational found itself needing rebuilt once more. The façade that remains today is a mix of old and new. Elements of John Seeds’ design remain, however, the architects at Samuel Stevenson & Sons installed a stained glass rose window during the rebuilding in 1955, to symbolise how Belfast, much like the church itself, had risen from the ashes after the devastation caused by enemy action in 1941. Donegall Street Congregational Church stands as a poignant reminder of how much Belfast has developed since the first meeting of the congregation in the ‘spartan tabernacle’ in 1805: An ashlar memorial to the resilience of a congregation who chose to rebuild after every misfortune. Whilst the Congregational worshippers vacated the building in 2009 due to dwindling numbers, once again the church found new life and is now the place of worship known as Redeemer Central Church.
 Clifton Presbyterian Church was destroyed during the blitz, whilst the site of Clifton Street United Presbyterian is now a GP Surgery. Furthermore, St Enoch’s church was destroyed as a result of arson.
 Northern Whig: 16th March 1931
 Belfast News-Letter, 30 September 1895. Ibid
 Dictionary of Irish Architects: https://www.dia.ie/architects/view/712/BROWN,+WILLIAM+RAFFLES
 Presumably of the Workman Family (Workman and Clark/Workman & Sons). Likely to be Jane Workman Nee Service, wife of Robert Workman (Parents of Frank).
 Donegall Street Congregational Church – Belfast: One Hundred and Thirty-Seven Years from 1798 to 1935 (Belfast, 1935), p.33