St Joseph’s Church; Princes Dock Street
18th March: 2.00pm – 3.30pm
Join this walking tour of the Sailortown area, starting and finishing at St. Joseph’s Church and Parochial House; both Grade B Listed buildings.
This Docks area once held 5,000 people in tightly packed streets. They were moved out in an Urban Development programme in the late 1960’s but retained their sense of community. When their Catholic church was closed in 2000, they fought back and eventually succeeded in convincing the Bishop to cede ownership of it. They have held a prayer service on its steps for the last 17 years and recently their campaign has gained momentum with much needed repairs having been carried out to the church. They still face an uphill battle but are now hopeful that their long campaign will be successful.
St Joseph’s, known as the Chapel on the Quay, was built in 1880 for the growing Catholic population in the docks and for visiting sailors. It replaced a large shed used by the local congregation and remained a community focal point for 120 years. However, in the late 1960’s, the new road infrastructure introduced as a result of the ‘Matthew Plan’, resulted in splitting Sailortown from the city, the gradual demolition of homes and rehousing of local people to new housing estates on the outskirts of Belfast.
In 1999, Catholic Church authorities announced its closure, citing the dwindling congregation. Despite fierce opposition from the Sailortown ex residents, the church was deconsecrated and closed in 2001. In reaction to this Sailortown Cultural and Historical Society (SCHS) was established in 2000 to protect, record and promote the unique history and culture of the dockland community. Sailortown Regeneration Group (SRG) was formally established in 2006 to drive improvements in the area.
SRG have now managed to source funding for remedial safety work; this is expected to be completed by March 2018. Partnerships have been drawn up with artists, academics and researchers, and businesses and community groups in the area have given their full support to the project as a means of revitalising the area.
There is a large amount of development being carried out in the vicinity of the Church; e.g. UU Campus, York Street Interchange and Harbour City Quays. This is an opportunity to re-stitch the city by making inner North Belfast easily accessible to the centre, ensuring that the heritage of the area is included in regeneration planning and a historic building is retained for community use in an area with one of the highest levels of multiple deprivation in NI. With the rapid advancement of afore-mentioned retail and office developments SRG need to ensure that developers take heed of the local community and wider Belfast by providing an opportunity for them to support a peoples Heritage Centre before it is too late. Developers and City Councillors have expressed their support in principal.
A restored St. Josephs will greatly benefit Belfast by preserving one of the last historic buildings in Sailortown for posterity; providing a centre showcasing real peoples stories about life and work in Belfast – the stories of the people who worked on the docks, went to sea for months on end and the large families who lived in the small houses and streets in Belfast.
Belfast port has 400 years of history which has been neglected and overshadowed by the conflict: it’s time to celebrate and remember that history and pass it on to future generations by creating a people’s heritage centre for Belfast.