Sinclair Seamen’s Presbyterian Church – A Remarkable Belfast Church

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Sinclair Seamen’s Church
Sinclair Seamen’s Church

The Church Opening

Sinclair Seamen’s Presbyterian Church was opened on 7th October 1857. The preacher was the Rev Dr Thomas Guthrie from Edinburgh. The Belfast Newsletter reported at the time that tickets for the opening had been distributed to bookseller’s establishments throughout the town and that “the house was thronged to excess, several hundreds of the most respectable inhabitants of Belfast being present.”

Built next to the Belfast Harbour Commissioners Office in the Belfast docklands, this Church aimed to provide religious services to visiting sailors as well as the local inhabitants.

The Church was commissioned by Thomas Sinclair in memory of his uncle John Sinclair. Thomas Sinclair was a prominent businessman, Presbyterian and Unionist. He is known for drafting the Ulster Covenant document. He is also credited with introducing golf into Ireland from Scotland in 1881.

John Sinclair
John Sinclair

The Sinclair family provisions firm was in nearby Tomb Street. Thomas Sinclair died on 14th February 1914 at his home, Hopefield House on the Antrim Road. He is buried in Belfast City Cemetery (Plot D 9)

Sinclair in Belfast Street Directory 1850
Sinclair in Belfast Street Directory 1850

Sinclair Seamen’s Church Exterior

Sinclair Seamen’s Church was designed by architect Charles Lanyon. It is in the Venetian style with a striking campanile. The Church is L shaped and built of Scrabo stone. From the tower an arcaded ‘flying staircase’ links to the interior gallery. A large rose window decorates the front elevation.  The iron railings were added in 1865.

Rose Window
Rose Window

Sinclair Seamen’s Church Interior

In 1902 the interior of the Church was refurbished by the incoming minister, Rev Samuel Cochrane, to reflect its maritime tradition. On entering the Church, the floor depicts in semaphore the words ‘Welcome to the port of Belfast’.

Welcome to the Port of Belfast
Welcome to the Port of Belfast

The pulpit is shaped like the prow of a ship and is made from reclaimed ships’ wood. It is inscribed with the Hebrew phrase ‘Mizpah’ translated as ‘the Lord stands between me and thee’. The pulpit is flanked by coloured navigational lights originally from a Guinness barge in Dublin. In 1927 a ship’s binnacle with the compass within was installed.

Sinclair Seamen's Church Pulpit
Sinclair Seamen’s Church Pulpit

The walls and ceiling are adorned with naval flags and memorials. Also decorating the walls is an embossed motif of an Asian pattern designed by William Morris. Morris, a famous textile designer, poet and artist was a friend of Charles Lanyon.

Model ship with William Morris wall motif
Model ship with William Morris wall motif

Also on display is a brass steering wheel salvaged from an American ship sunk during WW1 and a large ship’s compass.

Church interior
Church interior

Dangling from the ceiling is a model Shorts Singapore flying boat. These aircraft were last used in New Zealand in 1947.

Shorts Singapore flying boat
Shorts Singapore flying boat

Another unusual sight are the collection boxes, which are in the form of miniature lifeboats.

Lifeboat collection boxes
Lifeboat collection boxes

HMS Hood Bell

Within the Church is a brass bell from the HMS Hood. This battleship was scuttled at Portland harbour to prevent enemy submarines torpedoing the fleet.  This bell was presented to Sinclair Seamen’s Church after the Great War by the Gray family, according to a letter written by Christine Davis, the Church’s Information Officer, and published in the Belfast Newsletter 10th September 1987. The bell is still sounded before the Sunday evening service, like a ship’s bell signalling the fourth watch on board.

HMS Hood Bell
HMS Hood Bell

Stained Glass Windows

Sinclair Seamen’s Church is renowned for its stunning stained glass windows. These reflect the Christian ethos of the Church as well as commemorating past congregation members and those who died in the two World Wars. In particular the rose window and the stained-glass in the porch depicting the four evangelists are amazing. In April 1937 a new window was installed in the Church in memory of Rev Samuel Cochrane, ‘the Rev Sam’, who was minister here for 42 years.

Ship-themed stained glass
Ship-themed stained glass

Anchors

On the approach to the Church is a lovely inlaid mosaic of an anchor. Another anchor design is on the floor before the Communion Table. At marriage ceremonies, the bride and groom stand on this spot to take their vows to symbolize that they are now ‘anchored’ together.

Mosaic Anchor
Mosaic Anchor at Entrance
Marriage anchor
Marriage anchor

Visiting The Church

Sinclair Seamen’s Presbyterian Church is still open for Sunday morning services. Though the population of this dockside parish is now mainly scattered, it has a loyal congregation who travel from different areas to attend the Church.  The Church is also open to the public on Wednesday afternoons and free group tours can be arranged.

On our visit we found a great welcome from all we met and had a very interesting and informative quick tour with Church Elder Aaron. The church is crammed with paintings, models and other maritime artefacts – each with their own story. This brief article can only give a flavour of this highly unusual and delightful Church. A tour would be highly recommended!

“….its long association with the sea and more particularly with seafarers has forged for it a unique place in the Christian heritage of Ulster”.

Sinclair Seamen’s Presbyterian Church

Gallery of Images

Click images for slideshow view

Baptism & Marraige Records

Baptism records [1854-1958] and marriage records [1855-1907] for Sinclair Seamen’s Church are available on microfilm [MIC.1P/55] at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland.

PRONI, 2 Titanic Boulevard, Titanic Quarter, Belfast BT3 9HQ

                     proni@communities-ni.gov.uk

Sinclair Seamen’s Church Location & Contact Details

Contact: Sinclair Seamen’s Presbyterian Church,  Corporation Square, Belfast BT1 3AJ

Groups by arrangement Tel: 028 90319931

email:    sinclairschurch@gmail.co

Website: www.sinclairschurch.co.uk


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We are a Belfast couple adding information on Belfast and the surrounding counties. Over coming months we will add a range of posts covering the people, places, products and stories that interest us and will hopefully be of interest to you. Over time we hope to build up information of use to locals & visitors alike and welcome your feedback on subjects of interest or stories that might be interest to the wider audience. Let us know what you think.

4 Comments

Pat Watson · 5 October 2021 at 10:55 pm

Wow! I am enjoying your website, I was a member of Sinclair Seamen’s Church, was a Brown Owl, took a brownie pack. I can picture myself in the gallery, back seat on a Sunday morning. Dreaming of bygone days. Don’t do Facebook, this is more personal. I left for Canada in 1968, seems like yesterday. Thank you!

    P&P · 6 October 2021 at 8:01 am

    Pat, thanks for the nice feedback. We hadn’t been to Sinclair Seamen’s Church until preparing the post and they kindly gave us a tour and let us take photos. A fantastic place.

    We hope you continue to enjoy the website – we try to keep it varied, even random in hunting out stories that are not widely known.

Lois King · 30 July 2021 at 3:39 pm

Thank you for sharing these pictures of this old church.

    P&P · 30 July 2021 at 4:05 pm

    Lois, thanks for acknowledging the post. Its always nice to get feedback.

    Our Belfast Entries website is all about the quirky, untold, or largely, forgotten people & places around us that deserve to be seen or remembered. Good to see the posts acknowledged or shared. We’re on Facebook as @belfastentriespage if you’d like to see other posts as we write them.

    Thanks

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