Coming Home - new chapter for First Derry Presbyterian

First Derry
Image caption The refurbished interior of First Derry Presbyterian Church

Reverend David Latimer will never forget the day he first set eyes on First Derry Presbyterian Church.

When he moved to Londonderry to take up a new ministry, the historic building was a shadow of its former glory.

"When I arrived in 1988 there was a wrapping of tall security fencing outside, the windows were covered in protective material and steel shutters were fixed to the doors," he said.

"It looked very unwelcoming and inside was dark and dismal because no natural light was getting in. It required all this security paraphernalia because it had been targeted repeatedly during the Troubles."

There's been a Presbyterian presence on Derry's historic Walls since 1690 when First Derry opened its doors. The current building which overlooks the Catholic Bogside opened in 1780.

During the Troubles, the church found itself in the firing line. It was targeted with stones, bottles and paint-bombs and was almost burned to the ground in a petrol bomb attack in 1984.

However, it would take more than sectarian attacks to drive the loyal congregation from their place of worship.

That only happened in 2002 when Reverend Latimer was told the news he didn't want to hear.

"We saw what we really didn't want to see. One of the big beams in the ceiling was bowing. We had it examined and it turned out to be a serious outbreak of dry rot. We had to go," he said.

Image caption The ornate tile work and the refurbished pews

Determined to rebuild

But the minister and his flock were determined to rebuild. With cross-community support and funding from a range of bodies £2.5m was found for a major refurbishment.

Work got under way last year and final preparations are now being made for its official reopening.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and the assembly speaker, William Hay, will be among the congregation for the reopening on Saturday.

The Bishop of Derry, Seamus Hegarty, and his Church of Ireland counterpart, Ken Good, will take part in the service.

"It looks like it has never looked before," said Dr Latimer.

"People who have grown up in that church, who've spent 60 or 70 years of their lives in there, they're stunned by the way the whole place has been restored.

"It's not going to be just a place for sacred worship it's going to be a shared space," he said.

Derek Lee, who is clerk of session, can't wait.

Spiritual home

Image caption The emblem of the Presbyterian Church rendered in striking tile work

"This is our spiritual home. I know the church is not just a building, it is its congregation and its people.

"But we like to have our own home on the walls back where we feel comfortable and from where we can reach out to our friends over the wall as well," he said.

As if to emphasise the cross-community nature internationally renowned singers, The Priests, will perform to an audience of hundreds of people in the church on Sunday.