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History of the First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church, Holywood. 

The Old or First Congregation of Holywood (sometimes wrongly titled Unitarian) was the second Presbyterian congregation established in Ulster.  It traces its origins back to 1615, when the Reverend Robert Cunningham was installed as minister, having been ordained by the Bishop, as the law obliged, but avowedly a Presbyterian.  Cunningham was a successful minister but came into conflict with an uncompromising Bishop, and was forced into exile in Scotland, where he died in 1637.

  The Holywood church became a member of the first organised Presbytery established in Carrickfergus in 1642.  The Reverend Michael Bruce was ordained in 1711 and during his ministry, the question of subscription arose in the Synod of Ulster with the result that the majority of the Congregation and their minister were placed in the presbytery of Antrim, which included in all seventeen ministers and congregations who refused to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith.  The majority of the congregation members were Non-Subscribers; the minority, supporting subscription, seceded and were formed into a separate congregation which was the origin of the Bangor Road Presbyterian Church.  For a long time the two congregations were distinguished by the names of “New Light” and “Old Light”. 

  The Reverend Arthur McMechan who was installed in 1784, became involved in the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798 and had to flee abroad.

  In the early nineteenth century, the delegates to Presbytery included men whose family names were familiar in Holywood for many generations; including, for example, Killips, Stewart, Greenfield and Neill.

  During the ministry of the Reverend J. A. Johnson, installed in 1820, the old argument over subscription was raised again by Dr. Henry Cooke; the result being that the Non-Subscribing congregations were excluded from the Synod of Ulster in 1824.   Holywood was among the congregations which joined the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster (Non-Subscribers) which first met in 1830.    

  Reverend Johnson died of cholera in 1832, while ministering to the many victims of the epidemic in the Holywood area.

The Reverend C. J. McAlester was ordained in 1834, the beginning of a ministry of fifty-seven years; which was marked by his great interest in the education of children, both boys and girls, and his advocacy of Temperance.  He was responsible for the formation of a well-attended Sunday School; and ran his own school in the schoolroom below the church, hence its nickname: “The Underground School”.  It was attended by James Craig, who later became Lord Craigavon; Rosamund Praeger and her brother, and other well-known figures.  The Reverend McAlester was the friend and confidant of Dr. Robert Sullivan, founder of the Sullivan Schools, and was on terms of intimate friendship with the clergy of all the denominations represented in the Holywood area, including Father O’Laverty.  He was also a founder member of, and secretary to, the Board of Management of Sullivan Upper School.  The granite obelisk in the church forecourt was erected by the congregation and friends following his death, at the age of eighty, in 1891.

  In 1910, with the union of the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster and the Presbytery of Antrim, Holywood became part of the Non-Subscribing Church of Ireland.





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