Contrary to the tens of churches closed in England due to falling attendance and funding, congregants to the St. Jospeh’s Church in Sailortown began a “pray-in protest” to save their chapel, Sunday, Feb 15, 2004.
Three years ago, St. Joseph’s was closed after the Catholic Church said there was no longer a sustainable community in the docks area in Belfast.
However, many of the 150-strong congregations insisted that the church was closed against their wishes, and continued to gather for Mass outside its doors every Sunday. Last Sunday, the congregation broke into the church to hold a prayer service, and has been there since, campaigning for the re-opening of their beloved church.
While a spokesman for the Catholic Church described Sunday's protest as "a very irresponsible act,” Gerry Gallagher, chairman of the Save St Joseph's Campaign said the move was necessary.
"We have been forced to take this action to highlight the neglect, in spiritual and temporal terms, of both the Catholic Church authorities and the Department of the Environment,” said Gallagher, one of forty who locked themselves in the chapel.
"Both agencies have failed to protect what is a listed building from the ravages of the elements. The roof has been left to rot and guttering remains blocked despite our constant pleas for repairs to both groups, while the bishop refuses to acknowledge that our faith community even exists,” said Gallagher.
“We want to highlight the failure of the Department of the Environment to protect St Joseph's, despite repeated lobbying by campaigners and our political representatives. And we want to turn the spotlight of publicity onto a closure debate that has been ignored continuously by the Catholic Church,” Gallagher continued.
In addition to the “pray-in protest,” the campaigners called for the support of other churches in the city and sent an open letter to the people of Belfast. Their goal, according to Gallagher, was not to receive financial help from other parishes or individuals, but rather to receive the right to save and worship in their “sacramental home.”