Canon Bertram Livingston - a man of deep faith who rose to the challenge of setting up a new church in 1970s NI and had the respect of all faiths

Canon Bertram Livingston was ‘a force to be reckoned with’, a man of deep faith yet always practical and never dull.

The Rev. Stephen McElhinney (Present Rector), Canon Bertram Livingston (First Rector) and The Rt. Revd. Alan Abernethy (Bishop of Connor) pictured at a service in St. Columba’s Church, Derryvolgie on Sunday 11th September marking the 50th Anniversary of the Church.

A Minister with the Church of Ireland in various parishes across Ireland, Canon Livingston died, aged 96, peacefully on November 5.

Bertram Livingston was born in 1925, the fifth child of Annie and Thomas Livingston from the Parish of Knocknamuckly. He was one of six children who lived at Ballynagarrick.

He was often asked how he was named. His mother Annie was planning his baptism with the minister. When she told him that his name would be Bertie, the minister disagreed and said it should be Bertram.(After an 8th Century Saint, St. Bertram of Mercia.) Annie didn’t argue with the minister and Bertram it was.

The Rev. Stephen McElhinney (Present Rector), Canon Bertram Livingston (First Rector) and The Rt. Revd. Alan Abernethy (Bishop of Connor) pictured at a service in St. Columba’s Church, Derryvolgie on Sunday 11th September marking the 50th Anniversary of the Church.

He attended Moyallan School. Then trained as a car mechanic and enjoyed this work. In his 20s, sitting in church one Sunday, a speaker from the Irish Church Mission caught his interest. After the service he had many questions for the preacher, an address for how to enrol and a plan formulating in his mind.

He went to Dublin with a strong desire to spread the gospel. The Irish Church Mission supported Bertram in his studies. It’s building was sited close to Trinity College and, as he passed the gates of this famous academic institution, his ambitions grew. He wanted to study Greek, and Latin with the aim of becoming an ordained minister with the Church Of Ireland. To fund this dream, Bertram continued his interest in cars becoming a part-time car salesman.

‘Livingston’, as he became known in Trinity, studied hard and left with two first class degrees. He was highly competitive. He and another student vied for top place in each class. Also keen on sport, he played cricket in the College team.

A lecturer shouted at him from class, ‘Livingston you need to project your voice’. So Bertram took elocution lessons. His teacher, he later discovered, trained actors in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.

Canon Bertram Livingston and his wife Mary, Mrs Margaret Wilkinson and the Rev. Billy Hoey and his wife Myrtle pictured at the 50th Anniversary Service.

Bertram met Amy when she was a student Nursery Nurse and they married in 1955. Before their wedding he spent a summer close to Amy’s home in England. He got a job in the Ford Daganham plant to earn his keep but vowed never to buy a Ford afterward.

Bertram was ordained in 1957 and soon after he and Amy welcomed their first child, Thelma into the world.

He was first given a curacy in Enniscothy, Co. Wexford and had responsibility for starting a Boys’ Brigade troupe from scratch. He loved the people of Enniscorthy, the beauty of the countryside and the family returned for holidays.

Rev Livingston moved to his first minister’s position in Carrickmacross, Monaghan. It was a small country parish and he thoroughly enjoyed supplementing his income through working the land at the rectory, even having their own Jersey cow. One of their Catholic neighbours baby-sat the children while Amy supported her husband on Sunday mornings - a deed which fostered a lifelong sense of community and tolerance for different religious faiths.

The Rev. Stephen McElhinney (Present Rector) looks on as Jack Hassard (Diocesan Reader) welcomes Canon Bertram Livingston (First Rector) to the 50th Anniversary Service in St. Columba’s Church. In the early 1960s, Jack attended worship in the wooden hut prior to the opening of the church in September 1966.

Rev Livingston was then asked to look at a site in Lisburn for a new church and he grasped this exciting opportunity. He was given a moderate home which just about accommodated his family of four girls. He took a drop in salary because there wasn’t a church and no Jersey cow! He went to the technical college and taught night classes to supplement his income.

Developing this new church, St. Columbas, Derryvolgie, was undoubtedly the most demanding and rewarding part of his career. Services started in a shop on the Moss Road, later expanding to an ex-Army Nissen hut, then to one of the first dual purpose church buildings, designed in Antrim. Sunday services were held in the church and through the week the building was used for Girls Brigade, Scouts, Bowling, Badminton and youth club. The church was fully paid for in 15 years and the Nissen hut replaced with a new build church hall. Bertram even acted as a doorman at the youth club disco.

To bring new members to this new church, his aim was to introduce himself to all the new houses around. He planned this with four visits per evening, several nights a week. If someone wasn’t there, he went back. He made sure that a sermon was no more than 15 minutes; always thoroughly researched and relevant. He sought out people with building and joinery skills and work parties were a regular feature of membership of the church.

Rev Livingston looked for people who would lead the organisations, promising them that if they held post for three years, he would ensure he found a replacement. He was non judgmental about mixed marriages and welcomed children to be baptised.

After 18 years of very busy fulfilling work, the Rev Livingston received a call to Monaghan. This was a massive change for the whole family. In the late 1970’s when there was a patrolled border at Middletown, going to Monaghan was a huge change. From a family perspective, first daughter, Thelma was married and settled in Lisburn, second daughter, Sandra had just married and moved to Whitehead, third daughter, Helen stayed in Lisburn to complete her A Levels and the youngest, Gail went to a very different world to start work. Mrs Livingston worked fulltime for the Preschool Playgroup Association in Belfast and reduced the commute by staying in Belfast two days a week.

In Monaghan Rev Livingston was welcomed onto school boards, committees of all sorts and eventually as Rural Dean, covering seven churches each week. Many links were forged with different communities and Rev Livingston was welcomed by Parish priest and Gards without discrimination at a time of political unrest. He became Canon Livingston there and was highly thought of within the community.

Then another call came. Off to Moneymore this time. There was a proposal to sell the rectory and buy a smaller dwelling. Bertram looked at the crumbling Georgian house and encouraged the parishioners to think again. He was able to propose its refurbishment, selling it to the vestry because he had a vision and prepared costings. This lovely old Georgian home became a retreat for the family.

Aged 68 Rev Livingston decided to retire. He had inherited the family home in Ballynagarrick from his mother and over many years had rebuilt it himself to provide a home in retirement.

He continued to work part-time for St.Mark’s, Portadown where he had visited older parishioners and carried out services. But their retirement together, unfortunately was short lived. In 1997, Mrs Livingston collapsed and died suddenly. Bertram went through many stages of grief, spending time reading philosophy about heaven and what a new life would mean.

But another challenge awaited him. In his late 70s he went to Uganda, Africa to a theological college teaching student ministers. Besides teaching for five months, he fixed their Land Rover.

He became involved in a prayer group which met to pray for African Mission. Another member of the group was Mary Armstrong. Their shared interest of Africa plus both loosing partners and each of them losing a child, brought them together.

Bertram and Mary would have celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary this January. They had the most extraordinary, happy, and loving relationship. Mary brought to Bertram a sense of fun and mischief. Family parties were a regular occurrence and Bertram was accepted into another family. They travelled and had mini breaks away and he learned to focus more on family than work. He continued to preach twice a month, working for the Diocese as a relief minister. He was very happy to perform the marriage ceremony for some of his grand children and baptising his great grandchildren.

He stepped down from preaching aged 94.

He also looked after his nephew Eric for five years.

He worked hard at his garden, producing vast quantities of peas, beans and only last month harvested the potatoes.

He was also a keen golfer. Every Monday morning in Lisburn the Anglicans played the Presbyterians at Malone Golf Club. He won many trophies and he played regularly with his son in law, David. Hugely competitive, golf was a big part of his relaxing time. Recently he stopped playing with a group of regular friends in Portadown, not due to his age but of their worsening health, and they were 20 years younger! Two weeks ago, he played with his grandson, Jonny and won!

Bertram Livingston was a hard working canny man who didn’t suffer fools gladly. Every morning started with reading the Bible and praying. He always studied prior to writing a new sermon for each occasion. His faith sustained him. He always tried to complete what he had planned to do. With a great sense of humour and a bit of mischief, he was never dull. He was spectacularly good at forgiveness, genuinely forgetting, what the grievance had been about. There are great reasons to celebrate the life of a good and faithful servant.

Late of The Green, Long Lane, Portadown. Canon, Bertram Dearly was the beloved husband to Mary and the late Amy. He was a devoted father to Sandra, Helen, Gail, and the late Thelma, a dear father-in-law, loving grandfather to Johnathan, Laura, Jack, Stuart, Jordan, Adam, Stephen and Mellissa, and great-grandfather.

His funeral service was in Knocknamuckley Parish Church on Tuesday 9th November 2021 followed by burial in adjoining Church Yard.

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