Perhaps the best known landmark in Bangor Town Centre, for visitors and residents alike, is “the church with the big tree” on Main Street. Planted around 1843 by First Presbyterian Church Bangor’s longest serving minister, Rev Hugh Woods, the pendulous ash is often mistakenly referred to as a weeping willow. A handy reference point it may be, but in 1919 the tree faced an uncertain future.
It happened like this. The First World War had been a cataclysmic event in the life of the town. Some 116 men from the district had been killed including 31 of the 190 serving members of First Bangor. In common with other local churches the congregation felt that some sort of memorial should be erected. In the Parish and Trinity churches new organs were to be their memorials but as First Bangor’s organ was only 17 years old, other ideas had to be considered.
In true Presbyterian fashion a meeting was held. The idea of a statue was well received. It would have a base of white porcelain stone supporting a sculptured figure in white marble of a soldier standing in an attitude of reverence. Bronze would have cost the immense sum of £1100 so it was decided that marble would be more affordable at £850. The figure would be 15 feet high, graceful in form and entirely aesthetic - not useful - like a new organ!
But where should such a beautiful sculpture be displayed? Surely the most obvious spot was in front of the church on the lawn. There was only one problem - the ash tree was occupying the prime position - and twenty five votes to seventeen said it would have to go.
When the proposed removal of the tree became known it caused a lot of consternation and, yes, there was another meeting. The Kirk Session decided they were unwilling to take the decision without extra consultation and a special Congregational Meeting was held. The decision to dig out the tree was rescinded and a 32-man committee was formed to consider alternatives.
Various suggestions, including one of a chiming clock for the spire, were discarded and, at the end of March 1921, First Bangor’s two beautiful stained glass windows were unveiled by James Milliken, Wm R Bell, James Wilson and Samuel Smith, representing the fallen. On the left as you look towards the pulpit the victor is kneeling to receive his promised crown from the Lord, while an angel looks on. The text is “Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a Crown of Life”. Below, a smaller window lists the names of all who served in the Great War, with those who had made the greatest sacrifice arranged together in a special section. The choir, led by organist Mr Frank Parsons, sang “Crossing the Bar”, and Mr McCormick and Miss Ekin rendered solos. Rev Currie read the names of the Fallen and the windows were dedicated, free of debt, through the generosity of the congregation and of one member in particular who kindly undertook to make good any deficit.
And today you can still find your way around Bangor, if directed from the Big Tree.