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On 7 September 1908, the people of Newry were shocked to learn of the tragic death of the Rev. A.S. Lyons, minister of Riverside Reformed, Covenanter, Presbyterian Church in the town. Mr Lyons had gone to Goraghwood by train to visit a member of his congregation at Jerretspass. He had disembarked and was walking along the line at Goraghwood when, owing to the noise of an oncoming train, did not hear a motor train coming behind him from the other direction. This train struck him and he was killed instantly.

The Rev. and Mrs Alexander Lyons with their children at Rockview Manse c.1895. The children (left to right) were James (born 1879), Henry (born 1886), Ida (born 1883) and Nevin (born 1884).  Courtesy of Alex Lyons
The Rev. and Mrs Alexander Lyons with their children at Rockview Manse c.1895. The children (left to right) were James (born 1879), Henry (born 1886), Ida (born 1883) and Nevin (born 1884). Courtesy of Alex Lyons

Alexander Stavely Lyons was born in 1845 in the townland of Ballygan, near Ballymoney in county Antrim, the son of James and Nancy Lyons. He was licensed to preach by the Northern Presbytery in 1871 and, in early 1872, accepted a call to the Reformed Presbyterian Congregation in Newry where he was ordained 12 June. 

For just over the first ten years of Mr Lyons’ ministry in Newry, his congregation met at the former home of the First Presbyterian Congregation at the Old Meeting House Green, off High Street. They had been worshiping there since 1845. In 1883, the Third Presbyterian Congregation in Newry was dissolved and the Riverside Church, which they had built in 1865-6, became available. On 22nd December 1883, the Rev. Lyons entered into an agreement with the Trustees and the building was bought for £600. Although the sale was not confirmed for legal reasons until June 1885, the Covenanters moved from the Old Meeting House Green and held their first service at the Riverside Church on 6th January 1884. 

The Rev. A.S. Lyons was Minister of the Reformed, Covenanter, Presbyterian Congregation in Newry from 1872 until his death in 1908. He declined a number of calls to other Covenanter Congregations including one in 1897 to Wishaw in Scotland.   Courtesy of Alex Lyons
The Rev. A.S. Lyons was Minister of the Reformed, Covenanter, Presbyterian Congregation in Newry from 1872 until his death in 1908. He declined a number of calls to other Covenanter Congregations including one in 1897 to Wishaw in Scotland. Courtesy of Alex Lyons

The purchase of Riverside Church was aided by money raised by a preaching tour of forty-one Reformed Congregations in America which the Rev. Lyons had made earlier in 1883. Away for about five months, he preached ninety-seven times in forty-four different cities and towns in eleven states. By his own estimation, he covered 15,000 miles. After expenses he raised £400 (nearly £50,000 today). A similar venture was undertaken in 1889.

The Riverside Church today. The Lyons Memorial Hall can be seen on the left of the building. The extension was designed by the Newry architect Samuel Wilson Reside to complement the ‘Venetian’ style of the original church. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
The Riverside Church today. The Lyons Memorial Hall can be seen on the left of the building. The extension was designed by the Newry architect Samuel Wilson Reside to complement the ‘Venetian’ style of the original church. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Money raised by the American trip in 1883 not only benefited the purchase of the new church and removal of a heavy ground rent on the building, but also enabled investment in property in Belfast and, in 1891, improvements to the Manse. Rockview Manse was in Church Street and Mr Lyons had gone to live there in 1879. The previous year he had married Margaret Nevin and, from 1879 and until 1886, the couple had five children with one dying in infancy. 

Improvements continued to be made to Riverside Church and its property in the later years of Mr Lyons’ ministry: in 1903 the graveyard at the Old Meeting House Green was renovated, including the building of a caretaker’s house, and a new heating system was installed in the church at Riverside in 1908. 

The achievements of the Rev. Lyons’ ministry and his contribution to the spiritual and material development of the Riverside Church were recognised on two occasions by the congregation. In 1895, when the congregation reached its Golden Jubilee, they presented their minister with an illuminated address and one hundred sovereigns. When Mr Lyons and his wife celebrated their Silver Wedding in 1903, they were presented with a silver salver.

The Rev. Lyons’ third son, Henry, continued to worship at the Riverside Church until his death in 1979. He is pictured here (back row, first left) with two of the other Elders of the Congregation, Thomas Adams and William Savage, and the Minister, the Rev. T.B. McFarlane, in 1945. Henry Lyon’s son, Alex, is still an Elder in the congregation. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
The Rev. Lyons’ third son, Henry, continued to worship at the Riverside Church until his death in 1979. He is pictured here (back row, first left) with two of the other Elders of the Congregation, Thomas Adams and William Savage, and the Minister, the Rev. T.B. McFarlane, in 1945. Henry Lyon’s son, Alex, is still an Elder in the congregation. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Back in 1880, the Rev Alexander Lyons had been a prime mover in the establishing the Reformed Presbyterian Church’s Ministers’, Widows’ and Orphans’ Fund. His concern for the poor of all denominations was one of the reasons behind the huge outpouring of grief at his death in 1908. A ‘Catholic Appreciation’ published in one of the local newspapers, noted that his death ‘had cast a gloom over the whole neighbourhood’ and that ‘Charity was the predominating note of his life.’ The Rev. Lyons was remembered as a popular preacher and as an unwavering pastor in his visiting of members of his congregations. 

His former congregation built the Lyons Memorial Hall at the rear of the Riverside Church in 1915 and, in 1940, a tablet dedicated to the memory of the Rev. Lyons and his wife, who had died in 1938, was unveiled in the church.

Newry and Mourne Museum would like to thank Alex Lyons for providing much of the source material for this article.

Newry and Mourne Museum is temporarily closed.

by Ken Abraham

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