Lord Mayor, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, I wish to begin by thanking the Management Committee of St Malachy’s Youth Centre for their kind invitation to come here tonight and officially open this new Diocesan Youth Centre. I’m particularly pleased to see such a wide cross section of people from across the community here this evening, including representatives from other Christian Churches and youth groups from the Donegall Pass and Sandy Row areas. Your presence among us speaks volumes about the immense good will and support that exists towards this Youth Centre and the young people.
Back in June, when I came here to bless this Youth Centre, I was very struck by the buzz of excitement among the young people I met. Coming in here again tonight, it was good for all of us to see and hear that same energy and enthusiasm all around us. Such youthful vitality reminds me that young people are the very heart and soul of any Youth Centre. And so it is to you the young people that I want to address my opening remarks.
There are three words that come to mind when I think about you and how important you are not only to this Youth Centre, but also the parish and wider community.
The first word is – SPEAK – You have a voice; use it. Have your say. Create opportunities to speak with your youth leaders, your politicians, your teachers, even your bishops (there are two of us here this evening!). Tell your stories, your hopes and dreams. We need to learn more about what matters to you , we also need to learn from you about how best to devise youth programmes that meet your needs and help prepare you to live your life in service of others.
That brings me to my second word – SERVE – The famous scientist, Albert Schweitzer, was once asked to speak to young people at prize giving in their school. He said to them, ‘I don’t know what any of you will turn out to be in your life time, but I know this – the only ones among you who will find real happiness are those who find a way to serve other people.’ This message is at the heart of the Christian gospel. And for that reason Christian service is central to the ethos of this Youth Centre. In fact all the youth activities on offer here aim to help you the young people develop the skills you will need to live a life of service; and so make a positive difference to our society.
‘Making a positive difference’ brings me to my third word – TRANSFORM
I believe that the work of transformation that goes on in Youth Centres like this one can make a real contribution to creating a peaceful society. In particular, I want to encourage you the young people to keep reaching out to other young people this city through your cross community programmes. Never underestimate your own power to transform community relations and contribute to peace building and mutual understanding in this city. You can lead the way and challenge us adults to do more to create a society where everyone, including ethnic minorities, can feel welcome and valued.
This evening I want to pay tribute to the staff and volunteers of this Youth Centre. And I want to mention in particular, Kathleen Sturgeon and Joe Hanratty. Your commitment to young people in the Markets area over the years has been truly inspiring. With the support of the young people and their parents, you managed to keep the doors of this Youth Centre open through the worst years of the ‘Troubles’. All of your work with young people has helped create a firm foundation for further development in your links with St John Vianney Youth Centre in Lower Ormeau, our diocesan Youth Commission, South Belfast Action Project and inner south Belfast Neighbourhood Renewal Partnership.
With this new facility, you the staff, under the leadership of your full-time youth worker Andrea Johnston, now have the opportunity to further contribute to helping young people reach their potential. In keeping with the vision contained in the ‘Priorities for Youth’ Consultation document, you are also well placed to strengthen the links between formal education in our school system and non- formal learning through Youth Service Provision.
With regard to the ‘Priorities for Youth’ consultation I want to take this opportunity to commend the Department of Education for the recognition it gives in this document to the part that faith based organisations play in the development of policy and services. As a Church we remain committed to participating in all the Department’s consultation exercises and contributing to the policy framework for youth work.
Of course the opportunities now afforded to our young people in this new Youth Centre would not have been possible without the vision and commitment of priests and people stretching back to the early 1960s. It was Dean Francis Kerr (the parish priest)and Fr. John Fitzpatrick who took the first steps in setting up a voluntary club in the parish hall in Alfred Street. In later years, it was housed in various parish properties at Gloucester Street, Sussex Place and then finally at the Markets Community Centre.
In more recent times the Church’s commitment to young people in this parish found expression in a desire to have a purpose built Youth Centre here in the Markets. And I want here this evening to pay tribute to Canon McCann (former parish priest) and Fr Anthony Curran who was the curate here at the time. Together in the early 1990’s they took the historic decision to use some of the Primary School site as a location for a new building for St. Malachy’s Youth Centre. The development of the project continued when Fr Curran became parish priest in 1997. With the approval and support of Bishop Walsh (bishop of the diocese at the time), and the support of many people especially your school Principal Brian White and diocesan solicitor Brian Gibson, work was begun on securing the funding that would be needed. Over a ten year period, several economic appraisals were requested by the South and East Belfast Regeneration Office. All of these, along with architectural fees were paid by the parish before there was ever any guarantee that a Youth Centre would be built. Indeed the building we are in tonight is the result of bold acts of trust and many sacrifices made over the years – all with the aim of preserving and developing the pastoral outreach to young people in the parish in keeping with the pastoral ethos established all those years ago in Gloucester Street.
On behalf of the diocese I want to thank everyone for their efforts. I also wish to thank the officials at the Department of Education (the lead funder) and the Department for Social Development for collaborating with the parish and the trustees of the diocese to create the necessary funding package. Earlier this year Belfast City Council awarded the Youth Centre a grant from the Local Investment Fund. It represents a real vote of confidence in the management of the Youth Centre and the contribution that its young members can make to the social development and regeneration of Belfast. I thank you for your support.
I also want to draw attention to the very significant financial contribution made by the parish over the years and the funds which it continues to provide to the development of its Youth Service provision. It represents the parish’s commitment to all aspects of the education of our young people. And so I wish to express my appreciation to Mr Brian White the school principal and to the Board of Governors for their willingness to sacrifice half the school playground to ensure that a Diocesan Youth Centre would become a reality here in this part of the parish
Special thanks and congratulations are due to the architect Mr Paul Mongan and his team at Gregory Architects, along with the contractor Moss Construction. Together they have constructed a magnificent building. The Quantity Surveyors, Tynan and Company are also to be praised for bringing this building to completion just under budget – a feat almost unheard of in the building industry!
Finally I want to return to what I was saying to the young people about service. A life of service is the hall mark of every Christian. It is my hope that this Youth Centre will in the months and years ahead be at the service of all young people in this parish and beyond. May it be a welcoming home for young people of all races and of different religious backgrounds and none. And may we all together with the young people continue to play our part in creating a shared future for all God’s people.
Bishop Noel Treanor is Bishop of Down and Connor