A legacy left in sunlight

Rev Dr David Latimer with the 'American window' in First Derry Presbyterian Church.
Rev Dr David Latimer with the 'American window' in First Derry Presbyterian Church.

In 1995 First Derry Minister Rev Dr David Latimer received a large orange envelope in the post.

It contained a letter from a firm of solicitors in America who asked a simple question: ‘Is there still a First Derry Presbyterian Church?’

“It was quite an easy question for me to answer and I ticked the box and sent the letter back to America,” said David.

About three months later another envelope, exactly the same, landed on his desk, and David took up the story: “I discovered something that made me quite ecstatic in that I was being informed that First Derry Presbyterian Church was being remembered in the Will of a gentleman called Graham Porter and he was leaving $1 million to the church. A the time that roughly translated into £670,000 and really we thought we were walking on the moon.

It became clear that the money was a ‘thank you’ from Mr Porter for the kindness shown to his family when he was a child.

“In the 1920s Graham was a little boy growing up in the city with his parents. He came to First Derry Presbyterian Church with them, but an unexpected tragedy struck the family in that Graham’s father who a businessman in the town, suddenly died. According to the information that we have gleaned through research, the Porter family were left in straitened circumstances, right on the edge of poverty,” said David.

This was at a time when all businesses were feeling the effects of the Great Depression, so what transpired was that the Church’s Committee of Session raised a small sum of money, which was just enough to keep the family going, providing food for the table and coal for the fire.

“Such was the memory of First Derry’s help to the Porter Family that at the end of his life Graham Porter did not forget the kindness and generosity of the people of First Derry Church,” said David, explaining the cash boost.

“Graham emigrated with his sister when Graham was in his late teens. To emigrate to America was in keeping with many young people of their age who could not see any opportunity for making their fortune here. Graham went to Michigan and there he worked in sales, but something that distinguished him was that he became the first person to develop a franchise for European cars and bringing them into the US. Clearly out of this a young man living in dire economic conditions managed to lift himself up into a higher level of prosperity.”

Despite new found wealth, it appears Graham never forgot his roots and his money never went to his head: “A hallmark of his life was that he chose not to keep all his money. He was generous to a fault and, perhaps, he could be described as a true philanthropist. In addition to helping the church at the end of his life and making the donation of $1 million to First Derry Presbyterian Church, this was matched by a donation to his own church in Michigan of $1 million to the Salvation Army.”

To mark the gift it was decided to have a window designed for the newly restored First Derry building, and it is inscribed ‘This window commemorates the generous bequest to this church by R H Graham Porter of Michigan, USA.’ A quote from Scripture, taken from Ecclesiastes 11, verse 1, sits beneath: “Cast your bread upon the waters for after many days, you will find it again.”

Made by Joe Coyle at Alpha Glass the centre of the window is divided into four quadrants, one of which features the inscription. At the top is St Brendan the Voyager in a boat casting bread onto the water; below and to the right is the star spangled banner; to the other side is a depiction of First Derry Church. The ‘picture’ quadrants are surrounded by a series of ornate scrolls and set on a background of coloured squares.

“It is a very ornate window with a lovely story of true Christian compassion shown to a family in need that in turn inspires the recipient of that hope to offer his parents’ church so generous a donation,” said David.

The money, when combined with funding from Derry City Council and the NI Tourist Board, meant the refurbishment of First Derry could be completed and the congregation, despite seven years away from their ‘home’ and a year of extensive refurbishment, emerged solvent.