Situated two miles to the west of the town of Ballymena in County Antrim, Gracehill village dates from 1759. It is the only complete Moravian Settlement in Ireland and it is characterised by classic Georgian architecture with a grid-like street lay out and central square similar in style and layout to other Moravian settlements across the world. For many years the Environment and Heritage Service (DoE), Ballymena Borough Council and the local community have promoted the conservation of the village. It has the distinction of being the first place in Northern Ireland to be designated as a Conservation Area and in addition it has been the recipient of many awards including the European Europa Nostra Award.
The Christiansfeld Initiative began, as the name suggests, in the town of Christiansfeld in Denmark. When Christiansfeld was founded in 1773 a flourishing town developed marked by the spirit and culture of the Moravians. High quality boarding schools, together with a variety of cottage industries, tradesmen and craftsmen brought life to the town. A forward-looking approach and an awareness of practical considerations were the characterising features of the town planners, at a time when formal planning of towns was a relatively unknown phenomenon. Broad even streets, spacious houses and green spaces characterised the town.
Unfortunately the years took their toll and by 1998, as the town prepared to celebrate its 225 anniversary, it was clear that large amounts of money would be required to fund a program of conservation.
Under the leadership of Jorgen From, the Mayor of the local Municipality or Council, the Christiansfeld Partnership was established in 2000. The founding document states,
“Moravian Heritage constitutes a distinct element of the human patrimony: the Moravian Congregations developed a distinctive way to plan and build their settlements. They have spread the congregations and built such settlements in several continents, always creatively adapting the planning and architectural ideas to local conditions while retaining the core principles.
Moravian settlements are outstanding examples of the unity of spiritual, individual and community values and their relationship to the environment;
The cultural heritage of Christiansfeld is to be seen as an inseparable part of identity of a living town, contributing to its quality of life
Spiritual values, expressed in buildings, and their spatial organisation in landscape indivisibly and dynamically link people to their heritage.”
As a result of the efforts of the Municipality working in partnership with the community and other interested parties including academics, historians and architects funding was obtained to conserve the important historic buildings and Christiansfeld was added to the Danish list of tentative sites for World Heritage Site nomination.
It was quickly realised that the international nature and spread of historic Moravian settlements with similar lay-out and buildings in regions including Europe, the USA, Canada and South Africa offered an opportunity to create a network uniting a wide variety of interested people and institutions worldwide. To this end a number of conferences have taken place.
The first conference was held in Christiansfeld in March 2003 with the aim of building a network of Heritage representatives/experts of Municipalities and communities that represent Moravian Heritage, civil societies and members of Moravian congregations. The second conference was held in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 2004. The objective of this conference was to involve important allies such as national and international heritage organisations, both governmental and non-governmental. In February 2006 the network again met and delegates discussed the “WORKING TOGETHER” of academics, authorities and communities across all continents where the Moravian Settlements are situated with the intention to finalise the effort to kick-start the process of the trans-boundary, serial nomination of Moravian Settlements to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
During October 2003 representatives from Gracehill attended a presentation on the Christiansfeld Initiative in Fairfield, England. Several European delegations subsequently visited Gracehill and an invitation followed to the second conference in Bethlehem, USA. It was felt appropriate to involve Ballymena Borough Council at this time and the council elected to send a representative, Cllr Robin Stirling, to this conference. Cllr Stirling and Dr David Johnston (from Gracehill) attended the third conference in South Africa early in 2006.
At this conference it was decided that a number of settlements including Christiansfeld, Zeist (Holland), Bethlehem (USA), Elim (South Africa) and Gracehill (UK) should be part of a serial transboundary transcontinental nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
This involves each settlement achieving inclusion on their National Government tentative list before being nominated to the UNESCO list and clearly given the competition this requires great effort and the support from all relevant parties including the local council, politicians and relevant heritage bodies.
In order to promote the aims of the Christiansfeld Initiative an exhibition on the representative settlements is being planned and will take place in the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in the spring of 2008. An academic reference work, exploring the unique features of the settlements, has also been commissioned and this is currently being coordinated from Denmark.
The fourth international conference of the Initiative, which will include preparation for the Paris exhibition, will take place in the autumn of 2007. Ballymena Borough Council and Gracehill have been asked and have accepted the invitation to host this conference. This is an honour which affords Northern Ireland the opportunity to be part of an international network with the ultimate goal of achieving an additional World heritage listing and the associated potential for enhanced publicity, tourism and prestige.