In November 1861 four Franciscan friars arrived in Manchester to set up the Monastery of St Francis, Gorton, serving the working-class community that grew up round the nearby railway works.
Their buildings were designed by Edward Welby Pugin (1834-75), who possessed much of the vigour and little of the subtlety of his father, A W N Pugin, and were constructed largely by the physical labour of the brothers and their parishioners.
The first stone was laid on May 24th 1862, and the three wings of the original monastery were complete by 1867. To raise funds for the Infant School in 1867 Father Francis hired the Free Trade Hall for a bazaar which raised £1,000.
E W Pugin’s magnificent church, 184ft long, 98ft wide and 100ft high, dominates the streets of Gorton and is clearly visible from central Manchester.
By 1900 the Catholic population of Gorton had increased from 300 to over 6,000. The fathers saw the parish change from a poor village community, initially dependent on cotton (and badly hit by the effects of the American Civil War), into an industrial inner-city suburb.
For almost a century they provided spiritual and pastoral support to the people of Gorton, and – because many of those people were drawn from Wexford, Waterford and Cork – Gaelic classes, lantern lectures on Irish history and St Patrick’s Day celebrations. They also exported missionaries to China, Peru and elsewhere.
The surrounding nineteenth-century housing was cleared in the early 1970s, and the Monastery became unsustainable. Eventually, the Franciscans sold the site for £75,000 to a developer who planned to divide the church into a seven-storey apartment-block but instead went bankrupt.
The abandoned buildings were quickly and badly vandalised. Lead and slates were removed, and there were repeated arson attacks. Virtually all the decorative features of interest or value were removed or smashed.
In 1997 the Monastery of St Francis and Gorton Trust bought the Monastery for £1 and began the formidable task of bringing the place back into use. Cornering funds was not the least of their labours: the Architectural Heritage Fund, English Heritage, the Heritage Lottery Fund, New East Manchester (NEM) and the North West Development Agency (NWDA) between them chipped in millions.
Fixtures that had disappeared in the dark days of dereliction have returned. A complete set of twelve statues, stolen from the lofty nave arcades, famously appeared as garden ornaments at Sotheby’s: Manchester City Council bought them for £25,000 and stored them until September 2011 when they returned to the site for restoration.
The art-dealer Patricia Wengraft [http://www.patwengraf.com/Patricia-Wengraf-Fine-European-Sculpture-and-Works-Art-Intro-DesktopDefault.aspx?tabid=1] secured the return of the huge crucifix: http://www.manchester.gov.uk/news/article/1954/monasterys_giant_crucifix_is_hoisted_back_into_place. The chains to support it had been handed in mysteriously some time before.
I remember the first public opening in September 2005: people queued down the street, showing immediately how much St Francis’ Monastery meant to local people who’d grown up, been baptised or married here, and had been uprooted.
The Monastery reopened fully as a community, conference and events centre in 2007. It’s open to the public most Sundays: see what’s on offer at http://www.themonastery.co.uk/Whats-on.html.
I would have liked to see something similar happen to St Hilda’s Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield.
Just because a place of worship is no longer needed for worship doesn’t prevent it having enormous value to people.
But making the transition requires enormous energy, imagination, devotion, acumen – and the creative support of people in power.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals: past views of English architecture, please click here.