The parish church of St Benedict, Ardwick, Manchester, was the result of the wealth and religious inclinations of one man, John Marsland Bennett (1817-1889). An Alderman and two-term Lord Mayor of Manchester, he prospered as a timber and stone merchant owning an extensive site at the junction of two main-line railways to Crewe and Sheffield.
When the Secretary of the Manchester Diocesan Church Building Society asked Mr Bennett for a plot of land to build a church in 1876 he offered to build the church on land he would provide.
St Benedict’s Church was consecrated on March 20th 1880.
The architect was Joseph Stretch Crowther (1820-1893) and St Benedict’s is unlike any of his other church designs.
It is entirely in brick, in header bond on the exterior and English bond within, with stone and terracotta dressings, rectangular without porches. The body of the church is narrow and high, with a magnificent double hammer-beam roof.
This magnificence came without a congregation. Much of the surrounding land had yet to be developed and some of the speculative houses already built had yet to be occupied. There were only 26 communicants on Easter Day 1880.
This did not seem to trouble the Bennett family, staunch Anglo-Catholics who used it to worship as they pleased in a predominantly Evangelical diocese.
They omitted to provide an endowment. Their financial support dwindled after the death of J M Bennett’s eldest son, Armitage Bennett, aged 48, in 1897 and ended completely by the time the family business closed in the 1930s. After the Second World War Keble College, Oxford took over patronage of the living.
When almost all the housing in the parish was cleared in the late 1960s the parish developed as a “shrine church” for Anglican Papalism, the branch of Anglo-Catholicism that looks towards reconciliation between the Church of England and Rome, and rejects any development that might prove an obstacle to that goal.
St Benedict’s came to serve a congregation that did not live locally, and although its centenary was celebrated by the sandblasting and chemical cleaning of the entire building in 1980, it became increasingly difficult to sustain the congregation and the structure.
The final celebration of Mass at St Benedict’s took place on February 11th 2002.
Closure inevitably threatened the future of this Grade II* building until the climber John Dunne took it on as a base for the Manchester Climbing Centre, which was opened on March 15th 2005, and continues to thrive as a popular venue for indoor climbing and bouldering.
The climbing paraphernalia crowds Crowther’s spacious interior – https://manchesterclimbingcentre.com/the-centre/4 – which is a small price to pay to preserve the building for years to come.
Without the Manchester Climbing Centre, St Benedict’s might well have been flattened before now.
The climbing equipment is demountable, so that the listed interior is preserved. The ornate iron screens around the sanctuary remain intact, and the mutilated original reredos apparently still exists, though hidden, at the east end. All of the stained glass remains, but the 1907 pulpit and the organ have been removed.
Around the east end of the church are brass panels commemorating deceased members of the parish.
One of them is in memory of Professor John Mills, who died in a climbing accident in Snowdonia on December 3rd 1977, aged 63. A lifelong climber, he would have been astonished to know that his parish church became a climbing centre.
Read about another very different historic building that has been brought back into use as a climbing centre here.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.
There are two separate handbooks for the two Manchester’s Heritage tours that ran in 2009 and 2019 respectively. The itineraries were entirely distinct, so the two handbooks interconnect. The 80-page 2009 edition is longer, but the 60-page 2019 version, which has a section on St Benedict’s Church, Ardwick, has more depth and text: the older version is reduced in price to £10.00, while the later one is £15.00.