Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Monastery

On our fall trip to England, we visited Gorton Monastery -- here's that story.

In 1861, three Franciscan priests (two from Belgium, one from Ireland) came to Gorton to serve the few Catholic families there. Catholics had been forbidden to openly practice their religion until 1829. Nearby Manchester was highly Protestant and anti-Catholic. By the time the group had grown to about 300 parishoners, the priests decided to build a church -- not just any church -- a real architectural poke in the eye to their Protestant neighbors.

Architect Edward Pugin was engaged to draw up plans for a massive, Gothic-style building situated on a north/south axis -- rather than the traditional east/west -- the better to be seen from Manchester.

The project would cost 8000 pounds -- money the parish didn't have. Other Franciscans donated 2000 pounds; another 1000 came from general donations. The 4000 pound labor would be taken care of by volunteer builders. The remainder came from begging. Brother Patrick, the talented Irish mason/builder monk begged a penny a brick. Bricks were scrounged from demolished buildings or made on the premises from local clay.

The parish flourished and grew to around 6000 congregants. It provided three schools, youth clubs, theatre and music groups, choirs, even brass bands. The church was the center of community activity.

The parish, however, was not a wealthy one. Surrounding homes and buildings became the target of redevelopment efforts in the 1970s. Residents were relocated as the area buildings were torn down. The members were scattered and the church suffered.

In 1989 the church closed and was sold to developers who stripped it for conversion to flats. This scheme failed and the building fell into receivership.

By 1993, the church and friary were totally abandoned and unprotected. Vandals destroyed altars and windows and stole anything of any value -- marble, even lead from the windows.

In 1996, Elaine Griffiths and her husband formed a group of volunteers to save the building. The building was already a Grade II listed building giving it some protection but, structurally, it was falling down on its own. Elaine made a case for the monastery to the World Monument Fund based on its being the work of Edward Pugin. In 1997, the WMF put it, along with the Taj Mahal and the Valley of the Kings, on its 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World list.

Through grants and fund raising, structural integrity has been restored and the building is again open to the public. Though not a church, nor owned by an ecclesiastical organization, the building itself exudes a sanctified air and areas are being reserved for private prayer or meditation.

From the outside, the building is something of a monstrosity -- like a wedding cake on a card table. Some parts are still in ruins and the whole thing seems to loom over the landscape. But the first reaction on entering the former sanctuary is an involuntary "ah."

The white walls and pointed, clear windows lead the eye to the dark, wooden ceiling almost 100 feet above the floor. Six pedestals on each side of the nave await the return of the statues of saints that once stood there. The statues were found in an art dealer's catalogue and purchased back for 25,000 pounds. The clerestory windows have been strategically placed so that, at certain times, the light falls directly on each statue.

In June, 2007, The Monastery opened as an events center hosting conferences, meetings, weddings and parties. Elaine Griffiths was awarded an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List for her services to heritage.

There's more work to be done but we were awed by the tremendous effort that has brought this church back from little more than a rubble-filled shell of bricks.


Laxmi Aruzil said...

Do you have any pictures of the exterior?

Elaine Warner said...

Laxmi, Your wish is my command!