Kath North is the longest-serving volunteer at The Monastery, having been closely involved for nineteen years. Kath’s great-grandparents were married at The Monastery in 1879 and since then twenty-five other members of her family have been baptised here as well. Although Kath did not visit The Monastery when it was a functioning church and Franciscan Friary, she has been involved with The Monastery of St Francis and Gorton Trust since the early years of the Trust.
For the first of our Insight into The Monastery series, we wanted to talk to Kath to share what she loves about this special place and why she has chosen to volunteer here for almost two decades.
How did you get involved with the work of The Monastery?
In 1999, my partner, Graham, was researching his family history and it prompted me to do the same. When we were talking about where I should start researching my family history, I thought that Gorton Monastery might be the best place as it had been my family’s church for generations. We decided to take a visit to Gorton Monastery, hoping that it was still there and hadn’t been taken down.
When we were driving down Gorton Lane, I was shocked to see what was left of the building and how much damage it had suffered. When we stopped to take pictures, a gentleman approached us to tell us that the building was about to be knocked down. We saw a notice on a fence near the building with information and a number. When we called, a gentleman answered the phone and we were referred on to Elaine Griffiths, (then Project Leader for the Monastery of St. Francis & Gorton Trust), and she invited me to an Open Day.
I had never actually been into the building before and I was shocked at the state it was in but, at the same time, I was also completely blown away by it. The stained glass windows were boarded up, there were pigeons flying about, the floor was a terrible mess and there was stonework all over the floor where the altars had been smashed up: I was completely heartbroken and wanted to find a way to help save the building.
When did you start volunteering?
During that Open Day, I asked Elaine how I could help with the fundraising to help save the building. She gave me a stack of leaflets to hand out and I was more than happy to help! Not long after this, I took up a volunteering role for three days a week to help to raise the funds for the charity to try to save The Monastery.
I started going to events and other places to set-up stalls to sell Monastery souvenirs and hand out leaflets to raise awareness about the building. It was a challenge sometimes, especially in mid-winter – we would be on a stall in the cold, handing out leaflets and rattling a donations tin to get a little bit of money to have saved the building.
The building has changed a lot since the late 1990s when you first started volunteering, with large grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help save and restore the building. It now operates as both an events venue as well as being open to the general public. How have you dealt with this dramatic change over the years?
There have been lots of different kinds of changes since I started volunteering. Getting a wedding licence for the site in 2007 was a big change and really helped to make the site sustainable, to help bring in the money needed to keep running the building. A few years after the building had been restored, we started off doing Sunday Open Days and people were really impressed with how the building had been restored. It has been so great seeing lots of people coming in and enjoying the building over the years.
Elaine was always aware that we needed the public’s support and I do believe that most people have been behind us 100% over the years. With the recent Heritage Lottery Project (Sharing the Story), we have been able to open up and improve new spaces such as the Welcome Wing, a permanent Gift Shop, our tea room – The Victorian Pantry and the new boards around the cloisters telling the story of the building. Sometimes it can be hard to get a balance between being open to the public and having the events that keep the building going, but we try to do the best we can and most people seem to understand.
There’s always something new being planned and it is a really exciting place to volunteer. It has been a long process over the years but it has been a really enjoyable journey.
What projects are you now working on as a volunteer at the Monastery and what do you do day-to-day?
Some days I concentrate on doing research for the building to add to a growing archive that we have. Even twenty years on, there is still a lot which we are still discovering about the building. I also help with the Open Days too, talking to visitors about the building and The Monastery’s story, helping in the gift shop, the Victorian Pantry (the on-site café) and on the Welcome Desk. I also do specific tasks as well too whenever needed as I am always willing and happy to help wherever I can.
What do you think is your favorite part about volunteering at The Monastery?
I have made so many friends through my time volunteering for The Monastery and learned so much about the building itself. I love being able to pass on the knowledge that I have learned to visitors when they come into the building and to share the story of The Monastery’s journey.
What do you do like the most about The Monastery?
I love the Lady Altar because it is the place in the building where I feel most at ease and relaxed. I have had some great moments with close friends near the Lady Altar over the years and it has become such a special place to me.