VISIT US

To discuss holding your wedding or any event at The Monastery, contact Kate or Fran to arrange a personal welcome tour.

Call 0161 223 3211 or email Kate or Fran now.

We would love you to visit us at The Monastery! You’ll be sure of a warm welcome, and we know you’ll enjoy the time you spend with us.

For more information, click here.

Keep up to date with the amazing array of events we hold all year around.

**The Monastery is open to the public 10am-4pm, Sunday to Thursday each week. Free entry & parking. All welcome!**

Help restore organ music to The Monastery and catch a glimpse of heaven

Subject: Manchester history, Victorian Manchester, Manchester heritage, Manchester music, organ restoration, British history, conservation.

Words | Dr. Caroline Paige  Photography | Len Grant

An 8-minute read

There’s nothing as soothing to the soul,
than the tones of an organ of old.
By whispering a prayer with celestial sound,
we catch a glimpse of heaven around.

Anonymous author

We’re getting ready to fundraise for the next important chapter in the restoration of our much-loved heritage site.

The Church of St Francis has been lovingly (and painstakingly) restored. It has taken twenty-five years of fundraising and conservation to reinstate the fallen roofs and repair fragile masonry. A feat many thought impossible! The buildings were made watertight. The interiors restored and reorganised to support the needs of a heritage and community venue. The car park and an impressive new wing added. Now the original, decorative paint schemes are preserved. The crucifix saved and returned. And, the 12 larger-than-life statues of Franciscan saints – unique to The Monastery – are back standing gloriously regilded in the Great Nave.

So, what’s left to do?

There’s still an integral part of the site missing. Its 1888 Wadsworth organ.

Music has the power to raise our spirits and can lift our hearts and minds. It’s a source of inspiration and provides a soundtrack to our lives stirring memory and emotion. We couldn’t miss the opportunity to reinstate an 1880s Wadsworth organ and fill the church with the music it was designed for.

Gorton Monastery’s organ was dismantled when the church and friary were sold in 1989. The organ pipes were probably sold for scrap. The organ loft has remained empty. We hoped one day an opportunity would arrive to put this last missing piece of The Monastery back where it belonged.

Gorton Monastery organ

History of the old Wadsworth organ

In 1888, Father Aiden decided it was time to invest in a new organ more suitable for the size of the building. He began fundraising. That same year, Gorton celebrated the magnificent, new organ with a special service. A distinguished Franciscan organist, Father Augustine d’Hoole, travelled from Glasgow to play the organ. Many at Gorton thought their lay brother, Brother Raphael, was a musical genius at the organ and equally talented to Father Augustine.

‘Fr. Aiden wanted a new organ. There was a three-day bazaar in May 1888 and on 15th July the Solemn Opening of the new Organ took place with a distinguished Franciscan organist, Fr. Augustine d’Hoole, OFM, being brought from the Friary, Glasgow, for the occasion. There were many that thought the laybrother, Bro. Raphael, a genius in the kitchen, and also an inspired genius at the organ and the regular organist for many years, could have easily compared with Fr. Augustine. But there it was.’

Excerpt from Father Justin McLoughlin’s book, Gorton Monastery 1861-1961

Organ music was at the height of fashion. They were not only found in churches and chapels (as we tend to think of pipe organs today). They provided musical soundtracks at theatres and music to sing and dance to many fashionable houses.

The organ was built in 1888 by Wadsworth & Brother, a Manchester firm of organ builders set up by Edward Wadsworth in 1861. Born in Chorlton in 1839, Edward was the son of an estate agent. He trained as an apprentice organ builder and soon decided to set up his own business. A ‘sound’ decision during a period of huge growth for organ manufacturing.

Wadsworth manufactured over 1,000 organs during their 85 years. Most made for the parish churches of North West England. Today, only a small fraction of these organs exist. As church attendance declined in the 20th century and churches closed, many organs were dismantled as sold as scrap. Just as happened here at Gorton Monastery.

Manchester Monastery organ loft

A new organ for Gorton

We have fabulous opportunity to return a Wadsworth organ – and its magnificent music – to the Great Nave at the Monastery.

In 2020 during the first Covid lockdown, our CEO, Elaine Griffiths, was contacted by David Emery the organist and treasurer at Patricroft Methodist Church in Eccles, Salford. His church had closed and David was trying to find a new home for their 1884 Wadsworth organ. The organ was originally built for Trinity Church, which stood on the same site. It’s only four years younger than Gorton’s and is almost identical in size and specification.

The organ restoration

The organ was kindly gifted to us, with only a requirement to pay for its removal from Patricroft and its installation in Gorton.

We obtained expert advice, about the practicalities and cost of moving the organ, from George Sixsmith & Son organ works in Mossley, Ashton-under-Lyne. The Patricroft organ was originally installed and maintained by Cyril Wood of Ashton-Under-Lyne. When Cyril died, George Sixsmith (who once worked for Wadsworth) acquired his business and continued to maintain the organ.

Once dismantled, the organ will be restored and repaired. It’s in good working order – Wadsworth organs were built to last! But, we must take the opportunity to make relatively small repairs necessary for an instrument’s ongoing maintenance and to clean and restore it to its full glory.

Patricroft Methodist Church in Eccles, Salford
The organ at Patricroft

To fit our organ loft, the organ needs to be rebuilt and reconfigured. This won’t affect the way it sounds – it will just change the way it fits the space. This is no mean feat with over 800 pipes!

Excitingly, this also gives us the opportunity to add modern playing aids – if we can raise enough.

This would allow us to play the organ from the nave and to program it to play music arranged digitally. We’d love to program the organ to play uplifting music at the same time every day for our visitors to enjoy!

We need to raise £100,000 to reinstate the Wadsworth organ and return its rich music to the Monastery.

Its music can be a powerful instrument of mediation and celebration. It can bring joy, soothe our grief, and move us to think differently. Its power – delivered through over 800 hand-rolled pipes – can stir our deepest emotions.

To my eyes and ears the organ will ever be the King of Instruments.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

1884 Wadsworth organ

Ways you can help us to bring organ music back to Gorton Monastery.

Please help us to reach our target of £100,000. We’ve already raised £27,000 thanks to some generous donors.

Buy our book

All proceeds from the sale of our latest book, Trust: The Story of Gorton Monastery, go to the appeal. You can buy your copy from the Browse our Books section of our website or by clicking here.

Donate online

It’s super easy for you to donate using our JustGiving donate button.

Fundraise for us

You can fundraise using our JustGiving page. You can find it quickly by clicking here or visiting https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/monastery-organ-appeal.

Raise awareness

Help to spread the word about our fundraising.

Do you know a community group who would like this project? Does your company want to sponsor the organ restoration?

Thank you for helping to support our appeal. You’re helping to bring the music back to the Monastery.

Book Review: Gorton Monastery 1861-1961

Subject: Victorian Manchester; Manchester history; Manchester heritage; Franciscan history.

By Father Justin McLoughlin; reviewed by Janet Wallwork, published 1961 (Historical Reprint Series).

Gorton Monastery 1861-1961: The story of 100 years of the Friary, Gorton, Father Justin McLoughlin, Monastery Publications (Historical Reprint Series), 46p, £2.99. First published in 1961. ISBN 978-0-95714-841-3

In 1861, a small group of Belgian Franciscan Friars arrived in Gorton. Despite having a local Catholic population of just a few hundred and very little money they enlisted the famous church architect, Edward Welby Pugin, to build them a friary and church ‘of cathedral-like proportions.’

Over the next century, they also established three schools and an impressive range of parish organisations – spiritual, educational, cultural, and social.

This little book, written by the archivist of the Order, was published to mark the centenary of the friars’ momentous arrival. It tells the story of the buildings and of the flourishing parish that surrounded them.

Sadly, in 1989 the friars left Gorton and for years the church stood empty and derelict. In 1996, a charity was established – The Monastery of St Francis and Gorton Trust – to raise the funds to rescue and restore the church and friary buildings. It reopened its doors in 2007 with a new life as a community, cultural, and corporate venue.

The Trust obtained permission to reprint Father Justin’s book to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the day the friars came to Gorton.

 

Editor’s note: This book – and other Monastery Publications – are available to buy both in our onsite Monastery Shop and via our online bookshop.

TRUST: The Story of Gorton Monastery by Elaine Griffiths OBE

Subject: Victorian Manchester; Manchester architecture; Manchester history; Manchester heritage; well-being; Franciscan history.

First edition, hardback, Monastery Publications, 1 December 2021, 176 pages & 304 images. ISBN 978-0-9571484-6-8

A history of the restoration of Manchester Monastery

When Elaine Griffiths stepped over crumbling masonry into the derelict nave in 1996, she was overcome with the power of this incredible Gothic masterpiece.

It was as though Gorton Monastery spoke to her. To save the church and adjoining friary, her and husband Paul set up the charity, The Monastery of St Francis and Gorton Trust.

TRUST is the story of a labour of love. It’s one woman’s extraordinary journey over 25 years not only to restore ‘Manchester’s Taj Mahal’ but secure its future. Elaine writes frankly of the setbacks, despair, breakthroughs, and small miracles that have changed her life and touched the lives of thousands more.

A foreword from Terry Waite CBE, patron of The Monastery and founder of Hostage International

No words can adequately describe the devastation that lay before me. The tiled flooring was a disaster. The statues of saints that formerly lined the nave had disappeared. The ornate high altar now a target for brick-throwing hooligans.

I looked at Elaine and could see she was no pushover. She was the sort of person who, once she made up her mind up to something, would do it no matter what the odds. How could I refuse to join her and Paul in such a worthy cause?

This book records the story of the rebuilding. It’s a story that will bring hope to many by demonstrating that two ordinary people, with vision and commitment, can achieve what in fact is miraculous.

Terry Waite CBE

Trust Elaine Griffiths

Interview with the author, Elaine Griffiths OBE, Executive Officer at Manchester Monastery

One question I’m often asked is why I got involved with the Monastery project.

It’s very much part of our Griffiths family story and would come up in conversation whenever the family had a get-together. Whatever the occasion, it didn’t take long before someone would ask about the Monastery. Who’d seen the latest news report about yet more theft or vandalism at the empty church? Why wasn’t someone doing something to stop it? No one ever had an answer.

Many people have suggested I should write a book about saving Gorton Monastery. I’ve resisted for so long and made so many excuses: I haven’t the time; I’m not a writer and, besides, which story should I tell? Is it the very personal story of constant doubt, worry, stress and struggle, or is it the more professional, sanitised version of endless bid writing and fundraising that eventually led to triumph over adversity?

Should I be brave and share the more mystical and spiritual side of the story – where the magic of the Monastery has guided my every step? I’m sure that’s what motivated me to get involved after our first visit in the summer of 1996. Guidance came to me in dreams, meditation and intuition, and through messages from gifted people. I was sceptical at the beginning but the wisdom and reassurances from these messages have given me the courage, strength and resilience to keep on trusting.

Over the years, I’ve worked more and more with these experiences. My faith has been tested beyond belief, but prayers were always answered. In the eleventh hour, solutions would always arrive. Sometimes answers came in the form of major setbacks that did not always appear helpful. It’s only now, with the gift of hindsight, I realise everything that appeared to go wrong eventually took us one step closer to an even better result.

That’s why the title of this book is simply TRUST. I’ve learnt the hard way and that’s been the process all along. Things happen when the time is right – when everything and everyone is ready. I suppose you could call that divine timing.

This book is a summary of my personal story and a brief recollection of events. There’s so much information and so many memories. We’ve had to leave out more than we’ve included. And I recognise that, over the years, those who’ve shared some of the journey may remember things slightly differently, but that’s fine too.

We’ve nearly given up many times and reminded ourselves we’re the custodians of so many others’ hopes and dreams. We could not let them or ourselves down. The Monastery, now lovingly restored, is in the safe hands of the Trust who will always endeavour to protect and conserve it for the benefit of future generations. With its renewed focus on its charitable purpose this precious sacred heritage site can now step up to serve its highest possible purpose.

The business model is changing so our charity work takes priority, and we hope our new ‘Trusted Partners’ will do more and more in our Modern-Day Monastery. We still need commercial income to pay essential running costs. We’re optimistic that business will continue to grow as we recover from the impact of Covid and weddings and large events gradually return to normal.

Our Modern-Day Monastery is shining brightly as a sanctuary and beacon of hope, which can support others to cope with the challenges of this fast-changing world. I hope and pray we will be guided to do the right thing, so we can continue to ‘do good while doing business.’

I’m so grateful to have been given custody of this amazing project for so long. As we come to the end of this important chapter in the Monastery’s history, I realise I may be mistaken. Maybe the best is yet to come and this is actually the starting line. I will look forward to whatever the future holds and will continue to trust.

Elaine Griffiths

Buy your copy here

Trust inside

 

Editor’s note

This attractive, hardback, coffee-table book celebrates the 25th anniversary of The Monastery Trust and the remarkable work of those involved in restoring and caring for this precious heritage site.

Within its 176 pages are over 300 images of the site collected by Elaine Griffiths and photographer, Len Grant.

Buy your copy of TRUST online and we’ll post it to you (or perhaps to someone else as thoughtful gift).

You can also pick up a copy in our Monastery shop here at the Monastery.

As a charity, we rely on your purchases and donations to support this special heritage site.

Buy your copy here

The Monastery Manchester

 

Manchester History & Heritage: A Remembrance Story of Friendship and Ice Cream

The Story of Charles Sellars and Emmanuel Sivori

Author | Graham North  Editor | Dr. Caroline Paige

A young recruit

With the onset of the First World War, in July 1914, twenty-two-year-old Charles Sellars enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps. He had a wife, Sarah, and a thirteen-month-old daughter called Phyllis, who was to become my mother. They lived in a small back-to-back terraced house (3 Ajax Street) off Oldham Road in Miles Platting to the east of Manchester.

Charles was a printer by trade. He had a printing shop on Bradford Road near the colliery, which he ran with his brother Joseph and their cousin James Packer. Trade was falling in the run up to the war. The Royal Flying Corps offered a regular income – and it was only going to take a few months to defeat the Germans and he would be back home and life would resume as normal. Sarah pregnant, but Charles expected to be home before the baby was due.

As we know, the war didn’t go quite as planned and the soldiers had to prepare for a long haul. Charles went off to fight, but before long he was injured and brought back to England to recuperate. When Charles recovered, he was deemed as not fit enough to resume service in the Royal Flying Corps. He returned to France, but this time as an infantryman in the Army.

Manchester history Manchester
Charles Sellars stands on the right proudly wearing his Royal Flying Corps uniform

A Little Italy in Manchester

Between Miles Platting, where the Sellars family lived, and the city centre is an area called Ancoats. Due to the large number of Italian immigrants in this area it was known locally as Little Italy and it was home to many ice cream makers.

These were family-run businesses, with their own shops and ice cream carts. They sold penny licks – a little glass filled with ice cream from which a customer would lick out the ice cream and hand back the glass to the vendor, who would then wash the glass and refill it for the next customer.

Emmanuel Sivori started his family ice cream business in 1910, shortly after he came to England.

Charles and his wife had moved to 222 Oldham Road, a few doors away from the ice cream shop, and they became friends with the Sivori family. The Sivori family were patrons of the Monastery and made donations towards the upkeep of the church and supplied flowers for the May Queen celebrations.

Manchester history at Manchester Monastery

A lasting friendship

When Charles Sellars returned to active duty in France, the war had reached stalemate. He joined the troops in the trenches. For a second time he was injured and it was more serious this time, as he had been caught in a mustard gas attack.

When they brought Charles home, he was in very poor health and unable to go back to his printing business. He did manage to find work as a porter at Miles Platting Railway Station, which lasted for a few years. But his health gradually deteriorated until he was no longer able to work. His wife, Sarah, found part-time work cleaning carriages at the station, even though they now had four young daughters to look after.

Over time, Charles became bedridden and in constant pain. To help ease his pain Emmanuel Sivori’s son, Albert, visited every day after their ice cream shop closed, with bags of ice to lay upon Charles’s chest. He brought the ice every day until Charles died – leaving Sarah with four young girls and pregnant with another child.

Charles’s eldest daughter, Phyllis, had to leave school when she was 13 to earn some extra money for the household. Unfortunately, within two years, she became seriously ill with St Vitus Dance (Sydenham’s chorea) and had to spend eighteen months in the isolation ward at Monsal Hospital.

Manchester history at Manchester Monastery
Charles Sellars with his wife, Sarah, and their daughter, Phyllis.

A story preserved

Charles’s last surviving daughter, my Aunty Anne, told me this story when my wife and I visited her in 2003, not long before her death.

In October 2006, my good friend, the Monastery historian Tony Hurley, told me that a Mr Sivori and his daughter were visiting us. They were bringing a crucifix that had belonged to the Monastery. I told them this story, and he said it would have been his father that helped my grandfather all those years ago. I was extremely pleased to meet one of the sons of the man who was my grandfather’s friend and had done so much to ease his suffering in his final days.

I am sure I would not have had the pleasure of meeting Mr Sivori had it not been for our connection with Gorton Monastery.

Lest we forget

Book Review: The Greyfriars Players 1937-1948

Subject: Manchester history; Manchester heritage; amateur dramatics.

By Father Agnellus Andrew; reviewed by Janet Wallwork, published 1948 (Historical Reprint Series).

The Greyfriars Players, 1937-1948, Father Agnellus Andrew, Monastery Publications (Historical Reprint Series), 54p, £2.99. First published in 1948. ISBN 978-0-9571484-3-7

This is a book about the Greyfriars Players, written by them, for them and their friends.

The Greyfriars played in many places and made many friends. Even today, people still ask for information about the company and for souvenirs of their work.

Wartime conditions meant their printed programmes were skimpy and austere. They created this book to remind themselves of their origins and ideals and to recall what they hoped were pleasant memories for their friends and audiences.

Monastery Publications reprinted this book so this remarkable story can continue to be enjoyed.

Father Agnellus Andrew was one of the best known and loved members of the Gorton community. He later found fame as a pioneer of religious broadcasting. In 1980, Father Agnellus was called to Rome where he was ordained a bishop and became the Vatican’s head of Press and Broadcasting Relations. He never forgot his days as President of The Greyfriars Players.

Editor’s note: This book is available to buy in our Monastery Shop.

Review: Print Pattern Archive talk

2-minute read

Subject: Things to do in Manchester; Manchester tours; textile history; pattern makers

This week, I dropped into Cheryl O’Meara’s talk on her textile archive and spent a delightful hour in a world of pattern. If you’re in a hurry, scroll down for the quick facts.

A little bit about the archive

The Print Pattern Archive is an exceptional private collection of over 50,000 antique fabric swatches and wallpaper books spanning from the mid-18th century to the 1980s.

Originally from New York’s Garment District, the archive contains handwoven, heritage, conversational, florals, geometrics, mid-century, bark cloths, scenic, heraldic, jacquards, damasks, foliage, novelty, ornate, chinoiserie, juvenile and baroque prints from all over the world. From Japanese silks to beautiful British florals, it’s a treasure trove of historical and global design inspiration.

What I found out

I always take an opportunity to have a look in Cheryl’s archive, to see what creative project she’s busy working on. So, I jumped at the chance to be at her first talk since Manchester Monastery reopened this summer.

The six of us gathered in her small and organised archive ready to immerse ourselves in a world of textile. Perched next to a potted palm, I listened to the history of the archive and wondered how I could recreate just a little of this world.

This archive is all about pattern. For someone (like me) from a rather minimal design aesthetic, it’s very different from the restrained colour palettes that usually surround us.

Cheryl’s archive shelves are a riot of colour and competing patterns. My eye finds it difficult to decide where to rest. Luckily, we have an expert to guide us. It’s beautifully arranged, but uncatalogued. Cheryl’s photographic knowledge of the collection means she can easily find examples of textiles mentioned by my fellow archive visitors.

She gave us a brief tour through the different design histories represented in the collection, whilst we poured over fabric and wallpaper sample books that span over two centuries.

After finding out a little about our group, Cheryl tailored the talk to include our interests. She showed us how she’d hand draw designs to complete a repeating pattern from a modest fabric swatch – removing or adding detail to modernise the design. We saw this process created digitally using Adobe Photoshop and Cheryl showed us some of her latest designs.

I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the group and exploring the Print Pattern Archive with them.

Print Pattern Archive at Manchester Monastery

 

What I did next

I’m a small-scale hoarder. I’ve a little stash of vintage and antique prints, engravings, postcards, magazines, and photographs that I like, but I have no plan for. Chatting with the group, I realised these bits and pieces are a modest, disorganised collection that inspired some of my own ideas about design.

At home, I routed through my loft and started to put my ‘collection’ together in one unspectacular, cardboard box. Unsure what to do next, I carried the box downstairs and spent some time leafing through it that evening.

It was typography that caught my eye. Now, my office wall – adorned with beautiful examples of hand-drawn, vintage typography – provides inspiration for inclusive fonts perfect for digital communications.

Who would enjoy it?

I’d recommend this talk to anyone with an interest in design, whether you’re a professional working with the latest tech or a curious tourist (like me).

It will get you thinking about the designs that have influenced you – from your grandparents’ sixties wallpaper to your favourite clothing designer – and rethinking how you can use your own design interests creatively.

Print Pattern Archive at Manchester Monastery

A great insight into how Cheryl turned her fabulous collection of fabrics and papers into a business!

Liz Phillips, textile collector and owner of vintage furnishings biz, Phillips & Cheers

Quick facts

What? Exclusive access and talk with textile archive owner, Cheryl O’Meara

Where? The Print Pattern Archive housed at Manchester Monastery

When? Talks take place on the first Monday of the month at 1pm and 3pm

Who? Recommended for adults and accompanying children aged 12+

How? Go to our What’s On page to book tickets (£10 a person + booking fee)

 

Author: Dr Caroline Paige

 

 

 

Book Review: Assisi to Gorton

A 2-minute read.

Subject: Victorian Manchester; Manchester history; Manchester heritage; Franciscan history.

By Father Agnellus Andrew; reviewed by Janet Wallwork, published 1938 (Historical Reprint Series).

Assisi to Gorton: A brief record of the work of the Franciscans in England, and especially their work in Gorton, 1861-1938, Father Agnellus Andrew, Monastery Publications (Historical Reprint Series), 108p, £4.99. First published in 1938. ISBN 978-0-95714-842-0

The Church and Friary of St Francis, Gorton – known locally as ‘Gorton Monastery’ – was built by Belgian Franciscans who arrived there in 1861. They engaged the famous church architect, Edward Welby Pugin, and over the next ten years, and with only limited resources, they constructed a magnificent church of cathedral-like proportions.

The church opened in 1872 but work to complete it continued for many years. It was consecrated in 1938 and this book was published to mark that occasion.

It gives first a brief account of the Franciscans in England, from the arrival of the first friars in 1224, followed by the story of their work and achievements in Gorton.

Although the friars left in 1989 their wonderful buildings survive. They now belong to a charity, The Monastery of St Francis and Gorton Trust, which rescued and restored them as a community, cultural and corporate venue. The Trust reprinted this little book to mark the 150th anniversary of the Franciscans in Gorton.

Father Agnellus Andrew was one of the best known and loved members of the Gorton community. He later found fame as a pioneer of religious broadcasting. In 1980, Father Agnellus was called to Rome where he was ordained a bishop and became the Vatican’s head of Press and Broadcasting Relations. Based at Gorton from 1932 to 1954, he was a charismatic and inspirational preacher. In this history of The Monastery he tells the Franciscan story simply and clearly.

Editor’s note: This book is available to buy in our Monastery Shop.

 

The History of Manchester Monastery: It’s Quite a Story

A piece of Manchester History

A 10-minute read.

It’s a story of new communities working together to overcome adversity. It’s a story of the people.

Read on to explore the extraordinary story of Manchester Monastery and its part in Manchester history.

A monastery in Victorian Manchester

Manchester Monastery Whit walk around 1960. The friars walk behind the banner with the girls holding the banner strings.

The Monastery started life with a different name, it was The Church and Friary of St Francis, West Gorton. Locals called it the monastery. The Franciscan friars, dressed in their habits, would have looked like monks to the people of Victorian Manchester.

To understand why Roman Catholic Franciscan Friars built here we need to look at attitudes to religion in Victorian Britain.

Changing attitudes in Victorian Britain

Catholicism had been illegal in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland since the 16th century. In 1534, Henry VIII broke away from the all-powerful Catholic Church and declared himself Supreme Head of the Church in England.

Before this, the Pope, as head of the Church, claimed spiritual and political power over its followers. Anti-Catholicism in 16th-century England centred on fear the Pope wanted to take control of England in allegiance with England’s enemies – Spain or France.

Henry VIII’s radical Reformation of English religion began because the Pope refused to annul Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon, daughter of the Spanish rulers Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. You may have heard of Henry’s Dissolution (or Suppression) of the Monasteries. British school curriculums mean that it’s well-known legislation from this period.

Manchester Monastery History Henry VIII
Stained glass window of Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace. Photo by Tom Podmore on Unsplash

By the end of the 18th century, there was greater tolerance and changes to anti-Catholic laws in 1829 decriminalised Catholicism.

In 1850, the Vatican (the home of the Pope and Roman Catholic rule making) responded by creating Catholic dioceses in England. This created a surge in Catholic church building in the newly United Kingdom on a scale not seen since the reign of Henry VIII.

The Catholic Diocese for Manchester was named the Diocese of Salford, to avoid the same name as the Church of England Diocese of Manchester.

A Franciscan College in Douai

Franciscan college in Douai
Postcard c.1910 of the building that housed the English College at the time of its dissolution in 1793. C. Baron, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The anti-Catholic laws of the 16th century meant that Englishmen who wanted to train as Franciscan friars attended the Franciscan College in Douai (now Northern France). From the 17th century, Douai was the centre of English Catholicism.

That ended at the close of the 18th century when the French Revolution suppressed (not allowed to practice) religious orders and abolished feudal laws that gave the Catholic Church political and economic power.

Franciscan friars in Victorian Manchester

In the early 1800s, there were still a few elderly Franciscans alive in England who had trained at the college in Douai. These retired friars lived at the Franciscan Convent in Taunton. They hoped increased tolerance of Catholicism would allow a Franciscan Order to be established again in the British Isles.

They asked friars from the Belgian Province that neighboured Douai to help to bolster the expanding English provinces[1] – an English Mission which the Belgian Recollect Friars began in London in the 1850s.[2]

In November 1861, three Belgian friars arrived by train in Victorian Manchester.[3] Invited by the Bishop of Salford, they came to look after the Catholic parish of Fairfield and to create the new Catholic parish of Gorton.[4]

New communities in Victorian Manchester

Gorton Mills 1840
Gorton Mills, 1840

Victorian Manchester saw new Catholic Irish communities arrive and a growing demand for Catholic churches.

Failed harvests brought famine to Ireland. Many families fled resulting in large-scale migration to England and Scotland. The cities of Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, and London saw the largest migration of Irish communities.[5]

Manchester transformed from an 18th century market town to a commercial and manufacturing centre of the north. Its population rocketed from 10,000 in 1717 to over 300,000 by 1851.[6]

The city spilled outwards consuming satellite districts and villages and repurposing them for new urban development. Vast brick factories and mill buildings dominated the landscape of the city – broken only by areas with street after street of uniform rows of houses surrounding the soot blackened spires of parish churches.

In the ten years leading to 1861, the population of Gorton doubled to 10,000.[7] Gorton now housed large Irish Catholic communities in its new urban housing.[8] These men and women provided much needed labour for the rapidly industrialising city.

Why the friars chose Victorian Manchester

At first, the friars stayed with Father Peter Cardinal in Fairfield, just down the road from Gorton. They started their work there as the Catholic Mission in Gorton on 1 December 1861. It was an important day in the Christian calendar, the first Sunday of Advent.[9]

Father Peter invited the friars to the parish because there were 400 Catholic parishioners and no priest to serve them.[10]

He had recently built a chapel that was also used as a school on Gorton Lane (then called Gorton Old Road). Built in a cruciform (cross) shape, it stood at the far end of what is now the car park.

On Christmas Day 1861, the friars held their first Mass for the Catholic people of Gorton at the chapel school.

Original church and boys' school

Financing the church and friary

Franciscan values, dedicated to working for the poor, meant that Gorton was exactly the right place to build their church and friary. But how could they afford it?

The retired English friars – who trained at Douai and invited the Belgian friars to England – gave the first friars at Gorton £2,000 towards their Mission here. Our friars also received £500 from a benefactor called Thomas Luck.[11]

Next to the school chapel there was a plot of four acres that contained a large house called Bankfield Cottage. The friars bought the site for £2,200 and on 25 April 1862 they moved into Bankfield Cottage, their new home in Gorton.[12]

Fundraising continued with regular collections from the local population and bazaars held in the city to promote the cause to wealthy donors.[13]

Building work was slow and often non-existent until Father Willibrord van den Neucker became Guardian in 1871. He was the driving force behind the successful completion of the church. His large-scale fundraising in the city was very profitable and he also secured £4,000 of the old Franciscan funds.[14]

Map showing Bankfield Cottage with the chapel school to the right in 1863.
Map showing Bankfield Cottage with the chapel school to the right in 1863.

Victorian architecture and the Catholic Church

Victorian architecture was influenced by popular architects like Augustus Welby Pugin, who designed many Catholic churches and wrote about the principles of architecture. A devout Roman Catholic and a fanatic for Gothic he was an authority on medieval Christian architecture (medieval churches predate the Reformation, so were Catholic before relabelling as Church of England).

Pugin became Roman Catholic in 1835, after the removal of anti-Catholic laws. He was writing and designing during the Catholic revival in the UK.

His writing famously claimed the Reformation had caused a decline in arts in the UK. Many contemporary architects and artists criticised these claims, but they made him popular with Catholics. He was also a brilliant architect and designer and a key influence in the architecture of Victorian Britain.

Augustus Welby Pugin

Pugin is most well-known for the elaborate Gothic detail he designed for the new Houses of Parliament, while he worked for the architect Charles Barry. His skill for design and knowledge of medieval Christian architecture made him the leading architect of the Victorian Gothic Revival.

After Augustus died in 1852, Edward Welby Pugin continued his father’s legacy and the Pugin family firm remained a popular choice for Catholic church builders. Despite a limited budget, the Franciscan’s chose this leading firm of Catholic church builders to design their church and friary in Gorton.

Edward Welby Pugin architect of Manchester Monastery

Edward Pugin designed for the friars before his work at Gorton. Father Emmanuel Kenners – one of the three Belgian friars who first came to Gorton in 1861 – appointed Edward in 1858 to alter the Sclerder chapel in Cornwall.[15] This relationship continued with the Edward’s designs for the Franciscan Recollects both at Gorton and at Killarney in Ireland.[16]

Brother Patrick ‘the joint architect’

Brother Patrick Dalton

The three Belgian friars, who arrived in Victorian Manchester, were with one Irishman, Brother Patrick Dalton.

Brother Patrick described by a friar in 1867:

“That” said our guide, pointing to one of the labourers who was pushing a stone into place, “is one of the [friars] …he has saved us more than a thousand pounds. He is a good brick setter, a capital stone cutter, and he takes the place of a Clerk of the Works. You see, he cannot work in his habit so he puts on a workman’s clothes.” And there he was working like the rest of them, with his moleskin trousers, white blouse, and a flat cap over his tonsure…”But this is unusual, is it not?” we observed. “Oh no, not in history. It was thus that all our great abbeys were built, and we have found it a great advantage to revive the custom on a small scale.[17]

Brother Patrick was a lay member of the Franciscan Order, who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but was not an ordained priest. Edward Pugin kept in touch with Brother Patrick by letter and occasional site visits. Edward found that he could trust Brother Patrick’s judgement and later described him as the ‘joint architect’.

He oversaw construction of the church and friary in Gorton and travelled to oversee building of other Franciscan churches built in the 1870s and 80s in London[18], Ireland[19] and Glasgow.[20]

The Gorton church and friary are impressive because local people created them. They demolished the house on the site, dug trenches for foundations, and laid many thousands of bricks.

They also helped by making the bricks, filling timber moulds with local clay and baking them in kilns. Some eagle-eyed visitors have spotted bricks with the maker’s fingerprints on!

Miss Jackson, who was a pupil at the St Francis infant school in 1892 and later became the headteacher, remembered Brother Patrick and the stories of his work to build the church:

“He did his stint of begging too and was a well-known figure in the local pubs with his collection box and his cry of “Let’s buy another brick for St Francis.” He had his own way of recruiting volunteer labour: he met the men as they left work at midday on Saturday and asked for their help in the afternoon.”[21]

We imagine that Brother Patrick, a lay friar who laboured alongside fellow Irishmen, was quite a character in Gorton.

The local population gave their time and labour generously, but money and materials were often scarce. Brother Patrick scoured Manchester for reclaimed materials to help their cash-strapped project.

Building Manchester landmarks

Friars looking at the construction of the church

Construction started with the friary buildings around the cloisters. But the friars couldn’t move into the first buildings completed in 1863. The number of people wanting to attend a Catholic church in Gorton was too big for the original chapel school, so the friars had to use the friary as another chapel.[22]

They completed the second wing (next to Gorton Lane) in 1865 and finally moved into their new friary. The friars had pushed on with their Mission and during this construction work (1862-1865) Father Willibrord and Father Germain converted over 450 people to the Catholic faith.[23]

Next, they demolished Bankfield Cottage to make way for the church. Evidence of the pond at Bankfield Cottage exists in the church basement and it would have provided spring water for the friary kitchens. The Bishop of Salford laid the first stone for the Church of St Francis on 9 June 1866.

Laying out the site

Medieval churches were traditionally laid-out with a rough east-west orientation. This meant the congregation faced the east to pray. This became less common after the medieval period.

Unlike their medieval counterparts, nineteenth-century church and cathedral builders had to work around established road networks. Large urban churches were increasingly built with a grand entrance fronting on to the main road and the High Altar located at the opposite end of the building. The Church of St Francis, built in line with Gorton Lane, has a south entrance.

This is also found at other large contemporary Catholic churches in Manchester. The grand entrance of the Church of the Holy Name is on Oxford Road and the Catholic Cathedral in Salford has a similar arrangement resulting in a south entrance.

This orientation provided large churches with a much bigger entrance, allowing their congregations to enter and leave quickly. It also provided those entering the church with a clear, undisturbed view of the High Altar. An increasingly popular design for Catholic liturgy in the 1860s and one favoured by Edward Pugin.[24]

A Victorian masterpiece

 

Historic photo of the front of the monastery

Originally, visitors to the church walked in from Gorton Lane – straight up the porch steps, into the shade of the brick-vaulted portico and past the enormous oak doors into the Great Nave.

Once in the nave, they had an uninterrupted view of the whole church. The arcade arches lead the visitor’s eye along the Franciscan saints, who watch over the nave, towards the stained-glass windows that pour light on the High Altar – the focal point of the building.

The church builders aspired to cathedral-like proportions and created a nave 98 feet high (30 metres). The building’s huge scale inspired awe in those who saw it. And still does.

Edward Pugin’s striking façade, with its heavy buttresses and central crucifix, meant the building held its own in a city known for its temples to manufacturing – its vast factories and towering mill chimneys.

Sacred light

Locating the church in a rough north-south orientation created some remarkable architectural qualities at Manchester Monastery.

Sunlight comes through windows positioned high in the nave creating a beautiful ladder-like pattern along the floor and towards the High Altar. These windows also light up the twelve statues of Franciscan saints placed above the stone columns – giving them a halo of light.

Old photographs show a statue of St Francis in the right-hand aisle of the church. We think that location might have been chosen for the statue because of the sunlight that streams into the church lighting up that part of the wall on 4 October – St Francis’s feast day.

The play of light at Christmas must have been spectacular. The tall, lancet shaped windows above the entrance portico lit the figure of Jesus on the Crucifix (that used to hang from the chancel arch in front of the High Altar).

A ladder of light leading to the high altar at Manchester Monastery

Community heritage

Manchester Monastery is still fondly remembered for the many stages of life celebrated here and its role in community heritage.

The site became a busy hub for the local Catholic community. It housed several schools, a training college for friars, a parish library, extensive gardens, a parochial hall for community events, a youth club, a choir, and even a famous amateur dramatic society.

For almost a century, the church and friary flourished. But, by the 1960s, fewer people were going to church which meant less money in church collections. The situation worsened when engineering works closed in Gorton causing mass unemployment and the ‘slum’ clearances of regeneration schemes relocated many people out of Gorton. The last Mass was on the 26 November 1989 and the last friars moved out the following year.

The buildings were sold to a developer to convert into luxury apartments and the surrounding land sold for housing. The apartment development never happened and vandals attacked the unprotected site. After years of neglect, roofs fell in and walls began to fail.

Couple outside the monastery

Saving a piece of Manchester history

Paul and Elaine Griffiths (Paul was an altar boy here in the sixties) led a team of volunteers from the local community to save the Monastery. They set up a charitable trust in September 1996 to raise money and awareness to restore the site.

The next year, the plight of the Monastery came to the attention of the World Monuments Fund who placed it on the World Monuments Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites. It was a global call to action for heritage sites in need of immediate intervention.

This brought Manchester Monastery back into the limelight. Tireless campaigning resulted in Heritage Lottery Funding and European Regional Development Funding to restore the building in 2005 – one of the biggest community-led restoration projects in the UK.

Fallen rubble in the church before its restoration

Manchester heritage that is relevant today

Sharing the remarkable story of how the Franciscan friars and the local community in Gorton succeeded in building Manchester Monastery despite widespread poverty can help us to better understand how our societies and communities developed.

Understanding how they achieved what seems impossible, can inspire us to both find strength in community and to seek answers to the problems that our society faces.

In the words of the Dutch historian, Johan Huizinga (1872-1945), “History gives answers only to those who know how to ask questions”.

Manchester history is not over

Manchester history is still being made.

The Monastery represents the lives and experiences of people. People who built, contributed to, and visited it. For generations it educated, fed, cared for, celebrated, and even entertained communities.

Many people feel a shared ownership of the Monastery and the different and changing heritages the building represents. The deconsecrated (no religion) site still celebrates people. We welcome everyone to find community and shared heritage here.

When you visit, you’re part of our history and community. Share your piece of the history of Manchester Monastery by tagging us on Instagram @themonasterymanchester.

Gospel singers performing in the nave

Join our community

Today, the Monastery shines bright again – saved for future generations.

We continue to seek sustainable business plans to ensure the lasting preservation of this part of Manchester heritage.

We have a variety of volunteering opportunities. Whether it’s heritage volunteer work, volunteer counselling, or working on a special project, you will help a great cause.

We are a charity and rely entirely on donations.

No matter what the size, every donation helps us to preserve this important part of Manchester history for future generations to enjoy.

School children in monastery garden

 

 

References

[1] Father Justin McLoughlin, (1961) Gorton Monastery, 1861 – 1961: Story of 100 Years of the Friary Gorton, Manchester, pp. 7-10.

[2] The website of the Order of Friars Minor in Great Britain, 02.06.2021, http://www.friar.org/our-heritage.

[3] Fr. McLoughlin, Gorton Monastery, p. 10.

[4] Fr. McLoughlin, Gorton Monastery, p. 7.

[5] Michael D. Higgins (2012) quoted in John McAulifee, ‘President Higgins on Manchester’s Irish Connection’, The Manchester Review, 03.06.2021, http://www.themanchesterreview.co.uk/?p=2976.

[6] Britannica: Manchester, 03.06.2021, https://www.britannica.com/place/Manchester-England.

[7] https://www.lan-opc.org.uk/Manchester/Gorton/home.html

[8] Hirst Conservation, 03.06.2021, https://www.hirst-conservation.com/2017/05/26/gorton-monastery-manchester/.

[9] Fr. McLoughlin, Gorton Monastery, p. 4.

[10] Fr. McLoughlin, Gorton Monastery, p. 4.

[11] Fr. McLoughlin, Gorton Monastery, p. 3.

[12] Fr. McLoughlin, Gorton Monastery, p. 10.

[13] Fr. McLoughlin, Gorton Monastery, p. 12.

[14] Fr. McLoughlin, Gorton Monastery, pp. 13-14.

[15] Fr. McLoughlin, Gorton Monastery, p. 12.

[16] The Pugin Society, 08.07.2021, http://www.thepuginsociety.co.uk/convents-and-monasteries.html.

[17] Anon. (6 April 1867) ‘Among the Monks at Gorton’ in The Free Lance quoted in Tony Hurley, (2013) Beggars & Builders: My Story of Gorton Monastery, p. 80.

[18] Taking Stock: Catholic Churches of England & Wales website, 02.06.2021, https://taking-stock.org.uk/building/forest-gate-st-anthony-of-padua/.

[19] The Pugin Society, 03.06.2021, http://www.thepuginsociety.co.uk/monastery-parish-churches.html.

[20] Tony Hurley (2013) Beggars & Builders: My Story of Gorton Monastery, p. 95.

[21] Quoted in Hurley, Beggars & Builders, p. 81. Source not given.

[22] Fr. McLoughlin, Gorton Monastery,p. 12.

[23] Father Angellus quoted in Hurley, Beggars & Builders, p. 94.

[24] The Pugin Society, 02.06.2021, http://www.thepuginsociety.co.uk/edward-welby.html

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