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History & Heritage

Using Manchester Heritage to Nurture Well-being | Dr. Caroline Paige

A 5-minute read.

Heritage and well-being at Manchester Monastery

A story of community action to rescue and restore an endangered heritage site, conserving it for future generations and preserving the legacy of the community that built it. The continuing legacy of Manchester Monastery is to nurture well-being by providing a sanctuary for the people of Manchester and beyond.

Heritage projects can make a significant contribution to the way people feel about their lives. When combined with a strategic mission to improve well-being they can be a powerful force for good.

First, we’ll consider what we mean by ‘heritage’.

What is heritage?

Our heritage is what the past has given us. It’s our inheritance. It’s what we value and choose to preserve for the future.

This heritage is many different things. It can be historic sites, buildings, or objects. It can also refer to the less tangible – like customs, crafts, sports, music, folklore, and knowledge. Heritage also encompasses the natural world – everything from great landscapes and coastlines to canal paths, city parks, gardens and the creatures that live in them.

Our tangible, intangible and natural heritage and all the associated myths, legends, traditions, and memories provide us with a common language and insight that enables us to communicate on a deep level with each other and to express ourselves in a unique way to the outside world.”

The Heritage Council for Ireland

How does heritage affect our lives?

Heritage helps us understand our past and how we got to where we are today. It helps us to look at our history and traditions, so we can develop our awareness of ourselves.

This reflection on our past enables us to shape our identity and values.

Looking at our past helps us understand our present. This can inform what we value and wish to preserve – a sense of identity. 

What is community heritage?

Community heritage describes groups of people who work to preserve their local heritage. This heritage can be both tangible and intangible.

Tangible heritage is something that you can see and visit, like a building or a park.

Intangible heritage is something that you can’t see and keep in the same way but can experience – like language.

Volunteers spend many hours working to ensure that their cultural heritage is sustainable and accessible. This work can promote feelings of connectedness and belonging. A fact recognised by organisations, such as the National Lottery, who fund community heritage projects.

Next, we’ll look at the Monastery as a heritage site.

Legacy and heritage at Manchester Monastery

Manchester Monastery is a friary. Monks live in a monastery and friars live in a friary. Locals called it a monastery and the name stuck.

Built in Victorian Manchester, the Church and Friary of St Francis was confident statement of High Victorian Gothic. Designed by Edward Welby Pugin it’s an architectural masterpiece that embodies the civic pride of the community that built it.

Working at weekends and after long shifts in their paid employment, the people of Gorton laboured to build the church and its associated buildings – even children helped making bricks.

The centre of the catholic community, the site housed several schools that educated generations of children. Gorton Lane was busy with the daily bustle of local people visiting the Church of St Francis and its schools for almost a century.

Declining church attendance from the 1970s meant less money given to church collections. Financial problems worsened when local engineering works closed during years of high national unemployment.

Demolition of the many streets of terraced housing that once surrounded the church required rehousing the inhabitants throughout Greater Manchester. The loss of community meant the church was not sustainable and its doors closed.

Years of neglect followed. Stripped of assets, vandalised, and left to decay – the derelict monastery became a sad reminder of a past heyday for a community now fragmented and overlooked.

Community action overcame this. A strong community was still present, both in Gorton and further afield. Their resilience proved in the rescue and restoration of their cultural heritage.

Community heritage at Manchester Monastery

In 1996, former altar boy Paul Griffiths and his wife Elaine led local volunteers in a campaign to try to save this Manchester landmark. They formed a charitable trust and began fundraising.

“It became a labour of love for all concerned and they held a strong vision that the Monastery could once again become a sanctuary, but this time it would bring people together and be for everyone from all faiths, backgrounds, beliefs and traditions. We believed that the Monastery could have an important spiritual role to play in our secular and fast changing world, serving the multi-cultural City of Manchester and beyond.”

Elaine Griffiths, CEO, Manchester Monastery

More than a decade of dedicated campaigning and fundraising brought the funds to restore the monastery. This important part of Manchester history reopened to the public as a community, cultural and commercial venue in 2007. It wasn’t easy and they succeeded against all odds.

Manchester Monastery has won over 30 awards for its heritage and conservation achievements, its charitable work, and its success as a unique venue for hire.

Heritage, health, and well-being at Manchester Monastery

An exemplar of community heritage it makes its own income to preserve the site by operating as a venue.

Surplus profits support the Trust’s charitable work. Now in its 25th year, the Trust has its original founders and many of the original team of volunteers.

Covid-19 meant the Monastery closed for over a year. Thanks to government funding – Heritage Emergency and Cultural Recovery Grants – it has been able to survive and adapt.

Success as an events venue allowed for the careful restoration and conservation of the building – saved for future generations. The Monastery can now refocus on its heritage and charitable role in helping the Manchester community as it reshapes and rebuilds its essential wedding, events, and commercial income.

Making heritage relevant

Local heritage can play an important role in community development, but using it to create a sense of identity means more than just conserving.

“Its relevance needs to be communicated in the present so that it may continue into the future.”

UNESCO World Heritage Convention, 2013

Relevance here is the role of community heritage in promoting health and well-being.

Setting-up a centre for well-being

The Charitable Trust that owns the monastery wished to create a more deliberate offer to improve health and well-being within Greater Manchester. The new Narrative Centre, founded by Dr Jeannine Goh and Charmain Berry, seeks to provide the people of Manchester with a safe, warm, and inviting space to share and be heard.

“We understand that being heard is fundamental to our well-being. It allows us to process our pain and remember who we truly are.”

Dr Jeannine Goh

The Narrative Centre is part of the Sanctuary of Peace and Healing at Manchester Monastery, founded to seed new creative initiatives promoting health, healing, and well-being in the city.

How it will help health and well-being in Manchester

The Narrative Centre’s key initiatives are:

We want visitors to feel confident and enjoy taking personal responsibility for their health.

The Listening Service offers free counselling. The Narrative Centre trains volunteer listeners in effective listening which can count towards an accredited certificate in counselling.

Manchester Monastery also provides a quiet place where you can escape from the hustle, bustle and strain of daily life. Entry is free Sunday to Thursday and there’s a one-hour silence every day at noon. A wonderful tonic for the brain, soul, and self.

Heritage and well-being – The key points