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The History of St Francis and Gorton Monastery

Manchester's Taj Mahal

What do a derelict Franciscan Monastery in West Gorton and the ancient ruins of Pompeii have in common? They are both on the List of 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world, a status granted to them by the World Monuments Watch in recognition of their architectural and historical importance, and their risk of being lost. The Monastery of St Francis, known locally as Gorton Monastery, designed by Edward Pugin (1834-1875) stands majestically on Gorton Lane, near to Manchester city centre. Its green bell-turret, which, from a distance, looks as if it were made of icing sugar, is instantly recognisable on the urban landscape. It is one of Manchester's most important landmarks, not only appreciated by architects and academics as one of the finest examples of High Victorian Gothic architecture, but by a much wider local, and regional community.

The Early Days

When the first Franciscan Friars arrived in Gorton in 1861, it was a struggling village set among fields with only a small Catholic population of 300. In April 1862, the Brothers who pioneered the building of St Francis, moved into Bankfield Cottage, a four acre site bought for £2,200. The Brothers were welcomed into the community and worked tirelessly dedicating their time to the poor, sick and needy.

 

A Pugin Masterpiece

Edward Welby Pugin was engaged to design the Gorton Church and Friary. His father was the famous architect, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, a practitioner of the Gothic style, responsible for the design of the intricate facade and interior of the Houses of Parliament. The Pugin dynasty of A W N Pugin, Edward Welby Pugin and, his younger brother, Peter Paul Pugin, all worked on a number of Catholic churches throughout the 19th Century. The Monastery of St Francis is considered one of Edward Welby Pugin's masterpieces.

Construction Begins

In May 1863, Canon Benoit laid the first stone of the Friary. It took a period of five years to construct three separate wings of the building. By 1867 the final wing was completed and the community of Brothers had a new home. Financial necessity meant the building work for the Church and Friary had to be carried out by the Brothers and a team of enthusiastic volunteers from within the community. Under the supervision of Brother Patrick Dalton, the acting Clerk of Works, the workers had to be resourceful and made bricks from local clay to keep buildings costs to a minimum. Brother Dalton earned quite a reputation throughout the Manchester area, with a lack of funds and building materials, he set about scouring every corner of the city on a personal crusade to find precious bricks for the building. Once Bankfield Cottage was demolished the building of the Church could proceed. In June 1866, Bishop Turner laid the first stone of the Church. The ravages of the cotton famine and its effects on the local economy meant that progress was slow in the first five years of construction. In 1871 an appeal for public funding was raised by setting up a Memorial Register of contributors and benefactors to make donations to fund the roof and protect the building from Manchester's inclement weather. A list of thousands of names was recorded and donations in excess of £500 secured the completion of the building.

 

The Grand Opening

The opening of the Monastery of St Francis generated a lot of excitement, which involved the whole community. It was a very high profile event in the ecclesiastical calendar, with every Bishop of England invited to join in the celebrations. Originally the opening had been planned for the Wednesday, the 24th September, but the Archbishop had to request the opening be moved to the 25th. The weather in the lead up to the opening had been notoriously wet, wild and stormy, but it failed to dampen the spirits of the Brothers and local community who had prayed for good weather weeks in advance of the celebrations. The Thursday morning dawned on a beautiful Autumnal day, a fitting conclusion to reward all the hard work and dedication of those involved in bringing the Gorton Monastery to life. The dimensions of the Monastery of St Francis, 184 feet long, 98 feet wide and 100 feet high engender it with a noble grandeur and imposing presence. It was acclaimed as the largest Parish church built in England since the Reformation and, to quote the Catholic Times of 1872, "A triumph of Catholic Architecture"

The buildings are made of red brick, with blue brick and stone dressings and slate roofs. The Church comprises a sanctuary, side chapels, a nave and aisles, divided by six arches. Pointed arched windows and rose windows, a particular feature of Gothic architecture, allow natural light to cascade throughout the church. The high altar, one of the largest in England, was designed by Peter Paul Pugin and carved out of Bath stone. The Brothers enterprisingly set up a special workshop to carve the stone in the grounds of the Friary.

 

The Heart and Soul of the Community for Over a Century

For over 100 years the Gorton Monastery was home to practicing Catholics in Manchester and it played a very important part of the local community, with schools, clubs, church and community activities. In the early 1970's the surrounding terraced housing was demolished and the community re-housed in neighbouring areas. The move displaced generations of people with links to the Monastery and this had a devastating impact on the congregation. The Brothers demolished the front facade of the Friary in the 1970's due to its poor condition. In the 1980's following a fund-raising campaign, English Heritage sanctioned a grant for repair to the roof and exterior walls of the church. Dwindling numbers and financial difficulties lead to the Franciscan order vacating the Monastery. The final mass took place in 1989.

The Franciscans Leave

The Brothers departed and the buildings were sold to property developers for conversion into flats. This scheme failed and vandals moved in, damaging most of the interior of the church including many important artifacts and fittings. Twelve statues of saints, originally located along the walls of the nave, turned up for auction as garden ornaments at Sotheby's. A diligent Gorton resident alerted the Manchester City Council who rescued the statues from certain obscurity. After costly negotiations with the auctioneers, the statues were brought back to Manchester and are now in the safe hands of the City Council housed in storage awaiting restoration.

 

A New Beginning

In 1996, after just over a decade of neglect, The Monastery of St Francis & Gorton Trust took over ownership of Gorton Monastery from the receivers. The Trust is made up of a group of people who formed a charitable trust to save the building from further decay and dereliction. The Trust has charitable status and launched initiatives to raise funds, including the formation of a 'Friends of Gorton Monastery'. (Details of how to become involved with the Friends scheme are outlined below). The Trust succeeded in gaining international recognition of the building's architectural significance. In October 1997 the World Monuments Fund designated the Monastery of St Francis as one of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World, a dubious honour, which reflects both the architectural importance and the disgraceful condition of the buildings. The Monastery is also architecturally and historically recognised as an important Grade II* listed building which puts it in the top 7% of listed buildings and designates it as a building of outstanding national importance. The Church and Friary is also included in the English Heritage Register of Buildings at Risk. The highest Priority given it, at Grade A, reflects both the dangerous condition and the historic importance of the building. In April 2000 the Heritage Lottery Fund granted the Trust an award of £178,000 towards necessary development work for a Hotel and Conference venue for East Manchester, and sum of £2.8 million was earmarked as a grant towards the capital costs of restoration. The HLF had previously turned down funding for an Educational Community and Visitor Facility, however, some of the original ideas will now be incorporated into the adjacent "The Angels" development. The conversion of Gorton Monastery will be carried out in a sensitive way to reflect its Franciscan origins and recreate the special atmosphere of the past. It is fitting that it will also be available to hold local events, including weddings and family gatherings once again. The Brothers of St Francis called upon the community to help build Gorton Monastery and the Trust, following on from their tradition, propose to call upon the support and skill of local people to work with the professionals to rebuild and restore the building to its former glory. MANCAT will use the facility extensively for training, conferences and exhibitions to teach new skills to the people of Manchester. Development work has just started, with structural surveyors and conservators on site recording and analysing the condition of the building, so that the work can proceed to the next stage. Building work will take approximately 2 years with opening of the new Hotel and Conference complex scheduled for early 2003. With your support, the Monastery of St Francis will be saved and restoration work will soon begin. A building of such splendour and magnificence will provide Manchester with a unique Hotel and Conference facility that will attract national and international visitors. It will continue to represent an expression of the faith of a community and is a testament to the devotion of the Brothers who lived and worked among the people of Manchester. For over 130 years.