In between the marathon and murder ball, I was able to visit one of the most impressive buildings in Manchester – Gorton Monastery.
Like Clayton Hall, it is one of the less salubrious parts of town, but it certainly isn’t hidden away, something that would be hard to do given the cathedral-like proportions of the place.
It was built between 1863 and 1867 by the Franciscans who arrived in the area to minister to the Catholic community. In fact, its name is misleading as it wasn’t a monastery at all – a friary would be a more accurate description as the brothers did not lead cloistered lives.
It was designed by Edward Welby Pugin who was a dab hand at churches, but most of the work was done by the Franciscans and local people to keep down building costs.
The sheer size of the place is one of the things that make it so impressive with its high vaulted ceiling as you can see from the photo on the right.
In its heyday, the monastery ran three schools, a parish hall, youth clubs, theatre and music groups, choirs, brass bands as well as being the social and spiritual focus of the community.
But by the 1970s the area that had once been a centre for heavy industry was in decline and the old terraced housing was demolished, leaving the monastery isolated.
There were just six elderly friars living there in 1989 and the monastery was finally closed. It was bought by developers who intended converting it into flats, but this fell through. Left unprotected, the building was vandalised and picked over for its lead and anything else that could be sold and in 1997 it was placed on World Monuments Fund Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites.
It is a miracle that it survived and this is entirely down to the volunteers and local people set up a preservation trust to save the building as it is today.
Among the items that the developers stripped out were the sandstone statues of twelve saints that stood high on either side of the church. They turned up in a Sotherby’s catalogue in 1994 as desirable ‘garden statuary’ and would have been sold but for the determination of a volunteer and Manchester City Council.
After a protracted battle, the statues were returned to Manchester, but that was just the beginning. They needed extensive restoration work through funds raised by the trust.
They were finally returned to their place in the monastery twelve months ago. I only learned their story after reading The Return of the Saints that I bought when I visited yesterday. Which doesn’t really explain how I managed to miss Saint Bernadine of Sienna, something which I intend to put right before too long!