Friday, 1 April 2016

St Francis Monastery, Gorton

Our heritage and why we should be proud of it


St. Francis Monastery, Gorton
I had the inestimable pleasure of being taken to St. Francis Monastery, Gorton, while visiting a friend a few weeks ago. I'm glad Pete brought us there, it was well worth the time taken to look around the refurbished building and see how an old edifice can be put to use in the community. Let me tell you about it.

Our friend Pete had invited Richard and myself over to dinner on Sunday after church* and while we were digesting our roast salmon it occurred to him that we might enjoy a nice little walk to visit the old building next door. I was kinda-sorta half curious about it as I'm fascinated by old buildings so I was happy enough to go along. Now the original history, as it were, of the building is interesting enough from a local history point of view but it's what happened more recently that caught my imagination.

A quick primer on Roman Catholicism in Britain


Roman Catholicism arrived in Britain in the sixth century and was the dominant form of Christianity until the upheavals of the sixteenth century when King Henry VIII created the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church so he could divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. Successive regimes reinstated and suppressed it until the nineteenth century, when anti-Catholic laws were relaxed, then repealed. Anti-Catholic paranoia has receded as public interest in religion and religious practice in Britain waned. However the number of Roman Catholics over here have been boosted by mass immigration from Ireland, France, and more recently Poland.

Key dates**:


  • 597 AD - the first papal mission, establishes a direct link from the Kingdom of Kent to the See of Rome and to the Benedictine form of monasticism, carried into effect by Augustine of Canterbury.
  • 1533 - 1536 - King Henry VIII breaks from Rome, establishes the Church of England with himself as Supreme Head.
  • 1553 - Queen Mary ("Bloody Mary") re-establishes Catholicism and martyrs religious dissenters, mainly by burning them to death at the stake
  • 1558-1569 - the accession of Queen Elizabeth I to the throne results in the Act of Uniformity, which alienates Catholics and creates an atmosphere of deep paranoia and intolerance. Actually, it's a lot like that for many Muslims today: Catholics were assumed to be enemies of the state if they wouldn't conform to the dominant religious norms. It wasn't much better for dissenting Protestants, but I digress.
  • 1570 - Pope Pius V called on all Catholics in his papal bull Regnans in Excelsis to rebel against Elizabeth and excommunicated anyone who obeyed her.
  • 1571 - 1778 - Priests found celebrating Mass were often hanged, drawn and quartered, persecution of Catholics intensified. Those who were devoted to their faith created priest holes in their homes to hide them in — at risk of their own lives if caught. Waves of persecution came and went, and eventually fizzled out.
  • 1766 - the Pope recognised the English Monarchy as lawful, which helped to diffuse a lot of the suspicion about Catholics.
  • 1778 - the Papists Act repealed the worst and most discriminatory laws against Catholics but made them take the Oath of Supremacy.
  • 1780 - the Gordon Riots are stirred up by Protestant conspiracy theorists who insist that a Catholic plot to take over the country is afoot.
  • 1791- the Roman Catholic Relief Act allowed Catholics to enter the legal profession, relieved them from taking the Oath of Supremacy and granted toleration for their schools and places of worship.
  • 1829 - the Roman Catholic Relief Act is the culmination of a series of laws aimed at ending discrimination against Roman Catholics in the British Isles (including my native Ireland).
  • 1845 - 1849 - the Irish potato famine brings a flood of migrants/refugees to England, provoking sectarian hysteria. 
  • 1850 - the re-establishment of the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy in England provokes a paranoid response in the British media.
  • 2004 - the accession of Poland to the EU brings many thousands of Polish Catholics into Britain

Why Gorton?


Gorton is an area of Manchester which lies to the South-East of the city centre. Between 1851 and 1861, the population more than doubled to almost 10,000 due to the influx of Irish people fleeing the Potato Famine and the establishment of railway works and cotton mills. This industry had petered out by the 1980s, prompting the dislocation of the communities served by the local churches as the people went looking for employment elsewhere. In the 1970s the Irish community scattered across the city as the city council purchased and demolished the endless rows of terraces and the community attending the Monastery declined.

The building


Franciscan monks arrived in December 1861 and built their friary between 1863 and 1867. Most of the building work was actually done by the friars themselves. In 1866 the building of St Francis Monastery began. It was designed by architect Edward Welby Pugin, and is considered one of his great masterpieces. The Monastery is Grade II* listed and was put on the World Monuments Fund Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World in 1997.

The service


The Franciscans ran 3 schools, a theatre group, brass band, choir, youth club, successful football teams and numerous other activities for the community but when local industries went into decline, so did the membership. The monks vacated the buildings in 1989 and the buildings fell into disrepair.

The revival


In 1996 Elaine Griffiths MBE and her husband Paul began the movement that created the Monastery of St Francis and Gorton Trust, with the aid of volunteers. It was established as a building preservation trust to find new sustainable uses for Gorton Monastery and to support wider community work in Gorton. One of the main conditions of funding grants that it receives is that it has to do good in the community and use the building for the benefit of the community. To that end it delivers local education, training, enterprise, arts, health, restorative justice, cultural and community projects in Gorton, using its main hall and extensions. It is open to the public and can actually be hired for a variety of purposes.

Renovation works are ongoing as efforts are made to retrieve or recreate artifacts and architectural features lost during vandalism before the restoration could begin.

You can find out more about the Monastery (okay, it's a Friary, but what's the difference, eh?) in a book called "Beggars and Builders," which was published in 2011. Buy it on Amazon or from the website.

Why is this a big deal?


If we don't have history, we don't have tradition, culture, and all that goes with it. To lose a tangible artifact of our heritage is to lose a part of ourselves that we can never get back. Bob Marley expressed it best in Buffalo Soldier when he sang,

If you know your history,
Then you would know where you coming from,
Then you wouldn't have to ask me,
Who the 'eck do I think I am.

Why is this a big deal for me?


Knowing and understanding the history of my Anglo-Irish heritage has helped me to come to terms with being on the Protestant side of the sectarian divide in the Republic of Ireland. I grew up in an era when  Catholics had but recently emerged from a state of persecution and suppression to self-determination and as such my co-religionists were regarded as the bad guys. Visiting the Monastery helped to bring the English side of the story to life — it was a living history lesson that helped me see my own existence in the context of a history I am personally involved in, and that continues to unfold.

We should be proud of our history and protect our heritage because, for better or for worse, it explains to us and to everyone else who we are, where we came from, and how we got here. If you can get to Gorton and visit the Monastery, by all means do so. I'm sure you will be glad you did.

*I'm not Catholic, I was born into a Protestant household and continue to take a Bible-based approach to my faith.
**Thanks, Wikipedia!

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