Lorraine Worsley-Carter discovers the story behind Gorton Monastery and how a gift from Salford is adding to its history
In the 1950’s a courting couple would meet by the Church of St Francis, always known locally as ‘The Monastery.’ The boy, my brother, would walk a mile or two from his home in Gorton and the girl, my sister-in-law, would walk a mile or two from her house in Ardwick. Sixty years on and the only venue that we, as a family, chose for their blessing and to give thanks for their 60th wedding anniversary, was of course the Monastery.
Certainly, my childhood memories of living in Gorton always included the Monastery, it was very much part of the fabric of our neighbourhood – my father would walk past it on his way to Beyer and Peacock and my mother would sometimes take me to play in Gorton Park across the road. None of our family were of the Roman Catholic faith, we had no past history of worship, but that didn’t even enter our heads, it was ‘The Monastery’ and it was just ‘there.’
We had no idea that Edward Pugin, one of the leading architects of the day and whose father Augustus was the architect for the Houses of Parliament, was commissioned to design and build the imposing church and friary on Gorton Lane. It seems incongruous that his highly sort after services was commissioned by a handful of Belgian Franciscan monks in 1863, but miracles do happen and Pugin designed the building and costs were met. The mid 1800’s was a time of stark contrasts of wealth to some and extreme poverty to others, but it was also the time of the reunification of the Catholic Church in England and of Manchester’s rapid expansion as the world’s first industrialised city. The completion of the Monastery could not have come at a more auspicious time as it coincided with a social and economic change for Gorton.
The Franciscans left the site in 1989 and after a failed attempt by a developer to convert the buildings into apartments, the building was finally handed over to the care of the Monastery of St Francis and Gorton Trust in 1996 after years of neglect.
This grade II* listed former Franciscan church and friary would have been lost forever, if Elaine Griffiths, along with her husband Paul, hadn’t had the vision and commitment to become the new custodians of this remarkable building, and in 1996, start a project that became an all-consuming labour of love for the next quarter of a century.
A Sanctuary of Peace and Healing has been opened at the Monastery to mark the 25th anniversary of the Charitable Trust. The Sanctuary is another milestone to further enhance the Trust’s long-held ambition to be a ‘Modern Day’ Monastery supporting the needs of our wider community. The healing sanctuary provides a quiet place to escape from the hustle, bustle, and strain of daily life.
This pioneering new service, heralded as a game changer in supporting people with mental health issues, has been co-created by the Trust’s team and in house psychologist and psychotherapist, in an effort to plug a gap in resources for those needing a place to come and be heard.
The Sanctuary offers free counselling and listening services, opens every Sunday to Thursday with an hour’s silence from 12 noon. Slots need to be booked via The Monastery’s website but there are plans for group drop-in sessions on Tuesdays.
The Sanctuary spaces are located in the Old Refectory, former Pantry, and heritage corner of The Monastery, where the Franciscan Brothers have fed, supported, and looked after the local community since Victorian times. There is a community café and an area for wellbeing activities.
It is a well known saying that good things come to those who wait. For many years, The Trust custodians have wished to reinstate an organ after the original one, installed in 1888, was stripped out and sold for scrap when the Monastery was sold to developers.
Some might consider it serendipitous that Elaine Griffiths, received a certain call in 2020. received a letter from David Emery, the treasurer and organist at Patricroft Methodist Church in Eccles, Salford. The church had closed, and the Monastery was being offered their organ at no cost other than paying for the removal and installation in the Monastery’s organ loft. Remarkably the Patricroft church organ was made by Wadsworth, the same firm who made the Monastery’s, it was only a few years older and similar to the one the building had lost. The Monastery of St Francis and Gorton Trust is now setting up the Wadsworth Organ Appeal to raise £100,000 to cover the cost of dismantling, repairing, reconfiguring, and rebuilding the Victorian instrument which has almost 1,000 pipes.
A quarter of a century ago the great-great-grandson of author, Charles Dickens, the late Christopher Charles Dickens, a professional organ restorer would talk of his fond memories of the Monastery’s Wadsworth Victorian organ and was keen for it to be replaced. He became the first patron of The Monastery of St Francis and Gorton Trust and in his will, he asked for donations to various charities, many of whom Charles Dickens had setup, and there, at the end of the list, was the Monastery of St Francis and Gorton Trust.
Elaine Griffiths says: “In recent years the idea of replacing the organ hadn’t been a priority, but when this opportunity arose, we couldn’t turn it down. It’s a beautiful piece of Victorian heritage and we know it will sound magnificent when played to its full brilliance in the Great Nave. It will be wonderful to host organ recitals and see brides walk down the aisle to the sound of an organ once more. We now need to raise the funds to ensure the Monastery can be filled with organ music as the Franciscans had intended. Organs are having a revival and, if funds allow, we can add some digital technology to allow it to be played remotely. Our volunteer and trustee, Janet Wall work told me that Widor’s Toccata was the last piece of music played in the Monastery before it closed in 1989. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if, once reinstated, it was also the first piece to be played on our ‘new’ organ.”
You can watch the organ being played in Patricroft Methodist Church in Eccles by David Emery in the video below:
The story of Elaine and Paul’s journey to try and save and to succeed in saving this monster of a building is worthy of a book and in my opinion, a film too! I am delighted to impart that, to coincide with the 25th Anniversary of The Monastery of St Francis & Gorton Trust, the charity the couple set up, Elaine chief executive of The Monastery, has indeed written a book. The book tells the complete 150-year story of Gorton Monastery from the arrival of the Franciscans in Manchester to the Modern-Day monastery.
TRUST, The Story of Gorton Monastery, is one woman’s extraordinary journey over 25 years, not only to restore Manchester’s ‘Taj Mahal’ but to secure its future. It is a frank, very personal account of the setbacks, despair, breakthroughs, and small miracles that changed Elaine and Paul’s life and touched the lives of thousands more. The book is a fascinating first-person account of the decline, dereliction, and revival of one of Manchester’s most historic buildings.
The 176-page hardback book with more than three hundred images, which would sit comfortably on any coffee table, is edited by photographer, sketcher and author Len Grant, a long-time supporter of The Monastery.
Elaine says: “We simply couldn’t have called the book anything else. It was trust that carried us through these 25 years. We put our trust in the building and the building put its trust in us. I am so grateful to have had custody of this precious heritage site for so long.
“As we come to the end of this very important chapter in the Monastery’s history and the dramatic impact of the covid pandemic, the Monastery’s charitable work is more important than ever before. We hope the book prompts happy memories for all those who love the Monastery as much as we do.”
For me, one quote in the book really resonates, it is from Elaine “That first experience as I turned the corner and walked into the nave will stay with me forever.”
The book’s editor, Len Grant adds: “It’s been a privilege to work with Elaine on this important book that documents not only the restoration of a magnificent building but also reflects on its importance to the local community over the decades. Gorton Monastery is a special place for so many – my own grandparents were married there – and through Elaine and Paul’s unfaltering commitment, it will continue to be significant in many more people’s lives for years to come.”
Paul and Elaine Griffiths both are holders of the honour of OBE, and both are Deputy Lieutenants of Greater Manchester, they remain two of the most self-effacing , visionaries that I have ever had the pleasure to meet.
I cannot wait to show the book to those two young lovers, now in their 80’s, who used to meet outside the Monastery, and I know they will cherish every wonderful page. Books are often known as ‘page turners’ however the beauty of the pictures, the capture of so much social history, and the honesty of the writer draws me to linger longer on the pages and to experience the feeling of wonder, respect and awe, not only of this amazing building, and its fascinating story, but of the people who made that story come to life.
Priced at £25, the book, beautifully designed by Len Grant’s long-time collaborator Alan Ward is available to purchase from The Monastery’s website.
The Grade II * Monastery’s £6.5 million restoration was funded by major grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, European Regional Development Fund, English Heritage, and private donations. Northwest Regional Development Agency (NWDA) and the Architectural Heritage Fund.
The Monastery’s Welcome Café, visitor tours, talks, community activities, heritage facilities, gardens and shop will be open as normal. Entry and parking is free.
For more information and to book a slot with the counselling or listening service visit www.themonastery.co.uk.
For more information about The Monastery and how to donate, visit the Trust’s website or call +44 (0)161 223 3211.
Donations to the Wadsworth Organ Appeal can be made through the Just Giving page or via the Monastery’s website.