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The amazing restoration of Gorton Monastery

PUBLISHED: 18:52 02 September 2015 | UPDATED: 17:11 24 October 2015

Gorton Monastery

Gorton Monastery

glynn ward

Twenty years ago Gorton Monastery was derelict and crumbling but an incredible transformation is almost complete, writes Paul Mackenzie.

The Queen is no stranger to impressive buildings but even she was a little taken aback when she stepped into the Gorton Monastery nave. The landmark building had been neglected for years; its windows broken, lead stolen and walls crumbling. Plans are in place now though for the final phase of a 21 year scheme which has seen the building not only preserved, but restored to its original glory and put back at the heart of the community.

‘When the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited last year, she was walking into the nave and she looked up and said “My goodness me”. She sees some pretty impressive buildings all the time – and she owns quite a few – so for her to react like that was really something and I was touched by that,’ said Paul Griffiths, who is largely responsible for the monastery’s revival.

He was an altar boy here as a seven year old but years later in the mid-1990s on a train journey from Manchester to Leeds he passed the dilapidated monastery. ‘The building looked like it was about to fall down,’ he said. ‘I always thought someone would step in and do something about it but no-one did so I said that evening that we had to do something.’

Paul and his wife Elaine visited the monastery and after lengthy negotiations, the Monastery of St Francis and Gorton Trust they formed agreed to buy the building for a nominal £1. ‘That was the start of the process,’ Paul said. ‘It took almost as long for us to raise the money for the work to begin as it took the friars to build the monastery in the first place.

The team at Gorton MonasteryThe team at Gorton Monastery

‘We have had difficult times and dark days along the way but its wonderful to have reached this stage, where the building is saved and being put to use again. It has been a long journey and we never thought it would take this long but the more we heard people saying it couldn’t be saved, the more determined we became.

‘We never gave up and we were blessed with people who wanted us to succeed. When you’re working flat out for something you believe in people seem to come to your aid when you need them.

‘I grew up round here and went to school in Gorton and I feel very proud of what we have achieved.’

And what Paul, Elaine, their team and a dedicated band of volunteers have achieved is little short of miraculous.

When building work finished in 1872 the church of St Francis was the largest parish church built in England since the Reformation and every bishop in the land was invited to attend its opening.

The church was central to the community in Gorton, with three schools, a youth club and music groups but as the surrounding terrace streets were demolished and large numbers of people moved away from the area in the 1970s, the congregation dwindled. By 1989 only six, mostly elderly, friars remained at Gorton and when they left, the church was sold to property developers who announced plans to convert the building into flats. That failed and the building gradually fell victim to the ravages of time and vandals. Shortly after the Monastery of St Francis and Gorton Trust took ownership of the building they managed to have it listed on the World Monuments Fund’s list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World.

But now, after years of hard work, the building’s jaw-dropping splendour has been restored. Building work on the final phase of the renovation is expected to begin in the autumn and it is hoped that the new front wing will be open towards the end of 2016.

‘The new wing will replace one knocked down by the friars in the 1970s,’ Paul added. ‘At present we are not able to open every day for everyone. If we are hosting a wedding or a dinner or a conference it’s not possible to open to the public but the new wing will enable us to do that.

‘It will give us community facilities, education facilities and training facilities and also allow us to have a space where visitors can learn about the history of the building and the role that Gorton played in the Industrial Revolution.’

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