Today is the memorial of Saint Francis of Assisi. Twice this year I’ve had the opportunity to visit the former Franciscan friary in Gorton, a working-class suburb just east of the centre of Manchester. The friary is known locally as Gorton Monastery. As the bottom right-hand photograph above shows, the interior of the friary now differs considerably from the opposite photograph, which shows a Pontifical High Mass of Thanksgiving for the centenary of the friary in the late 1960s. After over a century in Manchester (the first Franciscans arrived in 1861) the dwindling community, beset by local economic decline, as well as social, religious, and demographic change, left in 1989, selling the magnificent building complex, designed by the renowned architect Edward Welby Pugin (1834-1875), to a property developer. As plans fell through, so the vacant complex succumbed in the early 1990s to senseless attacks of physical damage, worthy of the iconoclasts of the Reformation era. The friary's rich interior was stripped of anything of real value, altars and statuary were smashed, and the lead roof stripped. By 1997 the friary was listed on the World Monuments Fund of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World, alongside the Taj Mahal and the Valley of the Kings. The friary was eventually sold for £1 to the Gorton Monastery Trust and subsequently underwent a £6 million re-development and (partial) restoration (some of which is ongoing), supported by heritage and other charitable bodies.
The friary is now used for civil weddings, conferences, events, meetings, and so on, and whilst its present life is not that for which Pugin laboured to perfect a friary church with remarkably powerful geometric symmetry and symbolism, harnessing light and space in the service of the sacred worship of Almighty God, it is a blessing that the fabric of the building remains, continues to be loved, and passionately preserved. Its survival, admist so much neglect and abuse, should serve as powerful reminder - to the Church especially - of the enduring value of our built Christian heritage in this country. It should also speak and the duty of care, entrusted by our forefathers (and, in the case of Gorton, paid for by the pennies of the poor), to make use of these sacred buildings, and their appointments, in the manner in which they were intended to be used - for the glory of God, and the salvation of souls (something that the black and white photograph more than adequately proves).
I’ll conclude with one interesting episode in the post-Franciscan life of the friary. The great 17ft cross that hung above the entrance to the sanctuary, carved 140 years ago out of reconstituted stone by one of the Franciscan friars, Father Cuthbert Wood, had been removed in the early 1990s and was in the process of being sold at auction. It was purchased by the Monastery Trust for a reduced amount of £20,000 and happily, after 15 years absence, made its return to the friary. A providential and apposite event, for now the broken and bruised Christ once more looks down upon all those who pass him by in the ruins of his broken and bruised church. May Saint Francis continue to intercede for the people of Gorton that they might indeed come to count the wisdom of the world as foolishness, and know only Jesus Christ and him crucified.
For more information on the present life of Gorton Monastery, visit their website here.
‘[T]he coming of St Francis was like the birth of a child in a dark house, lifting its doom; a child that grows up unconscious of the tragedy and triumphs over it by his innocence. In him it is necessarily not only innocence but ignorance. It is the essence of the story that he should pluck at the green grass without knowing it grows over a murdered man or climb the apple tree without knowing it was the gibbet of a suicide. It was such an amnesty and reconciliation that the freshness of the Franciscan spirit brought to all the world’.
from St Francis of Assisi, 1923, by G.K. Chesterton, 1874-1936
O God, who dost ever delight to reveal thyself to the childlike and lowly of heart: grant that, following the example of blessed Francis, and aided by his prayers; we may count the wisdom of this world as foolishness and know only Jesus Christ and him crucfiied; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. - Divine Worship: The Missal
Fr Lee Kenyon