David Adamson tours the iconic building and sits in on Manchester Camerata's Music Cafe
When new developments across the city show their first green shoots in planning documents, there's often a communal space front-loaded with phrases like 'sanctuary' and 'congregate', speaking to an understanding that places need to soothe as well as shelter.
While much of our world is now more secularised, the need for buildings that lend spiritual succour is more apparent than ever, and the soothing aesthetics and pleasing eye-lines of coffee shop lobbies and co-working spaces is just not enough.
One such building sits in the heart of Gorton, an area of East Manchester that has more than struggled with the post-industrial years other parts of the city have since climbed out of. Gorton Monastery, once perilously close to no longer existing, now stands proudly, and a little out of time, in an area that is still largely underserved.
If we, along with local people and volunteers, can save this masterpiece and turn it around then anything's possible.
Ahead of attending the Manchester Camerata's Music Cafe for those with dementia, I was given a tour of the building by Elaine Griffths OBE, Chief Executive of The Manchester Monastery, who explained the character of the building in relation to two figures; St Francis of Assisi and the building's architect, Edward Welby Pugin, whose father Augustus designed the Houses of Parliament.
"It was a Franciscan church and friary," said Elaine. "And St. Francis, in the Catholic Church, was known for working with animals and the planet - he preached to the birds and tamed the wolf and there's lovely stories that we get told as children about how kind St. Francis was, and he's also patron saint of the environment, which of course is so relevant now.
"We have inherited a building that looks after not only people, but actually the living world and the planet, so we're trying to do everything with the same Franciscan values. Obviously we're no longer a church - the building was deconsecrated and turned off when the friars were pensioned in 1989 - but we've inherited the values and that's what local people want; for us to have those same values and principles
"For somebody of Pugin's status to have one of his finest architectural masterpieces here in Gorton is incredible for Manchester. So much so that when it was derelict it got listed as one of the 100 most endangered sites in the world because of its context that it was in a really rundown working class area at the time, and it should have been saved.
"Had it been anywhere else, like a rural setting, it would probably be a National Trust property. But because it was here it took a lot of fighting to try and get that support. We've always tried to use the regeneration of the building as a kind of catalyst for the area more generally, and if we, along with local people and volunteers can save this masterpiece and turn it around then anything's possible."
That regeneration, which saw the derelict building purchased for £1 in 1997 and funding rejected for being 'too uncommercial' (then 'too commercial') before being granted in 2003 ahead of over a decade of work, has certainly taken time and devotion. In turn, the monastery now devotes weekdays to community health projects while ensuring those essential funds remain through weekend events like weddings.
"We mustn't underestimate the power of these buildings to make us feel good," explained Elaine. "Whether you've got any religious beliefs or not, it just affects you. We all need that for our own health and wellbeing, to be in places like this. This is about a collaboration, whether that's the Camerata or Active Health Group or other partners, it's about inviting people in. Not everything is medical, you don't always need antidepressants, there's quite often more ways of getting well; come and sing with the choir or paint with the art group. There's so much we can do to help lift people's spirits.
"We don't want to be competing with grassroots charities either, which is why we've said to quite a lot of groups, 'come in and do it here, let's share'. We can all help each other. We do have to respect the past but we're standing on the shoulders of people that've gone before like Pugin and those amazing Franciscan brothers who looked after the community. We look at how we can do that in a way that's relevant for today. It was originally built to serve the people and now it's doing it again."
The faint sound of piano then began to emerge from the great nave of the monastery, signalling the start of the Music Cafe held by Manchester Camerata. An open and free session of improvised music, it was set up to help those living with dementia and their carers enjoy respite and reconnect with their memories, and each other, through music.
I took a seat next to the Camerata's Head of Community, Lizzie Hoskin, who described how music creates a bridge in the mind, something just outside of memory or association, and sometimes the results can be hugely uplifting.
"It unlocks them," she said, as we both watched a nearby elderly gent, Bernard, striking a xylophone. "It brings them back, even just for a little while. Dementia can be this alternative universe that we don't have access to, except for when we use music and we get these little windows into their worlds.
"It's an honour because while they're not necessarily vulnerable they're at a very vulnerable stage of life. You're at such an important stage in theirs and their family's lives. There's someone who's in palliative care now who used to come every week with his wife. She said he's at the end of his life but you gave him some really amazing times and quality of life. So it's an honour. There's also a few tears."
The Camerata pianist then began to play Habanera from Bizet's Carmen, surely one of the most recognisable refrains in music. Bernard, until now hammering away with free expression, started striking the staccato rhythm in near-perfect time. While those notes played he was taken back to somewhere, and wherever it was I felt privileged to see him go there.
Thankfully developers can't bottle the sense of sanctuary that Gorton Monastery gives, because it has been earned through a devotion to what the building obviously means to people.
A little out of place and a little out of time, Gorton Monastery is a testament to the enduring values of kindness, tolerance and the joys of a spiritual life; somewhere to soothe the soul.
Gorton Monastery, 89 Gorton Ln, M12 5WF
For more information on the community projects, classes, workshops and events held at Gorton Monastery, visit their website
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