Historic, architecturally outstanding and of immense spiritual importance, each of Manchester’s religious heritage sites each has an extraordinary story behind it. With designs inspired by the Alhambra in Spain, ancient church buildings, and the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, these sites have evolved over the years: some still operate as places of worship, others have become museums, visitor attractions and heritage centres. They’ve all played an important part in the history of Manchester and Salford – and continue to be a part of its future, too.
The Monastery in Gorton has, perhaps, been the most at risk: in both 1998 and 2000, the exquisite building was placed on a list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World by World Monuments Watch. The monastery shared the designation with Pompeii and the Taj Mahal, an indication of its architectural importance and the pressing likelihood of its being lost for future generations. The Grade II* building, a shining example of Gothic Revival Style by renowned architect Edward Pugin, was in an extremely dilapidated state: it took 300 people 609 days to conserve the monastery, with 100 miles of scaffolding used during the project. Laid end to end, the poles would have stretched from the site to Hadrian’s Wall. The work was, in some ways, evidence of the cyclical nature of history: the Fransiscan friary had originally been built with the help of volunteers from the local community, completing in 1872.
Manchester Cathedral, https://www.flickr.com/photos/atoach/.
The closest Manchester Cathedral came to complete destruction was in 1940, when a World War II bomb destroyed the north east of the building, causing extensive damage throughout. The structure ended up being the most damaged English cathedral after Coventry, and took nearly 20 years to restore. Prior to this, the ancient fabric – which dates back 700 years – had been periodically altered and repaired, sometimes stone for stone. Manchester Cathedral has links to other decisive moments in British history, too: in 1481, the Warden of the Collegiate Church was James Stanley, whose eldest brother, Sir Thomas Stanley, married Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudory. The Stanley brothers were instrumental in the Battle of Bosworth Field, which marked the start of the Tudor dynasty.
Manchester Jewish Museum
Manchester Jewish Museum, meanwhile, is entering an exciting new phase in its history: the Grade II* listed synagogue has undergone a multi million-pound restoration project, with the site doubling in size to include a new gallery, café and shop. The work included repairs to the more than 40 stained glass windows in the building, as well as reinstating the original colour scheme – initially inspired by meditterranean and moorish architecture. First built by Sephardi Jews in 1874 and established as a museum in 1984 after the congregation shifted to the suburbs, the project is the next phase in the continued revival of the building as a key part of the community.
St Mary's Church (the Hidden Gem)
St Mary's Church, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Mdbeckwith
Two sites that are somewhat off the radar next – one of which has actually earned the alias the Hidden Gem. St Mary’s Church on Mulberry Street in Manchester city centre is hemmed in on all sides by more modern buildings, its 18th century facade hidden from the heavy foot traffic on Deansgate. A 1970s Anglican historian was scathing about the encroaching construction, writing that the church was ‘surrounded by the edifices of sophisticated materialism, which is probably more spiritually barren ground than the moral vileness of the 18th century.’ Whether or not you share this damning view, St Mary’s remains an ornate oasis amidst busy streets, and is well worth a visit.
British Muslim Heritage Centre
The British Muslim Heritage Centre, Whalley Range, Manchester. © Peter N. Lindfield.
Also off the beaten track is the British Muslim Heritage Centre in Whalley Range: ringed by walls and mature trees, it’s difficult to spot this Grade II* listed building from the street. Built in 1843 as The Lancashire Independent College for nonconformist Christians, who were excluded from entry to Oxford and Cambridge until 1871, the structure is nonetheless modelled on the colleges at these universities. The college became a hall of residence for the University of Manchester, then a trade union training and conference centre, before £7m was spent on its acquisition and restoration as the British Muslim Heritage Centre.
Salford Cathedral, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Mdbeckwith
The legacy of wealthy textile industrialists, Salford Cathedral was built for just £18,000 between 1844 and 1848. Modelled on medieval churches, parts of the building were copied directly from Howden Minster in the East Riding of Yorkshire, if constructed on a smaller scale. This structure, too, has needed alterations and repairs to its spire, turrets and mosaics over the years – but will have survived to the grand old age of 175 years in 2023.
John Rylands Library
Final mention goes to John Rylands Library – not itself a religious heritage site, but home to the extraordinarily precious Fragment of the Gospel of John. Widely thought of as the earliest part of the New Testament ever discovered, the piece dates back to around 100-150 AD. It’s an incredible artefact to have recovered from history, and well worthy of inclusion in this guide, or any itinerary featuring Manchester’s great religious heritage sites.
By Polly Checkland Harding, Freelance arts copywriter and journalist