Over the years many things have helped to shape and define Manchester, including, and in no particular order: the weather, football, cotton, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, coal, the Luftwaffe, the Manchester Ship Canal, music, rich people, poor people, poor people who became rich people, foreign people, 24 hour party people…and religion.
That last one’s not so fashionable these days, is it? Yet any attempt to account for the development of the city without recognising the role religion has played within it would be incomplete. So, given all that, today I shall mostly be writing about the largest church in Manchester – the Holy Name.
It’s a beautiful day when I revisit the Holy Name. The building glows gently in the early evening sunlight, the product of brushed Warwick stone and great architectural foresight. This warm yellow radiance is welcoming and instantly sets the church apart from the usual ecclesiastical suspects. No cold grey stone here, nor soulless post-war concrete. In fact this cordial colouration beckons to the passer by, soothing any fears that may arise as a result of the building’s forbidding size (it was built to the scale of a 14th century French cathedral) as well as triggering the impulse of curiosity within their souls. As I take my first pictures, the idiosyncratic chimes of the church’s 15 bells, which can play 20 different hymns on command, sound out across the precincts of Manchester University which completely envelop it.
It wasn’t always like this. When the church was built, between 1869 and 1871, the University was still several years away from its move to Oxford Road and this area was taken up with rows of terrace houses and, in some places, there were some open fields. Those fields disappeared almost as rapidly the population density rose and, although poverty still stalked the parish and the wider city, in truth the apocalyptic squalor famously described by Friedrich Engels some 30 years earlier had generally receded.
The North West of England has always been a place where God matters. Here, in the face of the Protestant Reformation, the old faith held on in numbers while still managing to be a veritable hotbed of nonconformity. The long road to Catholic emancipation in Britain gathered pace in the 19th century and as Manchester grew so did freedom of worship and association. The rise of Cottonopolis also saw a huge influx of Irish Catholic immigrants and, by the end of the 1860s, Bishop Turner considered Manchester to be ready once again to see a great building raised in the city by the heirs of St Peter. And he knew just the men for the job.
It is not for nothing that The Society of Jesus has been called the shock troops of the Pope. The Jesuits, as they are better known, have a formidable reputation for both intellectual rigour and pioneering missionary work, especially among the poor. And for Bishop Turner they were the logical choice to build Manchester’s new church, and it is they who christened it ‘The Church Holy Name of Jesus’. The architect, Joseph Aloysius Hansom (the designer of the famous Hansom Cab) designed the building in the French Gothic style (Gothic was the architectural style of choice in Victorian Manchester). The new church rose quickly despite the stonemasons striking for “eight-hours and eight bob a day” and two years after breaking ground the bare church was consecrated.
As I cross the threshold into the sacred space I’m immediately grateful for the cool air and the peace and quiet. Given the grand exterior, the interior of the church is not as ornate as the visitor might expect. The statuary and mosaic arts are well represented but they do not overwhelm the senses and instead exist as islands of beauty within the church, which is otherwise plain terracotta and unadorned with plaster. In this respect the building is very much influenced by the lessons of the counter-Reformation and when the eye is drawn it is drawn with a purpose. Individually these islands of beauty are intended to show artistic endeavour allied to skilled craftsmanship: a visual hymn in praise of God. Collectively they draw your attention, as does the overall design, to the high altar and tabernacle where the building’s spiritual power accumulates into a transcendent critical mass.
Hansom also designed the altar which was reputedly finished at 11 o’clock on Christmas Eve 1886, just in time for midnight mass. The upper part is made from Caen stone imported from Normandy, while the rest is Derbyshire alabaster with the traceries on the tabernacle made from Russian malachite. The relief at the front of the altar is a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous mural The Last Supper.
Some years ago I worked nearby and at odd times I would come here and sit quietly in the pews, gazing up at the ornate beauty of the ambulatory, marvelling at God’s light falling gently through the vast stained glass windows. It would be romantically apposite to claim that some spiritual epiphany drove me there, or that I was in sudden need of great solace, but the truth is I could have done that job standing on my head and so very occasionally I fled to the church simply to escape the mind-numbing boredom of my working day. After all, beauty is never boring and there’s a lot to be said for the peace to be found in quiet, spiritual places. Now and again I’d fall asleep there, and a quick daytime kip is always refreshing.
The Jesuits and their mission thrived in the world’s first industrial city and as the church grew so did the range of activities undertaken in its name. In the time-honoured fashion of their order the Fathers founded schools as well as other educational groups and societies, which did much to lift the scourge of ignorance and illiteracy. And at a time when the welfare state was only a dream, the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, together with a legion of other Catholic charities and associations, tended to the temporal needs of the parish, helping the sick, the aged and the lonely.
Later they acquired a building in Cecil Street which they called Ozanam House. Here they gave decent accommodation to the destitute old who had been forgotten in the great industrial haste and consigned to live out their remaining days in single squalid rooms or bare attics. They also fed and clothed as many of the poor as they could, especially when the shadow of the Great Depression fell across the country.
I progress slowly around the great building following the Stations of the Cross, mindful not to disturb the faithful at their devotions. High above them at the western end of the church there is a large choir loft (it can hold 120 people) in the middle of which sits a vast and beautiful organ. Higher still stand two golden angels, trumpeters, on permanent watch. It occurs to me that in all the times I’ve been here I’ve never heard that organ played. Then – and I promise you this is true – a tired and heat-exhausted man dressed in office attire appears. He unlocks the door to the loft stairs and disappears, reappearing a minute or so later at the organ, which he plays for the next 20 minutes with great skill and a surprising lightness of touch. Glorious!
In 1893 a large parish hall was built around the corner on Portsmouth Street, a rather splendid red brick building which boasted a gym, billiard hall, meeting rooms, reference library and a large hall suitable for dances. In fact, the hall was also used for concerts and was home to a very active dramatic society, playing to packed houses. Other societies were born, including a literary and debating society as well as clubs for football, cricket, cycling and rambling. A lending library was added to compliment the reference section, and a Penny Savings Bank created to encourage financial prudence and combat usury.
The years rolled by. The Irish continued to come, with the promise of a new life that was within touching distance of the old one, and their sons and daughters had sons and daughters of their own. The parish, like the city, continued to grow and, in 1905, amid great enthusiasm and optimism, a Catholic Boys Brigade was formed. When, less than two decades later, the church’s memorial to the fallen in The Great War was unveiled, many of their names were inscribed upon it.
A boxing club was formed around this time along with Scouts, Guides and Rangers. But perhaps the most impressive addition of all in the inter-war period was that of the tower. When the church was first built it was not considered technically possible for the site to support the added weight of such a thing but by the 1920s new materials and building techniques make the completion of the church possible. And from 1928 the tower was established as a familiar feature on the Manchester skyline.
The Fathers came and went too, including a certain Father Francis Irwin who during the war had been an Army Chaplin. It was Father Irwin who obtained a number of jackdaws with a view to taming them. It was his notion to house them permanently in the church tower but the birds had their own ideas and the experiment was not a great success. Indeed, one of them made its home in a nearby pub. Alas, its tenure was brief as it soon died, apparently from alcoholic poisoning.
The shadow of war returned and the church, like so many other buildings in the city, suffered from the attentions of the Luftwaffe. The young men of the parish once again put on uniforms and went to war. They were joined by Fathers Howell and Reeves who become chaplains in the services. Other German attention ultimately proved more enduring when the renowned Nikolaus Pevsner visited the church and called it “a design of the very highest quality and of an originality nowhere demonstrative;…Hansom never again did so marvellous a church”.
The splitting of the atom ended six brutal, exhausting years of conflict and a new dawn lit the stones of the church, soot stained by the fires of the blitz and decades of coal fuelled industry. The country was exhausted and chronically short of the workers it needed to rebuild itself. And so the 50s and 60s brought another wave of Irish immigration to the city, and during the latter decade my mother stood before the altar in this church and entered into matrimony, as one after another did her beloved sisters.
But the houses hereabouts were beginning to disappear, replaced by buildings that served the ever expanding University; and the boarding houses in which young Irish men and woman, fresh off the boat, found their first lodgings were increasingly occupied by students. In 1992 the Holy Name formally ceased to be a parish church and became instead a chaplaincy to the enormous University. Consequently, the parish hall was sold off and began a new life as a pub, handily close to the lecture halls and tutorial rooms.
It was also around this time that dark rumours about the church’s imminent closure began to circulate, rumours that provoked outrage among the faithful and the not quite so faithful. The Jesuits did depart but the church was saved from transformation into student flats when the fathers of the Oratory order took their place. Bless them for that. Now they in turn have departed and the Jesuits have returned and I, like many others who love this place, welcome their return. But the sting of their withdrawal some 20 years ago has not entirely faded, so in my own mind I’ve put them on probation and we’ll see how they’re doing in say, another 100 years.
In the meantime, if you find yourself strolling along Oxford Road do visit the church and, when you’re done with the sightseeing, have a bit of an old sit down. It’s a quiet, peaceful place and, if you let it, it’ll give you a bit of that peace too.
Where: 339 Oxford Rd, Manchester
More info: www.holyname.info/