Experiencing History and Heritage at Holy Name

Wednesday 7th October 2020

Theologian, historian and volunteer Adam Brocklehurst writes about his experience of the Heritage Open Day at Church of the Holy Name in September.

Rising like a graceful beacon high above Oxford Road, the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus Christ first opened its doors in 1871 and for nearly a hundred and fifty years has been the locus for Catholic worship not only for many native Mancunians, but also for a large and diverse immigrant population and due to its proximity to the university, a changing community of students.

The annual Heritage Open Day was founded in 1994, as an opportunity to view historic properties rarely open to the public. On Saturday the twelfth of September with Charlie Booth of Manchester Histories (and her team of excellent volunteers) and Jane Hellings of the Jesuits, supported by the permanent community of Jesuits, the Holy Name opened its doors to visitors. While the church is open regularly (nearly every day of the year in pre-Covid-19 days) this gave visitors a rare opportunity to get a deeper understanding of the building, and to explore parts of the church normally off limits.

Joseph Hansom’s masterpiece is a building of national historic and architectural importance, historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described it as “a building of the highest quality”.

The only grade 1 listed Catholic church in Manchester, this magnificent gothic-revival building speaks as much of the confidence of English Catholicism at that time as it does of Manchester during the Victorian era. And it also speaks eloquently of the city’s enduring investment in technology (all the light and space we take for granted was only possible through the utilisation of cutting-edge industrial production and engineering methods).

The current social distancing rules presented some challenges; however, the church is enormous (186 feet long by 112 feet wide), the largest in Manchester, with a capacity for 800 when not under current restrictions.  There was therefore more than enough space for the day’s visitors. And for an added dimension of safety, tours were given by Jane and myself (I’m a historian and theologian by training, a member of the chaplaincy, congregation and a regular volunteer) to small groups and church architect Mark Pierce gave several well-attended talks on the Holy Names’ famous ‘pot vault’ and the restoration of the church in light of climate change, in the spacious east transept.

The day was a great success and brought some respite during the austerity of our current situation, and perhaps provided a model of how our historic buildings might remain open for visitors in the future.

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