A CHILL WIND WHIPS down Piccadilly; past the coal-black facade of once grand hotels and the Victorian opulence of civic buildings. Manchester shivers; wide, open streets and squares scorched clear by the icy air. No one ambles; we are Lowry's men and women, swathed figures, heads down, rushing angled against the cold.
Buffeted on, coat billowing, my hands are chapped red. Stepping down a side alley, the wind abates and warmth floods back to beleaguered fingers. Follow the Victorian twists and turns and this narrow lane emerges into a back street. The church of St Mary, the 'Hidden Gem', sits quietly on the street front; three shallow steps lead up to a tiny porch of stained wood and coloured glass; you have to step back to admire the slender tower, the intricate brick work and the simple curved balustrade.
The church was founded in 1794 and rebuilt 50 years later, its primary function to serve the poor and the dispossessed who lived in the impoverished district between Deansgate and Albert Square. In 1790 there were 600 Catholics in Manchester, by 1845 100,000 served by just 12 priests.
In the 1840's, Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Marx of the poverty and desperation 'in these ruinous and filthy districts'; this 'most demoralised class of all Manchester' formed the basis of his treatise cm. the conditions of the English working people.
The rapid industrialisation of the city and the famine in Ireland brought increasing numbers to Manchester. Doctors wouldn't venture into the slum areas, so it was the priests who carried the medicine, who comforted the sick and the dying and who in turn died with their people. In 1838, 24 Catholic priests died from fever in a little over 12 months.
Famous amongst the priests who worked for the poor was Fr Henry Gillow He was one of the first English clergymen to argue in favour of trade unionism or 'combination' as it was then called as the only real form of protection to working people. In a sensitive political climate he advocated equal pay and the right to strike. Pale and slight, he cut a delicate figure in his knee breeches and buckled shoes. When he died from typhus in 1837, the poor brought the centre of the city to a standstill for his funeral.
Fr Gilley: never saw his rebuilt church. It is beautiful. Inside there is an overwhelming sense of peace and tranquillity: silent prayer, heads bowed, the soft tap of worn rosary beads. Two tall, tapering candles illuminate the altar; the sanctuary light flickering red. A simple monstrance holds the Blessed Sacrament.
The high altar is exquisite: muted colours of pale marble and Caen Stone layer upon layer of statuary adoring angels and noble saints encircle a tabernacle of gold and scarlet. To the right of the altar is the shrine of 'Our Lady of Manchester'; the cold marble folds of her gown catch the light of the flickering candles, warmed in their scented heat. To the left, the Pieta chapel and altar, pale and mournful.
The 14th century baptismal font stands to the side. Carved marble panels, mellow ochre and faded pink, depict biblical scenesthe anointing of David, the baptism of Christ.
A soft light filters down from the cupola and windows, the afternoon sunshine picking out the intricate patterns, the lemon, rose and lime decoration of the glass. The words of the `Magnificat' encircle the church in gold. Face away from the altar and the large rose window above the public gallery casts light on polished pews.
It is some moments before I am aware of the Stations of the Cross. Surprisingly so. Norman Adams' large, bright and infamous images are uncompromising. Yet I am struck by the fact that they do not consume the space, do not overpower the history and tradition of this little church.
The old Stations of the Cross had degenerated beyond repair. Parish priest Fr Denis Clinch took the brave and controversial decision to commission something completely new: "I wrote to Sr Wendy Beckett. She sent me six names for consideration. It was the easiest and the hardest thing to do, but Norman Adams just stood out."
Adams considers the stations to be the greatest work of his life and Fr Clinch is moved by the artist's inspiration: "He is not a Catholic but he is a great Christian man close to the history of God. It is wonderful that, as we approach the millennium, our thoughts should be raised up. So often we are kept at a safe distance. We retreat from sin in the world. We fail to face up to it. Be it torture in a cellar in Fr Clinch rails against those who would dismiss these images, arguing that it takes time to understand and appreciate the depth and beauty of this art. We move to Simon of Cyrene taking up Christ's cross: "The relief of Christ as Simon takes the burden; the agony of the passion; the movement from the violence of the red through to the numbness of grey".
Adams concentrates primarily on Our Lord's head as the focus for the suffering and redemption. The depiction of Christ in His mother's arms is deeply moving; the gentleness of her hand and soft tilt of her head: "The Church is His body; He is its head. Christ is either in us or through us or he's not in this world at all." says Fr Clinch. Love or hate Adams' depiction of the passion, you cannot ignore it.
Fr Clinch has overseen the major restoration works to the Hidden Gem. The church was crumbling, eaten away with dry rot. Formerly a priest with the Catholic Missionary Society he has brought a vigour and determination to his parish ministry. He preaches with eloquence, argues with vehemence and battles against mammon. TS Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins and articles from The Times and The Telegraph pepper the Sunday homilies.
Fr Dominic Barbieri, who received Newman into the Catholic Church, and Fr George Spencer Passionist Convert and ancestor of the Princess of Wales preached here. Gigli and McCormack have sung at Mass. "This is a very holy place," says Fr Clinch. Prayer becomes part of the stone, part of the church. It's bound to. Think of all the broken hearts that have been mended here. Isn't this why the Church blesses everything?"
Off Deansgate, archaeologists recently unearthed an amphora from the second century. Scratched on the side was a Latin cryptogram; when deciphered, this yielded in Latin the words 'Our Father' in the shape of a cross with an Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End the secret symbol of early Christians. The Hidden Gem by its very presence in this city, links us to that faith. It is, in the words of the Salford Almanac 1898, the 'Bright prophet of the future as preacher of the past'.