Page 1, 18th January 2008

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Page 1, 18th January 2008 — Race to save Westminster Cathedral
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Race to save Westminster Cathedral

• Damage could force Cathedral to close • Cardinal launches urgent £3 million appeal

BY MARK GREAVES WESTMINSTER CATHEDRAL

could close within a decade unless urgent repair work costing millions of pounds is carried out, it emerged this week.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor has appealed for £3 million to fund repairs to the Cathedral's domes and to replace the Titanic-era heating and electrical systems.

Leaks have crept into the domes and left white stains on the ceiling, while the mortar that holds the bricks together has become dry and crumbly. The wiring, too, is dangerous as well as unsightly, according to Mgr Mark Langham, the Cathedral Administrator.

Restoration plans were put into place after surveyors inspected the Cathedral for the first time in decades.

The work is expected to last for two or three years and will preserve the building for half a century.

It will enable the Cathedral to open the upper-level gallery after 20 years of disuse and will boost the seating ' capacity by an extra 400.

Cardinal MurphyO'Connor said that "urgent action" was needed to ensure that the Cathedral could be passed on to future generations.

"Westminster Cathedral has been a symbol of the Catholic presence at the heart of our nation for over 100 years," the Cardinal said. "It is a Grade I listed building that is recognised as one of the finest examples of Victorian architecture and Byzantine art in the world.

"However, time has taken its toll and we must now take urgent action to ensure the future of this living house of prayer," he said. "Westminster does not charge an admission fee. It receives no financial aid from the Government, or from the Vatican, but is dependent on voluntary donations to pay for its ninning costs. Our parishioners do all that they can, but it is neither just nor realistic to expect them to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining the Cathedral alone."

The first phase of the restoration work is set to run from Easter to Advent and will focus mainly on repairing the brickwork of three of the four domes.

Scaffolding will be put up and a machine called the "cherry-picker" will move workmen to different parts of the ceiling on its flexible steel arm.

Next year, if there is enough funding, the turnof-the-century electrical system will be updated along with the drains. The deteriorated condition of the wiring was brought to officials' attention last month when the lights went out and the sound system failed just before the Cathedral's Christmas Celebration.

The building is heated by a vast underground heating system which is outmoded and hugely inefficient. The renovation work should dramatically increase its efficiency.

Mgr Langham said that the Cathedral could close within 10 years unless the work is carried out but he admitted that bricks were "not about to drop on people's heads". "It is prudent, a matter of good husbandry, to do it now. For all sorts of reasons it could not be left for another 10 or 20 years," he said.

The Cathedral will also introduce wheelchair access and put up No Smoking signs at each entrance in order to comply with new legislation.

Mgr Langham said the legislation should not be viewed as "onerous".

"The Cathedral should be accessible to all people. It is right that we operate to those standards," he said.

Mgr Langham will lead the fundraising effort along with Charles Donington, the fundraising manager, and Christina White, director of the Friends of Westminster Cathedral.

He said: "Raising £3 million will be an immense challenge, but it is important to remember that it was only possible to build Westminster Cathedral because 100 years ago people within the Catholic community wanted a magnificent house of prayer and were prepared to pay for it.

"Our task today is to find people with a similar level of commitment. City firms and banks will be approached but equally we hope individual parishioners and Catholics everywhere will help."

The patrons of the cam paign are Patricia Routledge CBE, who played Hyacinth Bucket in the television series Keeping Up Appearances, and the author Sir Roy Strong. Both are committed Anglicans. Sir Roy has served as the high bailiff at Westminster Abbey and Ms Routledge's brother was the canon residential at St Paul's Cathedral.

Long-standing supporters of the Cathedral have already pledged their support and a private fundrais ing dinner has been scheduled for tonight. The Cathedral was expected to hold a meeting with parishioners yesterday to explain why the appeal had been launched.

The fundraising programme could include pop, jazz and classical concerts as well as sporting events. Grant applications will be made to a number of bodies, including English Heritage, and a professional fundraiser may be employed.

But Mgr Langham stressed that the Cathedral would never introduce turnstiles to cover the costs.

"I'd prefer to close the building than to charge," he said. "A cathedral that is not freely open to all is not a cathedral. I think that most Catholics would agree with that."

Mgr Langham pointed out that none of the £3 million would be used to fund decorations to the Cathedral.

Gold, glass and marble mosaics cover only 12 per cent of the building but more will be added.

"Our priority must be to have something to put the mosaics on," said Mgr Langham.

He explained in a statement: "The Cathedral is the focal point for Catholics throughout England and Wales and its mission is to manifest and promote the Catholic faith and its values within our society. We want it to inspire the worshipper and casual visitor with a sense of the presence of God.

"But none of these goals can be achieved if we do not attend to repairing and modernising the fabric of the building."

Westminster Cathedral was designed by the Victorian architect John Francis Bentley and consecrated in 1903. It was paid for entirely by voluntary donations and took only eight years to build.

Now over 30,000 people visit the Cathedral every month.

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