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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 November, 2003, 14:41 GMT
Italians revolt over church closure

By David Green
BBC News Online, Manchester

One of Manchester's oldest immigrant communities is caught in a battle over plans to close down a Catholic church.

The Bishop of Salford wants to shut St Michael's Church because of falling congregation numbers and a shortage of priests.

St Michael's Church, Ancoats
The church has been standing in Ancoats since 1858

But Italians say its closure would break their community's link with the city's former Little Italy district - the suburb of Ancoats.

Thousands of Italian immigrants flocked to the area's mills in the 19th century to take up jobs in the cotton industry.

But Italians - most of whom have since moved out - now fear their heritage is being replaced by expensive redevelopments which are transforming old industrial buildings into yuppie flats.

The Diocese of Salford has said it makes sense to close the church as it is in a redevelopment area and could have a compulsory purchase order imposed on it.

It is one of 15 churches in the diocese earmarked for closure as part of cost cutting measures.

Serafino di Felice
The bishop may want to close it down, but we have a memory and we are going to fight for it
Serafino di Felice
But Serafino de Felice, of the Italian Heritage Association, said it should remain in the hands of the Italian community.

He said: "We held a meeting at the church to celebrate the Italian community a couple of weeks ago and it was attended by more than 200 people from across the North West.

"Lots of people were baptised or buried here and, with many of the Italians having since moved out of Ancoats, it is one of the last links with our past.

Catholic immigrants

"It was a big parish but it declined. We want to keep it for the Italian community.

"The bishop may want to close it down, but we have a memory and we are going to fight for it."

They are trying to persuade the church to sell or lease the building, which has been standing in George Leigh Street since 1858.

It was built to cater for the Catholic Italian and Irish immigrants, who worked mainly in the area's cotton mills.

As the industrial revolution gathered pace more Italian workers left political and economic turmoil in their homeland behind in search of jobs in the factories.

George Leigh Street, Ancoats, Manchester
Italian immigrants came to Manchester in search of jobs

From around 180 Italian families in 1895 the population grew to about 3,000 people in 1910 and for most of them, St Michaels was their church. There are now about 25,000 people of Italian descent in the Greater Manchester area.

Louis Schiavo, who also grew up in Ancoats, said: "What would it mean to you if your grandmother, great grandfather and father had all been buried, had their funeral, in this church?

"The bishop should have asked his parishioners what their ideas were for the church, what they thought, which he has not done to my knowledge.

"We are worried that this area will all become apartments and there will be nothing left of the Italians."

The Diocese of Salford said "it no longer wanted the church" because of falling congregations.

A spokesman added: "If the Italians want it for a cultural centre they would have to negotiate with the Ancoats Development Agency, although the church would have concerns about respecting the fact that it was a church."

The Ancoats Urban Village Company said it would not stand in the way of the church being turned into a community centre as long as it received a sound business plan first.


SEE ALSO:
Fifteen churches to close
28 Oct 03  |  Manchester
65m boost for 'Little Italy'
18 Sep 03  |  Manchester
Choppy ride for Little Italy
05 Apr 02  |  England


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