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The beauty of the Hidden Gem

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Ed Thomas looks round St Mary's Roman Catholic Church, otherwise known as the Hidden Gem

There can be few more apt names for Manchester buildings than the one that is attached to St Mary's Roman Catholic Church - the Hidden Gem.

Nestled into a nook between Lincoln Square and John Dalton Street in the city centre, it has been the major church for the city's Catholics since the late eighteenth century.

Station 2: Jesus receives the cross by Norman Adams
Norman Adams' Stations of The Cross are startling and imaginative depictions of the Passion of Christ

Yet, as important as that mission is, the church has also become known for the beauty of the architecture and the iconography within it.

In particular what stands out are an unique series of modern art paintings of 'The Stations Of The Cross'.

Painted by the late Royal Academy member Norman Adams, who was seen by many the leading British religious painter of the 20th century, the 14 pictures are startling and imaginative depictions of the Passion of Christ .

They are easily the most attention-grabbing things in the church, but by no means the only objects worth seeing, as the church is packed with interesting and beautiful items, most of which date back to long before the installation of Adams' paintings.

A haven for the poor

The Hidden Gem was officially opened in 1794. Intentionally positioned in one of the worst of Manchester's areas, it was built to serve the poorest of the city's population.

It must have been like a beacon of beauty amongst the slums that surrounded it, though much of the church's most eye-catching architecture came later after an unfortunate decision by one of its first priests.

The interior of St Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Manchester
It's like coming in and listening to very great music
Canon Denis Clinch on the pleasing nature of the Hidden Gem's interior

In 1833, Father Henry Gillow decided to re-roof and redecorate the church without employing a master builder to oversee the project.

Two years later, the poor job that had been done led to the roof collapsing, badly damaging the structure of the church.

There were suggestions that a new site should be found for the church, but an outbreak of plague and the death of Father Gillow made the search difficult, and in the end, architect Matthew Ellison Hadfield was given the task of rebuilding St Mary's on the existing site.

Once rebuilt, the church came under the charge of Father John Newton, who is responsible for the commissioning the interior that today's parishioners know.

He employed a Preston sculptor, Mr Lane, to carve the intricately decorated high altar, side altar and shrine to Our Lady.

Naming the Gem

It was as a result of these carvings that the church earned its nickname.

The ornate exterior of St Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Manchester
The beauty of the Hidden Gem isn't confined to the inside

The name was given to it by Bishop Herbert Vaughan - who became the second Catholic Bishop of Salford in 1872 - when he commented that "no matter on what side of the church you look, you behold a hidden gem".

The moniker was so apt that it stuck and has been used ever since.

In fact, it has become ever more appropriate in recent years after a complete restoration and redecoration in the early 1990s and the hanging of Norman Adams' work in 1995 made the church an even more aesthetically pleasing space.

'A wonderful amazement'

Canon Denis Clinch, the church's current parish priest, says that when people first enter the Hidden Gem, they feel "a wonderful amazement and a feeling of utter peace", thanks to the beauty inside.

He adds that he too is constantly moved by the interior, especially by the Stations of the Cross, which he freely admits move him every time he looks at them, as "it's like coming in and listening to very great music."

"You know the way you can put on a Beethoven or a Brahms or a Haydn again and again and again and be lifted - [it's] the same with these wonderful pictures."

Given the striking beauty of them, it's difficult to disagree. Even if you aren't a Catholic, the paintings, like much of the church around them, are some of Manchester's most stunning and unmissable works of art.

St Mary's Roman Catholic Church - The Hidden Gem - is on Mulberry Street in Manchester city centre

Pictures by kind permission of St Mary's Roman Catholic Church




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