We talk about synchronicity, leaps of faith, and long-time supporter, Terry Waite CBE.
Editor CAROLINE PAIGE
Photographer LEN GRANT
The project is constantly challenging and often takes us to the wire. But remarkably, at the eleventh hour, something always happens to get us to the next stage.
My fourth interview for the FEMALE LEADERS series is with Elaine Griffiths OBE. She’s the CEO of The Monastery in Manchester – an architectural gem she saved from dereliction. Elaine always includes the dedication of staff, volunteers and supporters in this accolade. But it’s hard to imagine it would’ve been possible without Elaine’s dedication.
I first visited Gorton Monastery (as it’s known locally) 16 years ago. Even in its ruinous state, the church was impressive. Its grand scale unexpected and unusual. But there were gaping holes in the roof and large pieces of masonry had fallen – strewn across the ground by vandalism and neglect. The friary was a maze of rooms all in advanced stages of decay. Plaster and brickwork destroyed by the unwanted ingress of rainwater. Pigeons’ messy nests balanced in any remaining dry nooks. And the red and black tiles of the cloister floors were covered with the rotting timber of upper floors and roofs long collapsed.
Now, I walk through the huge automatic doors of the new welcome wing. I pass the glass cabinet brightly lit and full of gleaming crystal awards. And I think how serendipitous it was that Elaine and this building found each other.
Today, I found Elaine upstairs in her sunny office lined with filing cabinets full to the brim. There are plans of the buildings, exhibition posters, samples for the shop, and boxes of donated photos and memories. A plant I bought for the office is still alive and living on a window ledge. We’re both impressed it’s lasted this long. Elaine fusses over the plant and me – checking we’re OK.
Why did you decide to restore a ruinous heritage site?
Paul and I were talking about our bucket lists and the important things we wanted to do with our lives. Paul wished someone would do something with Gorton Monastery. He grew up in Gorton and was an altar boy here. It was constantly vandalised and we kept seeing it on the local news. So, in the summer of 1996, I asked Paul to take me to see it. That was when our journey began.
I had a marketing company and regularly travelled to London to see clients. When I was there, I’d visit various experts and organisations like English Heritage. I was working full time, so The Monastery had to fit around that for the first year or so.
When it got more serious – with funding bids to write and deadlines to meet – I managed to get some money for a project leader. The project was much bigger and more complicated than we’d ever imagined. We had to make a commitment to The Monastery then, because a lot of people were pinning their hopes on us. We looked at the family finances and decided it was worth me giving up my job and volunteering for the next few years.
Was the process of the conservation and restoration of The Monastery what you expected?
We started in 1996 and it took almost 10 years to get the funding to start the restoration. If we’d known it would take that long, we probably wouldn’t have started. The project unfolded a step at a time. We started the campaign and realised how important it was to people locally. Hundreds of people turned up at open days – giving us donations in envelopes. We kept going because so many volunteers and supporters wanted the project to happen.
Every step of the journey minor miracles seem to happen. The project is constantly challenging and often takes us to the wire. But remarkably, at the eleventh hour, something always happens to get us to the next stage. It’s hard to believe we’ve been doing this for 27 years now! It was a steep learning curve because heritage and fundraising were a whole new world for me. Perhaps my background in sales and marketing helped, as I wasn’t frightened to talk to people. I suppose, instead of selling and marketing a product, I was selling The Monastery.
What was your career before The Monastery?
I worked in the food industry for 20 years. I remember a placement as a food science and nutrition graduate (wearing a white lab coat) at the Co-op laboratories in Manchester. The senior marketing team used to come to taste and evaluate the food. I realised I’d much rather be in their role – taking the products to market – and started to apply for those kinds of jobs instead.
When I had young children, I set up Playmarket to market children’s products. For one project, I needed a trusted brand to put into supermarkets to become a national franchise. My kids and all their friends were huge fans of Sooty and Sweep. With brand awareness of 98% across all generations they were my first choice. I got in touch with Matthew Corbett and ended up doing his marketing for Sooty International for the next three years. It was a really fun time.
Do you have another passion?
The Monastery combines all the things I’m interested in. In the early days, I met many people with spiritual gifts I didn’t understand. I trained as a healer and learned about working with energy. I went on quite a journey in those early days (training, learning and reading a lot). Many people don’t have a spiritual understanding in their lives and feel there’s something lacking. I’ve met spiritual people from many different backgrounds and beliefs. Knowing there’s more than this physical world is such an important thing to share with people.
It’s in the atmosphere here. You can almost touch it. Some say the veils between heaven and earth are thin here. It’s a beautiful space. It allows people to see we’re all spiritual beings experiencing living in a human body. We’re not a human body that happens to have some kind of spiritual experience.
Over the years so many uncanny things have happened. The brothers (the friars who lived here first) took 10 years, 9 months and 26 days to build the church. From the day we set up the charitable trust to the day we got the keys after the first restoration was 10 years, 9 months and 26 days! There have been these incredible, minor miracles and coincidences. Synchronicities. The right people turn up at the right time to help us and it’s been a leap of faith for us all. The brothers that built this place achieved something remarkable. It was a real labour of love for them and it has been for us too.
It allows people to see we’re all spiritual beings experiencing living in a human body. We’re not a human body that happens to have some kind of spiritual experience.
Do you feel you’re in service to this building and its heritage?
This project has affected me because I know it’s a very special and important place. I also felt it could be the catalyst for so much change. And I do believe we’re coming into that phase now. Lots of things aren’t working in society. The system is broken. The health service isn’t working. The transport system isn’t working. There’s a massive cost of living crisis. People are struggling. And yet, communities display the importance of compassion and supporting one another.
Those values are embedded here. We inherited them from the Franciscan brothers. This is a place for people to come together. The church is deconsecrated but it still has that sacred energy. All those prayers and lives are imbued in every brick and stone. You can’t turn that off. It creates a beautiful healing presence for people.
Each day we have an hour of silence so people can have some timeout. Time to reflect. In summer, when the garden is in bloom, people enjoy peace and tranquillity within the shelter of the cloister walls. And we have a listening service – to ensure there’s always someone here to talk to. We’re very lucky to have our volunteers and a core of people who genuinely feel in service.
All those prayers and lives are imbued in every brick and stone. You can’t turn that off.
You’ve met a lot of people. Who’s made the biggest impression on you?
Terry Waite. His book, Taken on Trust, details his experience as a hostage. It’s incredible what he went through in solitary confinement all those years – normal humans would break. He not only came back from that, he also became a passionate campaigner for other hostages and set up Hostages UK and then Hostage International.
Terry is involved in lots of other charities such as the homelessness charity, Emmaus. I wrote to him out of the blue and he took the time to come to Gorton to meet us. He very kindly supported our campaign and became a patron of our trust. He’s an incredible man who’s become a dear friend. He has such strength. He’s a gentle giant with a heart of gold.
What have you read recently that resonated with you?
Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks. He calculated the average lifespan as 4,000 weeks. Paul and I were laughing and wondering how many weeks we have left. It’s quite scary to think about your life as 4,000 weeks, because it doesn’t seem very long. But it’s an interesting way to think about it! Oliver Burkeman questions why we worry about small things and things we can’t change.
Paul’s mum died leaving behind 5 little kids when he was 12. She used to say, it’s just a swallow’s dive. She was so right…life is just a swallow’s dive.
Life is just a swallow’s dive.
What’s on your bucket list?
I’d love to go on safari in Africa to see the white lions. And I’d like to visit some of the sacred sites around the world that are off the tourist track. When I was younger, it would’ve been to backpack around South America.
When I was a student, I went all over Europe with friends. In those days you could buy an Interrail ticket that lasted a whole month for £28. When we were on an overnight train, we’d string up our washing to dry from the luggage racks and fall asleep. We’d wake up realising we were getting off at the next stop and had to rush to gather up all our washing. It was hilarious and we met some incredible people. I’ve been very lucky.
What advice would you give women thinking of starting a challenging project?
Sometimes, you’ll have to learn from failure but when you try again you’ll be able to do it. But avoid the folly of keeping on going when you sense things aren’t right. Ask yourself if you’re motivated enough to do it and where it’s going to take you. If it doesn’t align with where you want to be or it’s something that’s not that meaningful, maybe let it go. But if it’s going to make a difference and it’s your passion, don’t let go. It’s about balancing your decision with everything else going on in your life.
I use the phrase ‘divine timing’ a lot these days – for when things fall into place at the right time.
Ongoing conservation of The Monastery relies on donations and revenue from venue hire. It’s open to the public from Sunday to Thursday and has a variety of heritage tours and wellness activities. There’s also a free listening service and daily hour of silence. The Monastery houses several charities including the Manchester Camerata orchestra, who run a music cafe for people living with dementia. On Fridays, Saturdays and weekday evenings The Monastery is a unique setting for weddings, concerts and corporate events. All profits are reinvested in the charitable trust.
In the next issue of FEMALE LEADERS, Advita Patel talks about overcoming limiting beliefs, the vulnerability of writing a book and the privilege of speaking out.