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St Mary's apostolate is that which is totally unique to the city-centre. The city-centre parish is quite different from the inner-city parish, the suburban parish or the country parish. Of course, folk will come from all such parishes into the city-centre, not only from the Greater Manchester parishes but from parishes throughout the country, indeed from parishes throughout the world.
That is quite simply the way of life, certainly modern life. The fact that such visitors to the city-centre attend the city-centre church is surely a cause for thanksgiving. The city-centre facilities are open seven days a week, and many of them for seven nights as well. People come into the city-centre for a variety of reasons. The Church must be here to meet and serve them, as it is in every major European city-centre.
In the 200 plus years The Hidden Gem has been serving the people of Manchester, a great deal has changed. The poorest of slum dwellings surrounding the church have been replaced by the tall office buildings of the new commercial centre of Manchester. In recent years, the rapid regeneration of the city centre with its many and varied amenties and facilities has revitalised the old victorian heart of the city.
Through all these changes one thing remains: the mission of St. Mary's to the people of Manchester has remained constant, whether they live in, work in, or just visit the city centre. Every day there is free access to the church which is valued as an oasis of peace in the heart of the City's life.
A significant apostolate at St Mary's is hearing the confessions, and the counselling, of priests and religious. 'Train, bus and plane' make Manchester's centre easy to approach from near and far. It is a destination for "off days", and a tourist stop-over, for many priests and religious from around the region and from around the world.
The daily day long Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament makes St Mary's a uniquely contemplative oasis. Many non Catholics, including ministers, make it their place of prayer in the centre of the city.
A Baptist minister of thirty years standing was telling me that this was his practice, when his wife added that it was hers too and that whenever she came up the steps to enter St Mary's she felt she "was coming home."
All the members of the City-Centre Council of Churches - Manchester's Anglican Cathedral, St Ann's Anglican church, the Methodists, the Unitarians, the Quakers, the Salvation Army - over the years have acknowledged that the numbers coming to St Mary's throughout each day for prayer and for the religious services constitute the most significant Christian witness in the city-centre.
When Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, V.C., O.M., came to speak in the church he wrote afterwards: "I don't think I have ever entered a church that was so full - outside Poland that is... I felt very privileged". He remained in contact until his death, understanding St Mary's significance and giving constant encouragement. As did his wife, Sue Ryder, still. When she first came to speak in St Mary's, as she entered the church she said quite spontaneously: "This is a very holy place". All who know and love the church understand exactly what she felt and meant at that moment.
The attendance at daily Mass is uniformly excellent. As is the attendance at Sunday Mass. At both, but especially at weekends, there are visitors from around the country and from around the world. The homily is preached at all the Masses, weekdays and weekends.
Every day, in addition to the set times for confession during the week, folk come for confession and/or counselling.
The pre-Reformation title of "Our Lady of Manchester" was restored in St Mary's in the mid 1800s with the establishment of the Shrine of Our Lady of Manchester (shown on the right). Every day, at lunchtime, the Rosary is recited.
Every weekday in Lent at lunchtime, after the lunchtime mass, the Stations of the Cross are celebrated and confessions are heard. During Lent, there is too a preached Mission.
During Advent the Schools Advent Carol Services every weekday after the lunchtime Mass help to deepen the preparation for Christmas; as do the special frequent opportunities for confession that are given in addition to the set weekly times.
As a nationally acclaimed major work of art the Adams Stations of the Cross are attracting many visitors, of whom a considerable number are non-Catholics.
Sister Wendy Beckett, who considers them "a miracle of art", said that many folk would come over the years to view the pictures as great art, and would through them "find the Lord". This has happened already, to my knowledge, again and again.
All kinds of groups, large and small, are continually coming to study them. These include the likes of the theology department of Durham University, the fine arts department of Manchster University, the art departments of Lancaster University and Newcastle University, the patrons and friends of the Whitworth Art Gallery, the Manchester Art Gallery and the London Royal Academy of Arts.
When Sir Philip Dowson, the President of the Royal Academy of Arts, opened their exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 1995, he said; "Is it not wonderful, at the end of this century, that our minds are being raised by the greatest of modern art to Our Lord's saving passion ?"
He also said then that he would come to see them in situ. This he did in 1997. When he entered the church and viewed them, he was so moved that he wept. He said the setting was perfect. Before he left, he told the Lord Mayor of Manchester that the City must recognise the treasure it had in the Adams Stations of the Cross in St Mary's.
Such recognition has been given too by the likes of the Queen Mother, the Duchess of Kent, Richard Harries, the former Anglican Bishop of Oxford, the Rt. Hon Christopher Patten, Sir Stephen Tumin, to name a few.
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