Ash Wednesday in Manchester

By Julien B.

Feb. 28, 2020

First arriving in Manchester, I was immediately struck by the eclectic architecture on almost every street, especially when in the heart of the university campus. There are sleek ultramodern buildings that look like big glass boxes, and are nestled between the soothing neo-Gothic structures which thrived here in the 19th century. To the naked eye, some of those works can approach something far greater than imitation, especially the beautiful Holy Name Church directly on campus. With an attention to the balances and tastes of true Gothic construction that demonstrate the study of the past style, it’s more rigorous than anything in the U.S. But I didn’t know what to expect from the Manchester Cathedral that was at the end of Deansgate poking up; a dark oasis practically two steps from the glaring Arndale Centre. What’s instant in mind is that it is no Holy Name, not of course by quality but by plan, for it’s a stitched and meandering thing, and though a plethora of Revival ornaments would be no surprise anywhere in Europe. This seems to have a revival skeleton– fleshed out with startling gems from each of the last five centuries. The New World observer finds it a unique privilege of the Old, to discover upon closer inspection of a given building or even neighborhood, that its origins are beyond the American consciousness, nearly pre-Colombian. History can well be imagined but only on contact does it really adhere to the mind.

As it happened, I had arrived at the Cathedral on the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, celebrated by many Christians including the Anglican church. Thus I was lucky enough, as I entered, to hear the choir hymning, and the soft tones of the pipe organ above me– that enormous instrument lit up the nave with its golden sound and body, which sparkled from the sunshine in the clerestory windows. The glass was stained with 20th century art, framed by 19th century stone, sharing the wall with 18th century plaques and continuing all the way to the precious carvings on the 15th century furniture. Although I stood in one of the widest cathedral naves in the country, the service was made intimate as the Dean stood down from the altar for his homily, and soon Mancunians, young and old, gathered close to receive the imposition of ash on the forehead, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return…” As true for humans as anything else including our cities, with each crumbling of the past, we preserve its essence in new works and the patchwork of centuries. Being so condensed in a place like the Manchester Cathedral, its affect can actually be seen everywhere, all over Manchester, and the world.

Learn more about this blogger’s study abroad program: University of Manchester