St Mary Magdalene CIC describes itself as a community church established to bring people together to transform neighbourhoods and businesses. The community interest company operates from the former St Mary Magdalene church in Manningham, Bradford and is the brainchild of Muslim man, Sharat Hussain.
After being closed for more than ten years, Bradford based Sharat, decided to put all his savings into the dilapidated church and bought the building from auction in 2014.
Inside, much of the magnificence of the church has been maintained by the youth worker. From the exposed stone walls, exposed timber roof to the tie beam at east end of nave, which is heavily carved and surmounted by a large crucifixion, flanked by two figures and is the focal point of the entire place.
The church grew out of a mission in this predominantly poor part of Bradford. It is believed that the architect was a brother-in-law of the vicar of a neighbouring church. The design was influenced by the constraints of the site. The church was built up to the edges of the site, no rights of light over the surrounding properties and therefore has no windows at ground floor level. This necessitated the high clerestory windows giving an elongated appearance to the church. The east end was also windowless as it backed on to a nearby factory, the owners of which were Methodists and did not wish their employees to be distracted.
Back in the 1830’s, Manningham was a self-contained township, even larger than Bradford itself. It wasn’t until October 1848 Manningham had become part of the Borough of Bradford. At the time it was a thriving place as more people were moving into the towns to work in the mills.
It was also an era where many were deeply religious and as a result churches like St Paul’s (St Paul’s Road, Manningham) were bursting at the seams, despite being enlarged twice before in 1867, which then led to more churches being built and hence St Mary Magdalene came along in 1878.
Tragically, St Mary’s was damaged by fire in 1947, and the separate vestry building was demolished for housing in 1985. The church itself was closed by the Church of England in 2004 and sold to St Stephen the Great Orthodox Church who retained the name St Mary Magdalene for the congregation. The church however, mounted huge debts and closed shortly after, remaining closed for years.
Sharat took on the challenge to regenerate the church and has today turned it into a hub of activity. Prior to investing in St Mary Magdalene, the father of four used to work for the local authority in youth services.
Analysis last year by the YMCA youth charity found that local authority expenditure on youth services dropped from £1.4bn in 2010-11 to just under £429m in 2018-19 resulting in the loss of 750 youth centres and more than 4500 youth workers.
Sharat was one of those youth workers who lost his job. Undeterred and even more committed to ensuring young people didn’t lose out, Sharat put all his energies into making St Mary Magdalene the much needed, safe space for young people and the local community, transforming the damaged church into a community and youth hub.
“Youth services is vital in the fight against knife crime and drugs. However, year on year with the cuts to the services it has had a direct impact on crime rates and with the global pandemic this is going to have further impact.” Sharat told Asian Standard
Among many projects, such as training, careers advice, networking, St Mary Magdalene has also run the CON-fessions project.
CON-fessions is a programme which looks to tackle issues such as knife crime and drugs. The programme aims to do this by educating the youth. Sharat has even had a prison cell built within the church, so that young people can see and experience what it would be like living inside the cell.
Hussnain Ali, youth engagement officer for West Yorkshire Police has also been roped in to
help with the project, by coming into the church and talking to the young people about the implications of crime.
Sharat said: “Hussnain is a great product of the work of youth services. I remember Hussnain coming to my youth centre twenty years ago, and now I am so pleased to see him come to St Mary’s Magdalene as a police officer doing talks with young people about issues such as knife crime.
“Drug dealing is the biggest root to all evils in Bradford among our young people. So, if we can educate young people around drugs, they can make more informed choices”.
With the third national lockdown currently in place, most of the activities at St Mary’s Magdalene have had to be temporarily put-on hold and this is a concern for Sharat who believes the pandemic is leading to a rise in young people turning to crime.
“Lack of opportunities is pushing some into illegal activities as a way to make quick money. Crime doesn’t stop even in the pandemic; it is actually on the rise.” He explained
“We have had reports and intelligence that young people were getting lured into criminal activity. We have heard stories where people have said that as a result of being laid off from work, they couldn’t feed their families they had to turn to crime as a means of survival.
“By providing the church as a safe space for young people and to stay informed, I hope we can change lives.”
Young people, who were interviewed by Look North’s community reporter Sabbiyah Pervez seem to confirm that Sharat certainly is changing lives.
One South Asian youth said on the Look North programme: “I was surrounded by drug dealers. I didn’t really have any motivation and they were the only people I could look up to or get any motivation from. If it wasn’t for people like Sharat I would still be on the streets.”
While another South Asian youth said: “I don’t want to be on the streets. I don’t want to be with a bunch of negative people, or a bunch of people keeping me away from my family, so I am glad for places like St Mary’s Magdalene.”
St Mary’s Magdalene may not be functioning as a church anymore, but it is certainly upholding the values of the Abrahamic faiths: ‘And he found you lost and guided you”.