A former church in Salford Diocese is continuing to serve the Bolton community almost six years after closing its doors for the final time. St Columba's, in Tonge Moor, celebrated its final Mass in 2017 but is now set to enjoy a new lease of life after being transformed into beautiful homes for the over 55s.
The £4.1m transformation is the product of a wonderful partnership between MSV Housing Group, Bolton Council, and the Diocese of Salford, seeking to provide a positive solution to challenges around social isolation and our growing housing crisis.
Since its closure, the former church and presbytery soon became derelict, leading to the decision to begin demolition and lease the land to MSV Housing to enable this enterprising scheme.
Now renamed Columbas Gardens, the initiative has created a complex of 24 stylish apartments for the over 55s, whilst ground rent from the land provides vital financial support to the parishes that welcomed in the community of St Columba's after its closure.
The scheme was formally launched on Tuesday 7th March with a ceremonial tree planting by Bishop John Arnold. A special poem paying homage to Bolton's community life was read by Ibby Ismail, a local poet and MSV's Senior Independent Director and Chair of People & Governance Committee. Residents were joined by Council Leaders, partners from Bolton Council and Homes England, as well as, clergy members of the Salford Dioceses, teachers and children from St Columba's Catholic Primary School.
Bishop John said: "I was looking at the dedication stone for the church here, which was built in 1955, which was a time when the Catholic community was growing and everyone wanted to build new churches.
"A church is an important statement for a community and it's always sad when one closes, but it was clear that we'd got too many churches, so some had to close down or be amalgamated with other parishes.
"This site was left somewhat derelict, which is the worst possible outcome: it can attract antisocial behaviour and it does nothing for the local community at all, when its purpose is to be a focal point for the community, so it's a complete reversal of its value.
"So, I think to see it properly demolished and the land put to such good use is a tribute to everyone who has been involved."
The site of the closed church had deteriorated into a hotspot for antisocial behaviour, but this ambitious project has changed the prospects of the site, whilst also tackling challenges around the housing shortage and social isolation among the over 55s.
These stylish, modern apartments feature as part of MSV's 'HAPPI Scheme' - a project entitled 'Housing our Ageing Population Panel for Innovation' that uses attractive design principles such as natural light, space, community, adaptability, and accessibility to promote health and wellbeing for those later in life.
Demonstrating a wonderful balance of privacy and community, the development has been carefully designed to enable residents to enjoy their own peace and quiet, whilst having the opportunity to socialise in communal areas around the building, as well as outside.
The ideals of this scheme go in hand-in-hand with the teachings of Pope Francis, who reminded the Church on the second World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly that "old age is no time to give up and lower the sails, but a season of enduring fruitfulness: a new mission awaits us and bids us look to the future."
Pope Francis is also abundantly clear that it is our responsibility - as brothers and sisters - to respond to the needs of our ageing population by building a world where the dignity of human life is celebrated, nurtured, and provided for in our society.
Bishop John said: "I think this project is very much in line with our Gospel values, which tell us to "love our neighbour" and to provide for people who are trying to adjust their lives through the ageing process, so I think this is a fine way for the Church to have responded."
The new development also addresses our national housing crisis, by offering an attractive alternative for people to downsize, in addition to providing practical ways to move home through shared ownership and affordable rent schemes.
In addition to attractive design principles, the development is also located in the hub of the local community.
The school next door - St Columba's Catholic Primary School - made a beautiful contribution to the development by decorating the halls of the building with wonderful mosaics.
Charlie Norman, chief executive of MSV Housing Group, described the project as "a real labour of love" saying: "It's been great to see multi-generations coming together to celebrate the launch of Columba's Gardens.
"From the beginning, we were determined to develop the site in a way that would give back to a community as it once so lovingly did."