Brother Benedict is perhaps the most unlikely of the Franciscan Friars who arrived in Bradford 12 years ago on a mission from God. By his own admission he was a petty criminal before he’d celebrated his 13th birthday and by the early 1990s he was also one of the most committed members of Manchester’s Acid House scene. Altar boy material he definitely wasn’t.
Things changed after he was assaulted outside a snooker hall and while he still sounds like he might be a close relation of Liam Gallagher, these days Benedict, who unexpectedly swapped hedonism for vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, is generally tucked up in bed by 10pm.
“I’ll always be the raver from Manchester,” he says, by way of explanation. “Only now I am raving for the Lord.”
He’s not the only one. While the Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal is a Catholic order originating from the Bronx in New York, it’s a wide church. As well as Benedict, in Bradford’s St Pio Friary there’s one time gamekeeper Brother Joshua, former accountant Father Christopher and a Canadian Father Gabriel. He’s pretty nifty on the guitar, boasts and impressive beard and in another life might well have found fame on the folk scene.
Their own individual talents aside, the Friars now share the joint ambition of re-opening St Patrick’s Church. Their efforts are being followed in a new BBC documentary, but in city where the number of people who describe themselves as Christian has been in decline for decades, it’s no easy task.
“The church was built by the Irish immigrants who came over to Yorkshire to work in the textile industry,” says Father Gabriel. “Pennies got this church going and it was built brick by brick. But the demographic has changed. We still hold masses, but now there are less than 15 Catholics in the parish and we rely on people coming in from outside.”
There are other problems too. Having stood empty for years, some of the plasterwork is crumbling, the heating no longer works and of the original committee formed to drive the fundraising, just four parishioners are still alive. It’s enough to make you wonder why they bother, but one thing the friars aren’t short on is enthusiasm and general positivity.
“It will be a great day when we can gather around the altar again,” says Father Gabriel. “This church used to be packed on a Sunday and I think it could be again. I think they could handle the dusty pews and the cold, we just need to keep going.”
The friars are certainly a rare breed. Up at dawn, they pray for at least five hours a day, rely on the kindness of others for donations of food - elder statesman Father Conrad is what they call the ‘official beggar’ of the group - and as soon as they join the order they are required to give up all worldly goods. Well, almost. Father Gabriel has special permission to keep his MP3 player, so long as he only uses it to download religious songs to learn on his guitar. Even God it seems won’t stand in the way of technology.
“We don’t own very much,” he says. “Each of us are given a change of robes and two habits, but that’s about it. St Francis was a knight, but whereas he wore his sword on his side, we wear our rosary beads. These days we prefer to fight battles with prayer and love.”
It might seem a little optimistic, but as Brother Joshua points out there are some upsides to their pared back existence.
“I have nothing, but that’s fine,” he says, adding pragmatically. “I never have to worry about what I’m going to wear in the morning.”
Born in Scotland, Joshua is the youngest of the group, but has much the same reason for wanting to join the friary as the others.
“When I was younger I chased girls and did all that other stuff, but it was the most unedifying experience. Yes, there are things I miss. I miss my family and my dog,” he says as he picks up a guitar. Along with Father Gabriel the pair are a pretty formidable duo. “But I like being part of a fraternity, I like that these guys are my family. May be I could play No Woman, No Cry?”
As an alternative to the 21st century’s rampant commercialism, it’s hard not to admire the friars who every so often carry out what’s known as a poverty check just to ensure they haven’t accidentally accumulated too much.
“People love that you live a simple life so much that they want to give you things,” says Father Conrad debating whether they really need books on Trees of North America or Chickens as Pets. They don’t, but they doubt whether their parishioners will either as they amass a collection of old pots and pans available to anyone who wants them.
While the reopening of St Patrick’s is their ultimate goal, in between they try to follow the example of 13th century St Francis by helping society’s most vulnerable. Among other things, in Bradford that means running a twice weekly soup kitchen. Not everyone is convinced by Brother Joshua’s recipe for soup and its secret ingredient of a few tins of rice pudding, but the friary at St Pio’s has become a refuge for many.
The woman whose life spiralled out of control following the death of her mother and the man who is still haunted by the abuse meted out to him in childhood are typical of those who turn up and no one is turned away.
“We can’t solve all their problems and we can’t give them money, but sometimes we can give them a warm jacket or a pair of gloves,” says Father Gabriel, who admits his father thought he was going off to join a bunch of quacks in New York before he shared a beer with the brothers. “You quickly learn that working with the poor isn’t a romantic ideal. It’s messy, it’s gritty and if you want to do it for the long haul you have to be willing to forgive.”
Recently the friars have been awarded £50,000 of funding to realise their dream of bringing their church back into use and they have also won the support of the Bishop of Leeds Marcus Stock who you get the sense rather likes their back to basics approach to Catholicism. With the Bradford’s friars there is little pomp and circumstance.
“It’s never been my intention to preside over decline,” says Bishop Stock. “My intention has always been to build up a congregation. The friars are such a visible presence in Bradford and while St Patrick’s looks tired it could be beautiful again.”
The documentary follows the friars in their attempts try to get the church open for mass on St Patrick’s day and it’s clear from early on that whether they succeed or not, they will keep on going.
“St Peter’s is a bit of a metaphor for the Easter story,” says Father Gabriel. “Death isn’t the last word, life is the last word. It really feels like the whole site is coming to live again.”
Bronx to Bradford: Friars on a Mission, BBC1, Thursday, 10.45pm.