Sir Tom Finney’s favourite church looks set to be saved, five years after it was shut down and condemned as dangerous.
And Emmanuel CE, where Preston’s football legend married his lifelong sweetheart Elsie in 1945, could soon be hosting services again thanks to an ambitious rescue plan by a former parishioner.
The Grade II Listed building in Plungington was closed in 2014 on safety grounds because it was riddled with dry rot. Worship switched to the community centre next door and has continued there ever since.
But now a development company is on the verge of buying the red brick property, intending to convert it into social housing, with the central part of the old church being retained for religious use.
The plan has the support of the Church Commissioners, who have been searching for a buyer since the building was condemned.
And unless there are any written objections before a statutory consultation period ends on Friday, it looks like the scheme will go ahead - subject to planning consent by the city council.
“An offer has been made by a company that was set up initially by a man who used to be in the congregation at the church,” revealed Norman Bilsborrow of the Church Commissioners.
“The man who first expressed an interest in the building for this use did worship at Emmanuel Church. Sadly he died in January, but his son is carrying on the business and taking it forward.”
The Post understands the company set to buy the church is Mauritius-based Central African Ventures, which has been involved in a number of social housing schemes across the UK.
It is believed the firm has offered in the region of £200,000 for the 150-year-old building in Brook Street and plan to carry out extensive repairs to the roof before creating a number of apartments for rent.
“It is a mixture of residential in the large part of the church, while keeping the chancel for worship use by the current congregation which meets in the community centre,” said Mr Bilsborrow.
“At the moment the plan is up for consultation and that period ends on Friday. So anyone wishing to make representations must do so by then. As far as I am aware, so far there have been no representations against the proposal.
“If that remains the case then the scheme will still be subject to planning permission and listed building consent.”
Emmanuel was put up for sale by the Church of England after it was estimated the cost of repairing the building could reach £500,000.
At the time the then Vicar of Preston, Fr Timothy Lipscomb, said: “The dry rot is very severe. It also has problems with the parapet on the tower and the east wall. Those are serious problems.”
Norman Bilsborrow said: “If we were to repair the building and just run it for worship it probably wouldn’t be an economical solution.
“We (Church Commissioners) are required to find a suitable use for the building and this scheme seems suitable.
“We are retaining some element of worship in it, which I’m sure is appreciated by the congregation. And there seems to be a need for social housing in that area of Preston.
“If there are no representations submitted by Friday, it would suggest people are happy with the proposal. I think the people of Plungington would prefer it to stay in its original use as a church. So we would like to take that forward.
“It is an important building for Preston. It is listed, it is a landmark building and I’m sure everyone wants to see a good future for it.”
Built between 1868 and 1870, Emmanuel Church is a Grade II Listed structure of “special architectural or historic interest.”
For a century and a half it has had a vibrant congregation, including footballer Tom Finney - he was married there in 1945 - and also, as a child, James Towers who won the Victoria Cross during the First World War.
Major dry rot issues were discovered in 2014 and the church was shut down, with worship moving into the neighbouring Plungington Community Centre. At the time the Vicar of Emmanuel, Rev Peter Hamborg, vowed it would be worship as usual, with the parish continuing, even though there were fears the old church would never host a service again.
“It’s sad,” he said. “But the church is not going to leave this area. We are still going to be here. There is positive potential for the building and what it can be for the community. As for worship, we are doing really well in the community centre next door.”
By 2015 Emmanuel Church was included in Historic England’s Heritage At Risk Register and classed as being in “poor” condition. But it was surprisingly removed the following year after the building was handed over to the Church Commissioners to find a new owner and a new use.
It was put up for sale with an asking price of £219,000. Now, after almost five years out of commission, the church could once again host services.