"You're a parish priest administering the Sacraments day by day and taking part in the public working of the Cathedral, but at the same time you're dealing with the multiple practical problems which a building of this size brings up." So Monsignor Peter Cookson sums up the challenges he faced after arriving at the Metropolitan Cathedral as administrator – a job title that later became dean – in 1989.
The one-time principal of Ushaw College came to Liverpool from St Mary's Parish, Chorley and soon discovered the scale of the Cathedral's problems. "Virtually every external surface needed to be replaced or restored," he explains. What followed was an extensive programme of repairs – from new drains to a new roof (of stainless steel instead of the original aluminium) – carried out at an overall cost, he suggests, of £8m and that renovation work was not the only major project of his tenure.
In October 2003, with the help of a grant from the European Union, the grand entrance and steps were opened together with a new Visitor Centre and the Piazza Restaurant. "It was a great opportunity to achieve the idea from the original architect," says Monsignor Cookson, who explains that Sir Frederick Gibberd's concept of a processional entrance looking on to Hope Street had not initially been possible "because there was a building in the way called the Innovation Centre which was leased to the university on a long lease".
The longest-serving administrator/dean in the Cathedral's history, Monsignor Cookson went on to play a prominent role too in the refurbishment of the crypt, whose deep purple brickwork and vaulted ceilings provide a permanent reminder of Sir Edwin Lutyens' original 1930s designs.
Although ill health had led to his retirement as dean in 2006, he still played an active part by identifying objects for the treasury ahead of the crypt's 2009 reopening. "Part of the crypt is given over to the treasury which is a collection mainly of sacred silver and gold vessels and also embroidered vestments," he explains. "The opening of the restored crypt was a big occasion. We had a choir concert in the Cathedral and then went down into the crypt for a reception and dinner."
If that was one highlight, another was the 1990 inauguration of the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland. "We had all the church leaders signing a covenant to work together for Christian Unity, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal [Basil Hume]," remembers Monsignor Cookson, who still lives in Cathedral House and says Mass daily in the crypt.
His attachment to the Cathedral is strong. "I appreciate its atmosphere of calm and prayer. The light from the windows makes it a very ethereal space, very calming and contemplative. It changes through the day, with different moods, and is a place which says something to all kinds of people, some who are Catholics and come to pray and take part in the liturgy and others who perhaps just come out of interest and are very moved by it. It has a very calming effect on people."
'A parish priest who also deals with multiple practical problems'
Monsignor Peter Cookson's Cathedral memories
Monsignor Peter Cookson recalls the significant renovation work overseen during 16 years as administrator and dean of a place he holds dear.