An ancient shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary, once one of the top pilgrimage destinations in Christendom, is experiencing a resurrection as crowds of twenty-first century pilgrims wend their way to Walsingham.
In 1061 Richeldis de Faverches responded to a vision to build, in the tiny Norfolk village of Walsingham, a replica of the house in Nazareth where the Blessed Virgin Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel. In time a mighty Augustinian friary rose up, a holy well with healing powers was discovered and crowds of medieval pilgrims surged into Walsingham to venerate the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Franciscans built an equally large friary to accommodate the crowds.
Researchers suggest that Walsingham was only exceeded in popularity by Jerusalem, Rome and Compostella. Princes and peasants came to pray. Every English king from Richard II to Henry VIII paid homage to the Virgin of Walsingham.
It all came to an end during the Protestant Revolution of King Henry VIII. The two great friaries were dissolved, their riches confiscated and their buildings destroyed. Thomas Cromwell’s thugs threw the ancient image of Our Lady of Walsingham on the bonfire, and the great shrine to Mary was no more. Walsingham went to sleep for four hundred years and the lady of Walsingham was forgotten, and it was thought that no contemporary image of the famous statue existed.
In 1896 an Anglican laywoman named Charlotte Pearson Boyd purchased the fifteenth-century wayside chapel called the Slipper Chapel. It was in disrepair and was being used as a farm building. The next year Pope Leo XIII gave permission for a shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham to be restored at the nearby town of King’s Lynn, and in 1934 the bishops of England and Wales declared the Slipper Chapel to be the Catholic National Shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham.
Meanwhile, in the 1920s the Anglican vicar of Walsingham—Fr. Hope Patten—discovered in the libraries of Oxford an ancient document about Walsingham. The document bore a wax seal from the time, and imprinted in the wax was an image of Our Lady of Walsingham. Fr. Patten commissioned a new statue, the holy house was reconstructed a few hundred yards from the original site. During excavations for the shrine the ancient well was re-discovered, and Anglo Catholics began making their way back to Walsingham.
Today both the Anglican and Catholic shrines are thriving with a whole new generation of pilgrims. In 1982 a large new church was built next to the Slipper Chapel to accommodate 600 worshippers. The side of the shrine is designed to open out to extra outdoor seating space to cope with the crowds that can be greater than 12,000. In the village itself, the Catholic pilgrimage center can accommodate over 100 guests while the nearby Anglican shrine can accommodate another hundred. In a strong ecumenical partnership which includes the Eastern Orthodox, the church leaders work together to cope with the increasing number of pilgrims.
As increased mobility and immigration changes the complexion of England’s population, the shrine’s Rector, Monsignor John Armitage explained that the pilgrims now include an increasing number of Eastern European Catholics, Africans and Asians. Vietnamese, Korean and Indian Catholics love Walsingham, and every year the largest pilgrim group are the Tamils from Sri Lanka who descend on the village in their thousands.
During a recent visit Monsignor Armitage laid out ambitious plans for the future. Seeking to raise millions of pounds, the Catholic shrine will be completed with updated pilgrim accomodation, an enclosed cloister and a newly renovated medieval building which will become a retreat center. Additional parking and improved communications and education facilities are all part of the master plan.
In the tiny English village in the midst of the Norfolk countryside our pilgrim group toured the shrines and then relaxed with a pint of English beer in one of the ancient village pubs. Together with the Custodian of the Anglican shrine—Bishop Lindsay Urwin and Monsignor Armitage, we heard how the leaders of the Anglican and Catholic shrines work together. “Walsingham belongs to all of us.” Monsignor Armitage said, “Anglicans always walk to the Slipper Chapel barefoot and Catholics always stop to visit the Holy House in the Anglican shrine. Seeing them walking and singing together reminds us that despite our deep divisions, we still share in one baptism and the love of Jesus Christ and his mother.”
Walsingham today is a witness to the barbaric destruction of the Protestant Revolution in England, but it is also a living witness to real ecumenical co operation between Anglicans and Catholics and to a Catholic faith that is ever ancient and ever new.
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