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FOR LOVE OF OUR LADY

Father Francis's picture
Our Lady of Walsingham

Walsingham was to England what Lourdes is to France. People from all over Europe would travel there to honour Our Lady. But it is much more ancient, dating from the 11th century, whereas Lourdes became a place of pilgrimage in the 19th century.

The shrine at Walsingham originated as the result of a dream. Lady Richeldis de Faverches, the widow of a Norman knight who had been given land in Norfolk, wanted to do something to honour Our Lady. Through her prayers she received in 1061 a vision of the house at Nazareth where the angel Gabriel had announced to Our Lady that she was to be the mother of Jesus. This prompted Richeldis to build a replica of the house and Our Lady even indicated the site for it and the dimensions required. According to legend the carpenters had problems in constructing the house: they reported this to Lady Richeldis who prayed all night for an answer and the next day, the builders discovered that the house had been moved 200 feet from its original position and the construction completed perfectly.

Richeldis intended the house to be a shrine and chapel, and within the chapel she placed a wooden statue of St Gabriel. The shrine became known as the Holy House, England's Nazareth, and after her death, her son took over its guardianship and gave instructions for the building of a priory which was completed in 1153. Run by the Augustinian Canons, it was built around the original wooden house and became the focus of pilgrimages to Walsingham. Many people reported visiting there to ask for Our Lady's help and returning with their sickness cured or their petition granted. Pilgrims would walk the last mile to the shrine in bare feet. A chapel was built, known as the Slipper Chapel, where the visitors would leave their shoes.

It became so popular as a centre of Marian devotion that by the 13th century Walsingham ranked alongside Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostella. Many royal patrons helped the shrine to grow in wealth. Most of the Plantagenet kings and Henry VII visited there – as did Henry VIll although in 1538 he ordered its destruction and had Our Lady's statue burned.

In the 20th century the shrine was rescued by another Catholic lady, Miss Charlotte Boyd, who purchased the ruined Slipper Chapel and had it restored. Now Walsingham is once again a pilgrimage centre, patronised by both Catholics and Anglicans.

By celebrating today's feast we remember our wonderful Catholic heritage. We are reminded that England was once known as Mary's Dowry, a place where Our Lady was loved and honoured, and on which she in turn showered her blessings. Our country still needs her help, perhaps more than ever.

Our Lady of Walsingham, pray for us.