OUR LADY OF WALSINGHAM, MEMORIAL: SEPTEMBER 24
In the eleventh century, five years before the Norman Conquest, there lived in the little village of Walsingham, England, a pious widow, Richeldis de Faverches. One day, according to the ancient tradition, Richeldis had a vision in which the Blessed Virgin took her to Nazareth and showed her the Holy House of the Annunciation. It was here that the Angel Gabriel had announced to Mary that she was to be the Mother of God. In this house the Holy Family had lived until our Lord was ready to begin His public life. The vision was repeated three times. Each time, our Lady told Richeldis to note carefully the dimensions of the little house so she could build a replica of it on her estate of Walsingham.
Richeldis hastened to obey. Acting under her instruction, a group of workmen built a house similar to the one she had seen in her vision. After the house was constructed, Richeldis did not know where she should put it. Then she received what she considered a sign from heaven. A heavy fall of dew soaked the meadow where Richeldis had planned to put the house, but two small rectangles were left dry.
It was decided to erect a stone foundation on one of these rectangles. Try as they might, however, the workmen could not make the foundation fit the house. They worked all day and at night went home “all sorry and sad.” Richeldis spent the entire night praying that the difficulties might be solved and the shrine erected.
The next morning Richeldis and the workmen found that the house had been moved more than 200 feet to the other space and was on a stone foundation. Thus, says the legend, England received its most celebrated shrine.
WALSINGHAM AND LORETO
There is a great similarity between the story of Walsingham in England and that of Loreto in Italy. The Holy House of Loreto is said to be the very house in which our Lady lived, while the house at Walsingham was a replica of it. The house at Loreto was said to have been moved by the angels from Nazareth to various parts of Italy until it took up its present location. The house at Walsingham was moved 200 feet.
Of the two legends, that of Walsingham is the older. The date given for the foundation of Loreto is 1291, that for Walsingham is 1061. The first written record of the Loreto tradition dates from 1472; that of Walsingham from 1465. Walsingham therefore was not a copy of Loreto. For at least two centuries before Loreto was heard of, thousands of pilgrims were making their way to Walsingham, or New Nazareth as it was called. Whether or not these legends are true, there is no doubt of the sanctity of both shrines nor of the number of miracles and favours granted there.
Richeldis died, and her son, before going off on one of the Crusades, put the house, which had by then become a shrine, under the protection of the Canons of St Augustine. This was a religious order which has since become extinct. The canons built a large church around the house, and they erected many other buildings. There was also a hospice for sick pilgrims. The roads to the great shrine were marked by wayside crosses. There were also a number of wayside chapels at which the pilgrims stopped to pray. Among the thousands who made the pilgrimage to Walsingham were many kings and queens of England. Nobles vied with each other in making generous donations to the shrine. Such was the love Englishmen had for our Blessed Mother in medieval times.
New Nazareth became known throughout all Christian Europe. Because of it, England was called “the Holy Land, Our Lady’s Dowry.”
KING HENRY VIII
King Henry VIII at first had great devotion to the Blessed Virgin. He made a pilgrimage to Walsingham, walking the last mile barefooted in the snow. He also made many generous donations to the shrine. When he broke with Rome in order to take a new wife, he had the buildings razed. So the shrine was destroyed after being in existence almost 500 years. An anonymous sixteenth-century author wrote this Lament Over Walsingham:
Bitter bitter Oh to behold the grass to grow
Where the walls of Walsingham so stately did show;
Such were the works of Walsingham while she did stand:
Such are the wrecks as now do show of that holy land.
Level level with the ground the towers do lie
Which their golden glittering tops pierced once the sky…
Weep weep O Walsingham whose days and nights
Blessings turned to blasphemies holy deeds to dispites,
Sin is where Our Lady sat Heaven turned to Hell,
Satan sits where our Lord did sway, Walsingham O farewell.
As England became more firmly Protestant the memory of Walsingham faded from the minds of most men, but not all. Among those who cherished the tradition of Walsingham there was a saying: “When England goes back to Walsingham, our Lady will come back to England.” That day, however, seemed very remote.
In the nineteenth century there was a reawakened interest in medieval times. Men began digging in the ruins of old churches and abbeys. England was rediscovering its Catholic past. Along with this came the Oxford Movement and its numerous conversions of prominent Anglicans to the Roman Catholic Church. Outstanding among these converts was John Henry Newman, later Cardinal Newman.
Excavations were made on the site of the old shrine. Remains were found which tallied with ancient descriptions. A pilgrim’s badge was unearthed. Catholics began to yearn for a return to Walsingham, but such a return seemed impossible. All the land that had once belonged to the shrine now belonged to non-Catholics. There was, in fact, not a single Catholic resident in the village of Walsingham.
It was decided to build a shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham at the parish church of King’s Lynn, some miles away. A statue blessed by Pope Leo XIII was enshrined in the new sanctuary on August 19, 1897.
Most of the wayside shrines had been destroyed, but one of the most important ones was still standing. This was St Catherine’s Chapel, which had popularly been known as the Slipper Chapel. This was the last chapel on the way to Walsingham. Here pilgrims stopped to remove their shoes or slippers in order to walk the last Holy Mile in their bare feet.
The Slipper Chapel was built in the middle of the fourteenth century and is a gem of Gothic architecture. It is built in such a way that the sun rises behind the east window on the feast of St Catherine, according to the old-style calendar. The chapel is small, measuring only 28 feet 6 inches by 12 feet 5 inches.
After the destruction of the shrine proper, the Slipper Chapel was no longer needed. For a time it was used as a forge, then as a poorhouse, and finally as a barn in which cows were kept.
About 1894 this chapel was discovered by an Anglican woman, Miss Charlotte Boys. She wished to purchase it and to restore it. While negotiations were going on, she received the gift if faith. She completed the purchase and employed a noted architect to do the work of restoration. In 1897, the day after the inauguration of the shrine at King’s Lynn, Walsingham had its first official pilgrimage since the Reformation. The Slipper Chapel, the entrance to the Holy Land of Walsingham, was reopened and in Catholic hands after a lapse of three and a half centuries.
The Slipper Chapel was made a shrine in 1934. From that time pilgrimages have been made from every part of England. Many people travel on foot from London, 117 miles away. In 1938, the fourth centenary of the desecration of Walsingham, Cardinal Hinsley led the gigantic pilgrimage of Catholic youth to the Slipper Chapel…
Little by little, England is returning to Walsingham.
– From: “The Woman Shall Conquer” by Don Sharkey, Prow Books/Franciscan Marytown Press, Libertyville, IL, 1954