Years ago, as a student studying abroad, I made a pilgrimage to the shrine honoring Our Lady of Walsingham, located in the village of Little Walsingham in Norfolk, England.
The shrine is one of Europe’s oldest pilgrimage destinations. In its medieval heyday, it drew faithful from England and the continent, including pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales.
It was a blessed trip for me, deepening my love for Our Lady as well as my understanding of the sad division of the faithful caused by the Protestant Reformation.
Today, both Anglicans and Catholics celebrate Our Lady of Walsingham as the patroness of English-speaking peoples.
Our Lady’s Story
The story begins in 1061, when Mary appeared to the pious woman Richeldis de Faverches. Mary asked her to build a special "Holy House," modeled after the house in Nazareth, where the Annunciation took place.
The house was built, and an Augustinian priory was established to tend to the needs of the pilgrims, including several kings and queens, who came to honor Our Lady.
During the Protestant revolution in 1538, King Henry VIII ordered the original Holy House destroyed, along with the original statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, and suppressed devotion to Mary.
The faithful continued to honor her in secret for 300 years until religious freedom was restored. Pope Leo XIII then rebuilt the shrine in 1897. In the early 20th century, an Anglican shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham was built inside the village.
At the Roman Catholic shrine just outside the village, a restored medieval roadside chapel where medieval pilgrims would leave their shoes (the Slipper Chapel) houses the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. Next to the chapel are the ruins of the priory. From the village, pilgrims traditionally walk on bare feet and pray the Rosary along the "Holy Mile" that leads to the Catholic shrine.
The quiet country lane passes between quaint cottages with gardens and a sheep pasture. During my visit, village women wearing headscarves prayed and ambled along the way, continuing the tradition of pilgrims for hundreds of years.
A Second Pilgrimage
Twenty years later, I made a second pilgrimage in honor of Our Lady of Walsingham, but this time my travels took me to Texas and the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Houston.
The parish of Our Lady of Walsingham was established on April 7, 1984, and met for about a year at St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Houston. The parish moved to several other locations until the new church was built. It was dedicated on Feb. 14, 2004.
On Jan. 1 of last year, the parish was named the principal church of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, established by Pope Benedict XVI, and the symbolic home for thousands of Anglican faithful who have made the courageous journey from Protestantism back to Rome.
The American shrine includes stones from the priory ruins in England and draws inspiration from a remaining fragment of the priory’s east window. A lovely Rosary garden with fountain provides a place for quiet meditation on the mysteries of Christ’s life and continues the Walsingham tradition of honoring Our Lady with this prayer.
Inside the Houston church, stained-glass windows behind the altar depict the Annunciation and Our Lady’s apparition to Richeldis. One of the church’s most unique features is an enclosed chapel in the same dimensions as the original Holy House and modeled to look like the inside of a 10th-century Saxon house. It serves as the Lady Chapel and an intimate place of prayer.
A beautiful statue of Our Lady of Walsingham — wearing a blue cloak with gold accents, a golden crown and holding a white lily, while the Child Jesus, also crowned, sits on her lap holding a book — is located in a special niche in the church. The statue includes symbols of faith and the Anglo-Saxon culture. Mary’s crown and throne is Saxon, hearkening to the ruling powers in 1061 when the shrine was founded. Under her feet is not a serpent, but a toadstone, the East Anglian symbol of evil. On her throne are seven golden rings, symbolizing the sacraments, and a double golden arch, symbolic of the covenant God made with all creation after the flood. Jesus holds the Book of the Gospels and extends his hand both in blessing and as a protective gesture towards his Mother.
A Gesture of Reconciliation
Pope Benedict’s invitation on Nov. 4, 2009, to Anglicans to join the Catholic Church while maintaining their own liturgical traditions was more than an ecumenical statement. It also was a generous gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation, given the history of both churches. In Anglicanorum Coetibus, Benedict XVI stated that an Anglican ordinariate could "maintain the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church as a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared."
Several years ago, Robert Ritchie, a retired major with the U.S. Marine Corps, was a traditional Episcopalian struggling with his church’s stance on several issues. He was drawn to the Catholic Church; however, he was hesitant, due to his experience attending Catholic Mass: "The music, the liturgy and the way the people approached the altar were completely different. At the Catholic churches, I felt there was too low regard for receiving the body and blood of Christ. It looked as if people were dressed for a beach picnic rather than the house of God."
Hearing about the Pope’s invitation to Anglicans, Ritchie was skeptical, but also intrigued. He eventually realized that the Holy Father had "affirmed the tradition in which I had grown up, that it had value, and that reconciliation was possible without losing one’s identity."
After attending the traditional Latin Mass with a friend, he learned there was more reverence in the Catholic liturgy than he had previously thought, and he joined the Catholic Church in Easter 2011. Now, Ritchie enjoys attending Mass whether it is celebrated in the ordinary form, the extraordinary form Latin Mass or the Anglican-use Mass.
Ritchie eventually made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Houston last year. "It was a very humbling experience to know that Anglicans are once again a vital part of Holy Mother Church and to realize that the shrine at Walsingham, which was destroyed during the Reformation, is a symbol of this rebirth," Ritchie said.
Our Lady of Walsingham reminds us that true peace comes only from heartfelt forgiveness of the wrongs of the past through reconciliation with God and neighbor, made possible through the sacrificial offering of her Son.
Janneke Pieters writes
from New Orleans.
Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham
7809 Shadyvilla Ln.
Houston, TX 77055