For centuries, they came. Trudging along narrow footpaths, often precariously perched atop steep cliffs that plunged down to the Irish Sea, the pilgrims had one mission: to reach Bardsey Island.
Bardsey Island sits off the blustery northern coast of Wales, and evidence indicates it has been a site of worship since the Bronze Age (3600-1200 B.C.). In the sixth century, St. Cadfan began construction of a monastery there that eventually became home to many devout monks, causing Bardsey to become an important site for the Celtic Christian Church. Over time, the faithful began flocking to the island on pilgrimage. As their numbers swelled in the Middle Ages, the Pope declared that three pilgrimages to Bardsey Island equaled one pilgrimage to Rome.
Eventually, the island became known as the “Island of the Saints,” and it was said 20,000 holy people were interred there.
Bardsey Island’s monastic community flourished until 1537, when King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries as part of the Protestant Reformation. Today, visitors to the island can see the 13th-century Augustinian Abbey of St. Mary’s and its remains, which mainly consist of a roofless tower where informal, ecumenical services can be held. There is also a chapel on the island, built in 1875 for visitors’ worship and meditation.
Colin Evans, whose family has lived on the island for generations, said there aren’t really 20,000 saints buried on the small island, although evidence shows there are easily thousands of people interred there, most likely monks and the faithful. And that may be a small part of what makes Bardsey special. “Speaking as a pragmatic, practical chap, there’s a very, very spiritual feel to the place,” he said.
Many Catholic Sites
For a tiny, largely Protestant country, Wales holds a wealth of interesting Catholic sites. Besides Bardsey Island, there’s the little Church of the Sacred Heart in Henllan. During World War II, Henllan was the site of a prisoner of war camp for 1,000 Italians. The men, homesick for their families and native land, turned one of their huts into an ornate Catholic church. If you make an appointment to see the interior, you’ll find hand-painted frescoes and an altar covered with a mural depicting the Last Supper. For many years after the war ended, the POWs made an annual pilgrimage back to Henllan and their little church for a special Mass.
Just outside the capital city of Cardiff, grand Llandaff Cathedral sits on one of Britain’s oldest Christian sites. St. Dyfrig founded a religious community there in the sixth century, and its large Celtic cross remains today, standing tall in a spot a short way outside the cathedral. The current cathedral was built in 1107 by order of Bishop Urban, the first bishop appointed by the Normans. Its patron saints then — and now — are St. Dyfrig and his two immediate successors, Sts. Teilo and Euddogwy. Today, Llandaff Cathedral is part of the Church of Wales. If you visit, you’ll see remains of one of the site’s earliest church bell towers, then a detached structure, plus the tomb of St. Teilo.
Those who take a stroll along the Ceredigion section of the new Wales Coast Path, which runs 870 miles along Wales’ entire coast, will pass the Church of the Holy Cross in Mwnt, an ancient Celtic church for sailors. The tiny, bright-white building can be seen for quite a distance from its perch on the coastline. If you enjoy walking, you can also check out the Cistercian Way, another long-distance path. Forming a giant loop around the country, the Cistercian Way (which can be walked or driven) leads visitors to Wales’ numerous Cistercian sites, from tiny churches tucked into the Welsh hills to some of the order’s grandest abbeys, such as the Church of St. Beuno in Clynnog Fawr.
St. Beuno (BAY no) is considered the greatest Celtic saint of North Wales. A descendant of the Prince of Powys, he founded Clynnog Fawr Monastery in 616 and, shortly after that, a church. St. Beuno is said to have had miraculous healing powers. In medieval times, the church was an important stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Bardsey Island. Today, visitors can tour the monastery’s massive church, which dates from the 15th-16th centuries, and view its interesting artifacts, which include an ancient wooden chest used to keep alms donated by the pilgrims and “dog tongs,” wielded to snatch up feisty animals running around the church, disrupting services. The church also contains an interesting display on the history of pilgrimages, among other things.
Melanie Radzicki McManus
writes from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.