K.V. Turley writes from London.
England is known as “Mary’s dowry.”
It is an ancient title.
It tells of a time before the 16th-century Protestant Revolt, when this land had a special devotion to the Mother of God. Evidence for this is found in the many shrines and celebrated places of pilgrimage that once existed here.
Some, such as Walsingham, have been resurrected and draw new pilgrims with each passing year. Others have a steady if local throng of pilgrims. There is, however, one place of former pilgrimage that is neglected almost to the point of being forgotten. That it is the Marian Shrine of London, The fact that it boasts the documented pilgrimages of two canonized saints and a blessed make this all the more puzzling.
Once a country shrine some 8 miles from London, Our Lady of Willesden is today very much part of the metropolis. This is also the poor inner city, one beset with all sorts of difficulties. Surprisingly, the language read on the shop fronts on the way to the shrine is Portuguese. This is London. In certain quarters, for all sorts of historical reasons, particular nationalities and ethnic groups predominate. In the case of Willesden the prevailing nationality is Brazilian.
An unlikely place for a pilgrimage, I grant you. The front of the Catholic Church, however, tells a different tale. On the wall is a painted sign, in the middle of it a portrait of Our Lady of Willesden – no surprise there. What is unexpected, however, is that she is flanked either side by holy men. St. Thomas More was a pilgrim to the ancient Shrine in the early 16th century. He came here in anguish of heart prior to his own martyrdom.
Four centuries later, two Spanish pilgrims visited regularly: St. Josemaría Escrivá and Blessed Álvaro del Portillo. There are few churches in London that can claim a clear link with a canonized saint, fewer still that can claim a connection with two and a beati – but Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden is one of them.
St. Thomas More came here regularly from his home at Chelsea. He walked to the shrine through what were then country lanes. He had friends nearby, and no doubt combined the spiritual with a temporal visit such was the manner in which he lived. More came here shortly before his imprisonment in the Tower of London and subsequent death on Tower Hill. Soon after More’s death, Henry VIII destroyed Our Lady’s shrine at Willesden. Thereafter, More’s world and this Marian Shrine were consigned to history – or so it was hoped.
The Willesden Shrine church returned, however, and so too did pilgrims, a few to begin with. Then in 1958, St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei came to England to escape the Roman summer sun. He did so each year from 1958 until 1962. While in London, he visited the shrine at Willesden regularly. On his first visit, in 1958, along with the future Blessed Álvaro del Portillo, he consecrated Opus Dei to the Maternal Care of Mary on Aug. 15, the Feast of the Assumption.
Given that More was a man of the world, and that Escrivá was a priest who saw, in a particularly sharp way, the holiness of the ordinary things of life, it is fitting that both saints are depicted on a board outside a simple parish church. They stand on either side of the Woman who, with St. Joseph, shared the everyday, hidden life of Our Lord.
It is the lot of this church of pilgrimage to be hidden and unknown even in the city wherein it lies. If you stopped the average Londoner and asked him about the Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden he would look back at you with indifference, or consider the question as some sort of joke. Most Catholics are equally ignorant of what is officially London’s Marian Shrine. Yet, each year, many faithful travel further afield to go on pilgrimage abroad. Perhaps, this is hardly surprising given the unappealing location of the London shrine. Think of your local metropolitan area and then consider a quarter within it that is synonymous with the problems of the inner city. Then consider making a pilgrimage to one of its churches. Such is the lot of Our Lady of Willesden.
Having visited Willesden many times, my pilgrimage this day coincided with the annual May Procession, which was to pass through the streets round about. Given what I had seen of these on my walk to the shrine from the station, I was intrigued as to how that would play out.
A May pilgrimage is a Catholic tradition to honor Our Lady in the month dedicated to her. When one thinks of processions in her honor, images of Lourdes and Fatima come to mind, great international gatherings with spectacle and sound. People travel many miles, sometimes over oceans and continents, to pray at such holy shrines. At Willesden that day, there was a larger than usual crowd awaiting the moment for the pilgrimage to begin. The Shrine parish priest instructed all to go out and reclaim the streets for Our Lady – but also to be careful. He was to be proved wise on both counts.
What followed next was surprising. A fully-fledged Catholic pilgrimage, priests in cassocks and birettas, girls in their white Communion dresses, and a statue carried on a bier shoulder high with many flowers was led out of the church and onto the streets of London’s inner city. The pilgrims who walked with me represented all aspects of life in the capital: the rich and not so rich, different nationalities and races – all united as brothers and sisters with a common Mother, and with a shared sense of being children of the one Father.
Impatient car drivers hooted their horns at having to wait as the statue and the pilgrims slowly made their way through the streets. Along the route, spectators stared open-mouthed as we passed; others pretended not to notice. Hymns were sung; prayers said; the Rosary was intoned. Onwards we walked in the sunshine. A rousing sermon was given in the playground of a local school that had opened to welcome the pilgrims and the statue. In his homily a priest talked of the need to witness to our faith in an increasingly secular and hostile environment. Looking at those around, I felt that their presence that day went a long way already to meeting that goal. The pilgrimage finished with Benediction in the Shrine church. As May pilgrimages go, it was not the largest, nor the most colorful; it would not have attracted much notice in the press, Catholic or otherwise. Still, it was a pilgrimage for London, and for all living there. This may be a city that all too clearly witnesses to other gods upon its streets, but, at times such as this, one sees the often hidden faith of some of its citizens. It is good to be reminded of this: the faith of the ordinary Catholic who kneels beside one each Sunday, and how extraordinary that faith really is.
Next time you come to London you will no doubt have many places to visit on your schedule — places of note, historic or otherwise. If you have time, you may wish to go off the beaten track. You may wish to go somewhere where you will find few, if any, other tourists. You may wish to sit there in silence for a time and pray. You may find that, in that time when there, things become clearer; difficulties subside; an answer is found. Such is the nature of pilgrimage, and Willesden remains such a place of pilgrimage, and not in spite of but because of its fractured history.
Back down the streets of Willesden with its Portuguese signs I trudged to the train station. Through this out-of-the-way place filled mainly with poor people and their problems. Then it struck me, this place reminded me of another: Nazareth.