‘School of Mary’: Ecclesial Family Brings Walsingham to England and Beyond
‘We believe that this spirituality, when lived well, will hasten the conversion of our land.’
LONDON — On Jan. 6, 2004, the feast of the Epiphany, Holy Mass was offered in the Slipper Chapel at Walsingham Shrine. Four women were present. They were the fledgling Community of Our Lady of Walsingham (COLW).
Today, the community has grown both in number and in its identification with the spirit of England’s chief Marian shrine.
In the English county of Norfolk, the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham was established in 1061. Suppressed at the time of the English Reformation in the 16th century, it was revived as a place of pilgrimage for both Catholics and Anglicans from the 1920s onwards. Today, the Catholic shrine attracts in excess of 150,000 pilgrims annually.
The Community of Our Lady of Walsingham, from its inception, has been committed to bringing “Walsingham” to parishes throughout England and beyond.
In December 2003, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, then the archbishop of Westminster, granted to the community a decree establishing it as a “public association of the faithful destined to become a religious institute.” On the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (July 16) in 2017, a new decree came into effect for the community.
Bishop Alan Williams, then the bishop of Brentwood, established the community as a public association of the faithful destined to become an “Ecclesial Family of Consecrated Life.” An “ecclesial family” is a spiritual family within the Catholic Church, which may include members who are religious sisters and brothers, or priests, or laypeople, men or women — some of whom may be celibate, others married. Within the larger family of the Church, these vocational callings come together to constitute a “spiritual family.”
It was at the Walsingham Shrine’s Slipper Chapel that the inspiration for the community came to Sister Camilla Oberding. The leader of the community, known as the community servant, explained to the Register, “I did not intend starting a new community. COLW unfolded organically from a vocations discernment group that I had been running for some years in Westminster Diocese. … The inspiration for COLW was received in the Slipper Chapel.”
So, for the community, Walsingham shall always be more than just another Marian pilgrimage site. Furthermore, it is clear that the shrine of Walsingham has become integral to the charism and witness of the community. “It is our spiritual home,” said Sister Camilla, “where Our Blessed Mother Mary wanted people to remember and share in the joy she had at the Annunciation; when by virtue of her fiat — ‘Yes’ to God’s love and will in her life — Christ became flesh in her. It is through our little ‘Yeses’ to God in the events of each day that Christ will become incarnate in us. Then we will be able to experience Mary’s joy, the joy of a deep union with the Trinity dwelling within each one of us.” The Community of Our Lady of Walsingham, she said, “by trying to live the spirituality of Walsingham in depth, pray for the coming of God’s kingdom and for the joy of Walsingham to slowly dispel the lack of hope we see in so many places today.”
Currently, there are four professed sisters, three postulants and eight lay members. Taking her first vows in March 2023, Sister Catherine Williams is a temporary professed sister of the community. What attracted her to this new community?
“Many things!” she told the Register. “I loved the blend of the contemplative life of prayer rooted in the Carmelite tradition of silence and the word of God; and the apostolic life: going out and doing mission, such as giving retreats and catechesis, leading people closer to God.”
She said she values the formation she has received within the community.
“Not only was there the opportunity for in-depth study, particularly of the spiritual life,” she said, “but also rich human formation, all directed towards helping me grow in the freedom to make good choices and become the person whom God has created me to be.”
Another prominent aspect that she said she treasures is the importance the community places on the spirituality of Walsingham. “Day by day striving to give my ‘Yes’ so that Christ becomes more incarnate in me and, through this, his kingdom can come and his will be done in me.”
Presently, the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham is involved in parish missions, retreats and catechising children; members are also chaplains to students at a local university and inmates in a nearby prison. The community operates from its motherhouse, situated at Dereham, a few miles south of Walsingham.
The life of the community starts at 6:15 a.m., and its day flows as follows:
7:00 — Eucharistic adoration (first hour of silent prayer)
8:00 — Morning Prayer
8:30 — Breakfast
9:30 — Mass followed by work
1:30 — Lunch and personal time for study/walk
4:30 — Vespers (Evening Prayer), Fiat Rosary and, for novices, second hour of silent prayer
5:00 — Work for postulants and professed sisters
6:30 — Supper
7:45 — Recreation
8:45 — Compline (Night Prayer), followed by silence
One of the community’s postulants is Kate Preston. She had been exploring various religious communities with a view to a possible religious vocation, but without success, until her spiritual director suggested the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham. This community, it was explained to her, was “a new form of consecrated life called an ‘ecclesial family,’ rooted in Carmelite spirituality.” Learning more about ecclesial families, it seemed to her that “they were a kind of ‘micro-church’ within the Church.” Thereafter, she visited the Walsingham community and immediately “felt the peace” she had been searching for, while feeling equally attracted by “the joy of the members of the community.”
One of the defining aspects of any ecclesial family is the way in which it may include lay, religious and priests within the same canonical structure.
Married mother Elizabeth Sudlow is one of the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham’s lay members. Aware of the Church’s universal call to holiness, she views the community as “helping ordinary laypeople on the path to holiness in everyday joys and sorrows: in our homes and families, parishes and workplaces, supporting one another on our journeys.”
For lay members like her, the particular spiritual path of the community comprises “a school of Mary whose fiat was her ‘Yes’ to God’s plan for her.” In turn, she said, “we learn together to say ‘Yes’ and ‘thank you’ to the Lord, in each situation, easy or difficult, inspired by the joy of the Annunciation. This is quite a challenge in a world where many think happiness can only come from selfish self-realization.”
Living the charism of the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham as a laywoman, she told the Register she senses that, for her and others, there has been a “growing in love and freedom, enabling us to grow closer to God out in the world where there are so many obstacles to holiness,” she said. “Together, as an ecclesial family, and as individuals, we desire to become more like Mary.”
Whether its members are lay, religious or clerics, Sister Camilla is certain that the community’s mission is as apostolic as it is contemplative. This former dimension she feels is rooted in the past while pointing to the future.
“Pope Leo XIII said that ‘when England returns to Walsingham, Mary will come back to England,’” she observed. “It is by learning to live in the joy of Mary’s fiat that people in any environment can become authentic witnesses to the Father’s love and effective missionary disciples: that is, becoming the saints that the Church — and England — so desperately needs today.” Fundamentally, she sees the mission of the community as prophetic.
She said, “We believe that this spirituality, when lived well, will hasten the conversion of our land and other lands further afield.”