Fifty Miles in Full Habit: UK Dominicans Walk to Evangelize

The Nuns of New Forest sponsor annual St. John Paul II pilgrimage to Walsingham.

Pilgrims enjoy the trek to Walsingham each summer.
Pilgrims enjoy the trek to Walsingham each summer. (photo: Rebecca Keane photo)

How do we evangelize modern Britain? By prayer, of course, and by ... walking! At least, that’s the idea of the Dominican Sisters of St. Joseph, based in England’s New Forest. For the past several years, they have been dedicated to the New Evangelization, as urged by St. John Paul. And, this summer, they will be taking to the roads and pathways of England via the “St. John Paul II Pilgrimage” to Walsingham.

These Dominican sisters are a sprightly group, having made a name for themselves when they first settled in a large house on the outskirts of Lymington, in the Diocese of Portsmouth. They drained the swimming pool and used the site for a large new chapel in which they chant the daily Dominican Office.

Wearing full Dominican habits, giving public witness to the faith wherever they go, and having a special focus on youth work and the New Evangelization, the sisters have become an important part of the diocesan work in outreach and mission, using the “Anchor” program for adult catechesis, and the “Come, Follow Me” program for children. They run popular “Fanning the Flame” camps for young people each summer and are much in demand at youth events around Britain.

But perhaps the most strenuous event they organize is the St. John Paul II Pilgrimage to Walsingham, established in 2006 to honor St. John Paul and to take up his call to carry the faith out into public places and to seek the support of Mary as the “Star of the New Evangelization.”


Enjoyable Journey

The walk, from Aug. 3-6 this year, is a 50-mile pilgrimage on foot, beginning with an open-air Mass in the ruined abbey at Bury St. Edmunds — where the Magna Carta was first drawn up by the abbots and knights of England in the reign of King John — and finishing at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.

It’s a four-day event, and the walkers sleep overnight on the floor in schools and church halls. The sisters have become experts at organization over the 10 years of the walk’s existence, and there is a hot meal every evening, a sandwich break every lunchtime, first aid available, and even a portable restroom in its own tent, produced at various stages along the way.

Dominican Sister Hyacinthe du Fos du Rau leads the walk with energy and good humor. As her name suggests, she is French-born — but very proud of the fact that she has recently acquired British nationality, after several years living in the country and permanently committed to the Dominican project in Britain. This all came about despite the fact that she struggled with childhood memories of a school-exchange visit in which she stayed with an English family whose ideas of cuisine were rather different from those of the French.

“My kind English host family wanted to give me something special for my birthday,” she recalled, humor covering the baffled horror of the memory — “green jelly and stewed rhubarb.”

On the John Paul II Pilgrimage, she leads catechetical sessions and prayers, when the young voices ring out with the Rosary across the English countryside.

“And then in the evening, the cozy prospect of sleeping on a floor and eating cheesy pasta,” she said enthusiastically. “Why do we do it?”

They do it because it is fun, prayerful, comradely and immensely enjoyable. Each day begins and ends with the Dominican Office and includes daily Mass. The first morning sees the group in the small village of Barton, where the local Catholics give them a warm welcome and provide a full breakfast — waffles, fruit and cream, buttered toast, the works — after an early Mass in the little Catholic church. Then, with cheers and thank-yous, they set off past a large pig farm and out across the open countryside, heading eastwards towards Walsingham.

“The countryside is fabulous, and the route has become familiar over the years,” said Sister Hyacinthe. “But the most important member of the team is the one in charge of the map!”


Time-Honored Pilgrimage

Out in the middle of the wide Norfolk fields, tracking the ancient routes to Walsingham requires careful attention. Some of the old pathways get overgrown, although the local authorities are charged with clearing them from time to time. There is a satisfaction for today’s pilgrims in knowing that they are walking along routes that have been used for centuries.

“Yes, we do get a sense of history,” Sister Hyacinthe said, “and there’s a sense of adventure, too, in a way — and not just because of the stinging nettles! — because, somehow, each year there is something new to discover and, of course, new pilgrims who are sharing it all for the first time.”

Established in 1061, the shrine at Walsingham was a great center of devotion throughout the Middle Ages. It is six miles from the sea and was established as “England’s Nazareth,” following a vision in which the then lady of the manor, Richeldis de Faverches, was reputedly told by Mary to create a replica of the “Holy House” in which the Incarnation occurred. In 1061, with the Crusades at their height and much of the Holy Land inaccessible because of militant Islam, pilgrims from across Europe could come to Walsingham and honor Christ and his Mother there, recalling the Annunciation and praying in England’s very own Holy House.

Destroyed by Henry VIII in the 16th century, the shrine was revived in the late 19th century and has welcomed pilgrims ever since. Each summer sees large gatherings there — Youth 2000, the charisimatic movement’s New Dawn week of prayer and evangelization, pilgrimages by the Sri Lankan, West Indian, Tamil and other groups, and scores of parish and diocesan pilgrimages.

On the John Paul II Pilgrimage, sleeping bags and luggage are carried in a relay of cars and a minibus so the walkers are free of heavy loads. Each carries a rosary and a small backpack with a drink and daily necessities. The group is led by a large processional cross and a banner, creating interest in the towns and villages through which they pass.

Each evening, as feet are soaked in buckets of cold water, jokes and talk abound. Sister Julie is in charge of the cooking, and platefuls of pasta are followed by apple pie. It’s not haute cuisine, but it goes down well.


Wartime Prayer

The pilgrimage is not the only walking pilgrimage to Walsingham, and over the years, there have been a great many — notably a massive one at the end of the Second World War, when men from different parts of Britain carried large wooden crosses to the shrine in a great national project to pray for peace.

There is a special American link with Walsingham, too: During World War II, this part of Norfolk was a restricted area, vital to the nation’s defenses. Pilgrimages to the shrine were impossible in wartime conditions, and devotion at the shrine was kept alive by the U.S. airmen stationed locally at the massive airfields that still dot the Norfolk landscape. Catholic airmen visited the shrine and attended Mass there, and so prayer continued at this holy site throughout the war years.

Photographs at the shrine today tell the story of these airmen and soldiers, who perhaps took memories of Walsingham with them when they went into battle in the skies over Europe — from which many never returned. A large military cemetery in Cambridegshire has been given in perpetuity to the United States of America, and the U.S. flag flies over it.

Pilgrims making their way by road from London to Walsingham pass this cemetery, but probably most do not know that some of the men honored there played their own special part in the story of England’s national shrine.

Joanna Bogle

writes from London.