Renewing Devotion to Our Lady

Walsingham Shrine Set to Expand

For nearly a thousand years, people have been walking the pilgrim routes to Walsingham, the shrine in Norfolk, in the east of England, where Our Lady is honored.

A new rector, Msgr. John Armitage, has been appointed to the shrine. He was formally installed on the feast of the Annunciation and is full of plans for the development of the shrine so that it can welcome many more pilgrims in the years ahead.

It will begin with spiritual renewal: A Walsingham statue will be taken from the shrine to each of the Catholic cathedrals in England for veneration and prayer, fostering a fresh dedication to Our Lady and asking her intercession for the country.

At the shrine itself, a new Pilgrim Hall will be built in the present picnic area — at present, there is nowhere for pilgrims to gather in wet weather. And there will be extended refreshment facilities, replacing the present small café.

The heart of the shrine is the small, Medieval “Slipper Chapel,” so named because it stands alongside a slyp (lane) leading to the village. A larger modern church stands nearby, and the two are united by a garden area that also serves for outdoor Masses.

This area will now be developed with, as Msgr. Armitage explains, a place for “candles and holy water — and the whole site will be linked together by a cloister, which will be very helpful during open-air Masses when it rains.” Msgr. Armitage knows Walsingham well, having been a regular visitor for four decades, and is enthusiastic about the future. Although many visitors each summer are happy to camp in local meadows — groups such as the New Dawn charismatic gathering and Youth 2000 bring their own tents and marquees — better provision needs to be made for those who prefer something a little less basic.

New accommodations are being planned, offering comfortable rooms with onsite facilities, with several providing specifically for the needs of disabled people.


Walsingham’s Story

The story of Walsingham goes back to the years just before the Norman Conquest of England. This was a time of uncertainty. King Edward the Confessor had no heir, and there was confusion as to what would happen. Had he, as was rumored, promised the throne to William of Normandy? Or did the Saxon Harold have the better claim, supported as he was by the then-parliament, which was called the Witan?

The manor of Walsingham seems to have had some link with the Saxon royal house. In any event, the lady of the manor, Richeldis, was known as a devout woman, devoted to the Church. In 1061, she had a vision, in which she had a call to build a replica of the Holy House in which Our Lady had first received the news of the Incarnation at Nazareth. Walsingham was to have its own “Holy House”; and as soon as it was built, pilgrims started to arrive, conscious of their need for prayer in uncertain times, seeking the loving protection of Mary for the years ahead.

Over the next years, Walsingham would grow in importance.

Muslim armies in the Middle East meant that it was becoming harder and harder for Christians to visit the Holy Land, and so the original Holy House at Nazareth became virtually inaccessible. A pilgrimage to Walsingham became a practical alternative; and, over the next centuries, it became part of an established tradition: The constellation in the sky that we today call the “Milky Way” was known in the Middle Ages as the “Walsingham Way” because the number of stars reminded people of the crowds that thronged the lanes to Walsingham.

Destroyed under Henry VIII, the shrine was abandoned and neglected for four centuries (although there is some evidence that people visited it secretly) and was revived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when both Catholic and Anglican efforts brought about a great renewal of the sacred shrine. A large Anglican shrine was constructed in the village in the 1920s, while the Catholics revived the used of the small Medieval Slipper Chapel and created a shrine there. There is good ecumenical cooperation between the two, and, today, many pilgrims visit both sites.


Pilgrims Come

For Easter 2015, young people from across Britain gathered at the completion of the great “Student Cross” pilgrimage, in which students, carrying crosses, walk to Walsingham from their various universities. In May, families will arrive for the annual camping pilgrimage organized by the National Association of Catholic Families. Summer will see busloads of pilgrims arrive from parishes and Catholic organizations each weekend and the large gatherings organized by New Dawn and Youth 2000. Young people will walk on the July 6-9 John Paul II Pilgrimage for the New Evangelization, carrying a picture of St. John Paul II blessed by Msgr. Keith Newton of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.

The tradition for all walking pilgrims is to remove shoes and walk barefoot for the last mile (the “holy mile”) to the shrine. Some claim that this is the origin of the name “Slipper Chapel,” although historians dispute this.

There are two routes that can be taken: one along the winding lane that leads from the village and the other (rather more painful!) along the gravel route of the old railway track (the railway was closed in the 1960s, along with several other country lines in England).

In the village itself, there are teashops and pubs and a modern Catholic parish church that serves the needs of the local faithful.

I will be among those heading for Walsingham this summer: Along with others on the John Paul pilgrimage, I’ll be walking 20 miles a day and sleeping in church halls and schools. We’ll start at the ancient abbey ruins in Bury St. Edmunds, where the abbots of England gathered long ago to draft the Magna Carta, the 800th anniversary of which we mark this year on June 15. There will be an open-air Mass there, and another at Castleacre Priory further along our pilgrimage route. Each night, we’ll say the Dominican Office, as the pilgrimage is organized by the Dominican Sisters of St. Joseph from Lymington in Hampshire; and along the route, we’ll pray the Rosary, sing and relish the glorious Norfolk countryside.

If it rains — as it did last year — we’ll laugh and cope, as pilgrims to Walsingham have been doing for something like a thousand years.

Joanna Bogle writes from

London and is an EWTN host.