Rosary Shrine Shines Light on Marian Heart of London

A Visit to St. Dominic’s Church in Haverstock Hill

The Rosary Shrine at St. Dominic’s reflects the structure of the Rosary, with chapels dedicated to various mysteries, from the Annunciation to the Nativity to Pentecost.
The Rosary Shrine at St. Dominic’s reflects the structure of the Rosary, with chapels dedicated to various mysteries, from the Annunciation to the Nativity to Pentecost. (photo: Photos courtesy of Dominican Father Lawrence Lew)
London may not be the first place with which one associates the Rosary. And yet the Diocese of Westminster has a shrine specially dedicated to this devotion.

St. Dominic’s Church in Haverstock Hill is home to London’s Rosary Shrine. Entrusted to the Order of Preachers — more commonly known as the Dominicans — since October 2016, the shrine has been canonically established as the Diocesan Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary.

This recent designation is but the culmination of the shrine’s remarkable history. In 1858, at Lourdes, a 14-year-old girl, the sickly and asthmatic Bernadette Soubirous, received 18 apparitions of Our Lady. In all of these apparitions, St. Bernadette would kneel and begin to pray the Rosary. “Without thinking of what I was doing, I took my rosary in my hands and went on my knees. The Lady made with her head a sign of approval and herself took into her hands a rosary that hung on her right arm. When I attempted to begin the Rosary and tried to lift my hand to my forehead, my arm remained paralyzed, and it was only after the Lady had signed herself that I could do the same. The Lady left me to pray all alone; she passed the beads of her rosary between her fingers but she said nothing; only at the end of each decade did she say the Gloria with me,” Bernadette recalled, as chronicled in See How She Loves Us: 50 Approved Apparitions of Our Lady by Joan Carroll Cruz and other sources.

Father Lawrence Lew, rector of the shrine and promoter general of the Rosary for the Dominicans worldwide, told the Register Oct. 8 that, shortly after these apparitions were approved by the Church, an Englishman named Thomas Walmesley “felt called by Our Lady to build a church somewhere in England ‘to mark the gratitude of the Catholics of the United Kingdom for the many graces and blessings received through Our Lady of Lourdes.’”

In 1873 Cardinal Henry Manning, the archbishop of Westminster, advised Walmesley to approach the Dominicans based at Haverstock Hill who were then planning on building a new mission church in a part of London which, at that time, was seeing its Catholic population increase significantly. The Dominicans, known in England as the “Black Friars,” had originally come to London in 1223. They established a thriving riverside priory in medieval London, near Old St. Paul’s Cathedral at Ludgate Hill, in an area that to this day still bears the name “Blackfriars.”

The 16th-century English Reformation destroyed Catholic London. Religious orders were dispersed and their houses taken by the Crown. It was not until 1861 that the Dominicans returned to London at the invitation of Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, some 10 years after the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England in 1850. Just over a decade later, Walmesley approached the Dominicans with his desire to erect something in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes. “The Dominicans were convinced by Walmesley’s vision and ambition,” explained Father Lew, “and they agreed to dedicate their new church to Our Lady of the Rosary, a customary Dominican title for Our Lady. Moreover, the church building itself would reflect the structure of the Rosary: A ring of chapels, dedicated to each mystery of the Rosary — Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious — would flank the nave of the church, with the 15th mystery, Our Lady’s coronation, commemorated in the stained-glass window in the apse above the high altar.”

When consecrated in 1883, Our Lady of the Rosary was the first church in the world to have “Rosary chapels” — individual chapels with distinct altars and sculpted altarpieces depicting each mystery of the Rosary. It was not until 1899 that the Rosary Basilica in Lourdes would follow suit, albeit with mosaic depictions of the mysteries rather than sculptures. From the start, the London church was linked to the Marian shrine at Lourdes. “Walmesley’s dream was that the church would be large enough to accommodate pilgrims who could not afford to visit Lourdes. Instead, they would come to Our Lady of the Rosary in Haverstock Hill and to the later Lourdes Grotto,” said Father Lew.

If Walmesley had a dream, Father Lew explained, it coincided with the vision of Cardinal Wiseman, namely, “of encircling London with shrine churches on each of its hills. It was he who chose Haverstock Hill for the Dominicans, telling them to purchase the land and to build a great church here.” However, Cardinal Wiseman did not live to see the completion of the building. And it would not be until October 2016 that Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Cardinal Wiseman’s latter-day successor as archbishop of Westminster, would canonically establish the church as the Diocesan Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary. “In doing so, Cardinal Nichols brought to completion an initiative of Cardinal Wiseman’s,” said Father Lew.

The Rosary Shrine at Haverstock Hill is part of a network of Marian shrines and sanctuaries throughout England. It is a reminder of that country’s ancient title of “Mary’s Dowry.” Like many other English Catholics, Father Lew “looks forward to the re-dedication of England under this title in March 2020.”

Father Lew feels that hosting the Diocesan Rosary Shrine has allowed parishioners to look “with fresh eyes at this shrine church, as they open up their ‘home’ to others.” In so doing throughout the year, the parish community welcomes visitors from all over London and from around the world. Conscious of Walmesley’s early inspiration, Father Lew sees the shrine continuing “to mark the gratitude of generations of Catholics for blessings and graces granted through Our Lady’s prayers to countless weary souls.”

Members of London-based Rosary prayer groups, such as the Legion of Mary and the World Apostolate of Fatima, all come to pray at the shrine. The pro-life community and the Diocesan Youth Ministry come regularly to the shrine for prayer vigils and Masses. Before the U.K.’s annual March for Life in central London there is an all-night vigil held at the shrine. Last year, theologian Scott Hahn came and, to a packed congregation, gave a talk on the biblical basis of Marian devotion.

The choice of artistic medium used to decorate the shrine is not without significance. Father Lew reflects: “It seems significant to me that the mysteries of the Rosary in this Rosary shrine church are depicted through sculpture rather than mosaic or paint.” He elaborates: “These [latter] media, although undoubtedly beautiful and colorful, lack the bodily-ness of the artistic medium of sculpture. Hence, when one prays in the various Rosary chapels, one engages with the sculpture differently, in a way that seems to me to be more personal, more bodily, and thus, more incarnational.”

Father Lew believes that, for this reason, the experience of praying in London’s Rosary Shrine is not easily communicated through videos or photographs, “but has to be personally engaged in through an actual pilgrimage to the shrine, and then through taking the time to pray in these Rosary chapels.” This acts as a metaphor, he feels, for “the whole of our faith and of the life of prayer,” in which there has to be personal engagement. “Prayer and worship, our faith, and devotion to Our Lady of the Holy Rosary is not a spectator sport,” he added.

Of course, it is not coincidental that London’s Rosary Shrine should be entrusted to the Dominican Order. “The Dominican connection is entirely providential,” said Father Lew. “In God’s wisdom, he inspired the Order of Preachers, and it was to St. Dominic and his order that Our Lady first entrusted the preaching of the Holy Rosary. The success of the Rosary as a devotion of the Church is seen precisely in the fact that few people remember that the Rosary began as a Dominican devotion.”

Father Lew is convinced, however, that the Rosary is as relevant to the Church today as in the days of St. Dominic — maybe even more so: “The Blessed Virgin Mary, whenever she has appeared on earth, has frequently urged Catholics, with ever greater urgency, to say the Rosary. It seems that, somehow, in God’s providence, we participate in God’s saving work when we say the Rosary.” He continued: “The Rosary tells us in the 21st century that we are ever more in need of Mary’s intercession and of her motherly protection. … We should ‘imitate’ the mysteries we contemplate.”

He concluded: “The Rosary thus conforms us to Christ and unites us to him — its fruit is ever relevant, always needful and never ages because the fruit of the Rosary is love. And, as St. Paul says, ‘Love never ends’” (1 Corinthians 13:8).

K.V. Turley is the Register’s

U.K. correspondent.