Walsingham: Nucleus for the Reconversion of England?
Our Lady’s shrine beckons the faithful in the beautiful north Norfolk countryside.
LITTLE WALSINGHAM, England — Since medieval times, England’s national shrine, set deep in the beautiful north Norfolk countryside, has been regarded as a great center of Catholic faith, a beacon of light and hope through the nation’s long and tumultuous history.
That is no less the case today. As the country becomes ever more secular and “post-Christian,” so the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham is drawing individuals and families to the town to live out their faith and devotion to the Blessed Mother.
It comes as the de-Christianization of the country appears almost complete.
A recent survey showed that Britons are less likely to believe in God than in almost any other country in the world, and of all the countries of the United Kingdom, church attendance in England across all denominations is the lowest — at just 4.7% of the population. A poll last year revealed that England and Wales are no longer Christian-majority countries.
This widespread secularization has had a direct impact on legislation and culture in England, with encroaching threats to civil liberties.
Silent prayer around abortion businesses has been criminalized (it was later rejected by the now-former home secretary, but the law remains). The Church of England supports blessings of same-sex weddings. In the middle of all that has been a general decline in civil and political discourse, social cohesion and governance.
Hence the often-expressed desire for the “reconversion of England,” a return to the deep and fruitful Catholic roots of the country and the urgent need to proclaim the Gospel.
Within that call is a desire to return to the deep devotion to Our Lady that existed in medieval England, when the Blessed Virgin Mary was seen as the nation’s protectress and given the title Our Lady’s Dowry — a dedication that has never been rescinded by either the sovereign or Parliament but which most English citizens will have never heard of.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham has long been viewed as a protagonist in any reconversion, something Pope Leo XIII recognized in 1897.
“When England goes back to Walsingham,” he said, “Our Lady will come back to England.”
This small town of just 600 people, located in quintessentially English countryside near the charmingly named villages of Little Snoring, Great Snoring and Pudding Norton, is unapologetically Catholic, and in that way, unlike any other English town. Statues of Our Lady feature prominently, not only in its many holy places but also in Walsingham’s shops, cafés and restaurants.
Their ubiquitousness is a reminder, not only of how the country’s culture could have remained Catholic had the Reformation not laid the destruction of so many vestiges of the Catholic faith in the country, but also of the immense importance of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham to English Catholic spirituality — and its imperishability in the face of subsequent waves of destruction.
As recently as 2021, the bishops of England recognized the Blessed Virgin’s important and defining role in the country by holding a rededication of England to Our Lady. Walsingham was at the center of the rededication that took place during the COVID emergency and immediately before the enforcement of lockdown.
The Shrine’s History
The origins of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham date back to 1061, when a holy woman — Lady Richeldis de Faverches — prayed that she might undertake some special work in honor of the Blessed Mother. The Blessed Virgin responded by leading Richeldis to having a replica of the Holy House of the Annunciation built there and then a priory less than a century later. Walsingham would soon become one of the greatest Marian shrines in medieval Christendom.
But in 1538, at the height of the Reformation and the tyranny of King Henry VIII, the original shrine was destroyed, along with the dissolution of the many monasteries.
Only after the Catholic Emancipation of 1829 did pilgrimages restart. The 14th-century Slipper Chapel, located on one of the roads into Walsingham, wasn’t restored until 1896, officially becoming the location of the national shrine for Catholics in England almost 40 years later, in 1934.
During World War II, American forces organized the first Mass in the priory grounds since the Reformation. A large, barn-like chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Reconciliation was built in 1982, Pope Francis declared the shrine a minor basilica in 2015, and, today, the shrine attracts some more than 150,000 pilgrims annually.
“There is a sense of reparation here,” Sarah De Nordwall, a Catholic poet and storyteller who lives in Walsingham and London, told the Register. “Henry VIII caused every statue of Our Lady to be brought to the Southbank [in London], beheaded and burned. Her shrine was desecrated, and her intentions for our land and nation were therefore marred, but we hope to restore to our country the spirit in which it was made Our Lady’s Dowry.”
Mary, one of three consecrated virgins living in Walsingham, described the town as a spiritual “ground zero,” as the “pain of the destruction of the monasteries is still so present here. It’s still raw.” She requested her last name not be used.
She chose to reside there because she firmly believes it’s where Our Lady “wants me and because she can use me here.” It’s a conviction shared by other practicing faithful who have deliberately chosen to live in close proximity to the shrine and generally see it as a vocation with very particular challenges.
“You live in Walsingham to become a saint, quite frankly,” Walsingham Catholic resident Clair-Mary, who also did not want to give her last name, told the Register, adding that “there are no excuses” not to significantly grow in sanctity. “You’re tried and tested, like in a fire, if you’re called to live here, but everything around you makes it possible, in terms of the sacraments to live out a life of virtue and allow God to do that work in your life because you’re in our Blessed Mother’s home.”
Clair-Mary added, “Given what it is and what it means for the Church in England and her conversion, it’s mentally trying,” but she stressed that such trials are given by the Blessed Mother to teach humility and total dependence on her guidance and intercession.
Mary said in whichever way you are called to live your faith in Walsingham, “you are unlikely to be a lukewarm ‘cultural’ Catholic here.”
“You’ll either catch fire or flee!” said De Nordwall. “You have the chance to really see many different kinds of people struggling and making an effort to grow in their faith, and He meets us where we’re at and takes us deeper, if we let Him.”
Walsingham isn’t unique in this, Clair-Mary said, as it is the same in every Marian shrine around the world: “Wherever our Blessed Virgin Mary is, there’s a spiritual battle going on.” But she believes that Walsingham is “so full of grace” through Our Lady’s intercessions that she has become ever more aware of her contemplative vocation, assisted by the Mother of God. Currently, about half the town’s population is Christian, and around half of them is Catholic. The rest belong to Anglican, Methodist, Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox denominations, while the other half of the town do not belong to any faith.
Among Walsingham’s Catholics are also families who have steadily taken up residence in the town and often home-school their children.
“They come from a range of cultural strata, and there is no one particular way of living the faith,” said De Nordwall. “There are those who love the new Mass and are converts from Anglicanism or other Protestant denominations and those who love the traditional Mass.”
All the families, she added, see Walsingham as “a chance to build a family under Our Lady’s mantel, looking to the offer that all who seek her help here will find it, and that, when England returns to Walsingham, Our Lady will return to England.”
The shrine has faced several challenges in recent months, including serious financial concerns and a scarcity of priests to run it. It has also recently had to deal with changes in governance: Bishop Peter Collins of East Anglia, whose diocese includes the shrine, was appointed earlier this year, and Father Robert Billing was appointed rector a few months ago. Locals are confident they are fully committed to preserving and promoting the shrine.
Shortly before Father Billing arrived, three Franciscan Greyfriars left Walsingham by order of their superiors, leading to staffing pressures. Other communities also departed before them, but a community of Augustinian friars from Nigeria is likely to take their place. At the same time, the shrine has a need to pay staff and other costs.
“It is my duty to ensure that the governance and financial sustainability of the shrine is placed on a sound footing,” Father Billing told the Register. “For all of this, I will need the prayerful and practical support and collaboration of so many for the changes ahead.”
A former private secretary to three diocesan bishops and trained in theology and canon law, Father Billing told the Register that one of his priorities is to encourage Catholics to visit the shrine, as so many in the country have not yet done so, as well as listen to pilgrims and their dreams and aspirations for the sanctuary.
He said he wants to ensure pilgrims have an “excellent experience of the sacred liturgy” and that the shrine “be known as a place of welcome, peace, prayer and reconciliation.” He also hopes to improve and develop the facilities in the future, in continuity with the “great tradition of Walsingham.”
Such development of the shrine, he added, will “certainly need some generous benefactors to come forward to help make our shrine shine,” especially in terms of “improving the nobility of our chapels and grounds.”
In common with many of Walsingham’s pilgrims and local parishioners, Father Billing is conscious of the strong historical role of “England’s Nazareth” for the country, “at the heart of England, Our Lady’s Dowry.”
As for it being the center for the reconversion of England, he stressed that every individual needs conversion, a work of the Holy Spirit, as do “so many aspects of society in England which need this radical turn towards the Lord.”
“So many come to us in Walsingham needing peace and reconciliation in relationships and family life and the strength and perseverance to be faithful to the Lord, to one another, and to their faith of their fathers,” he said. “Undoubtedly, in silence, joy and stillness, Walsingham has a central place in the ongoing conversion of our country, and of each one of us, to the universal reign of Christ our King. I would want Walsingham to be at the center of that movement.”
He said that he recently appealed to every parish priest in England to organize a parish pilgrimage to Walsingham, saying he did this “mindful that, once the faithful turn their hearts to Walsingham, and come here on pilgrimage, then a New Evangelization of our country can indeed take root in our lands, and the prophetic words of Pope Leo XIII will be fulfilled.”
For Walsingham residents such as Clair-Mary, the shrine is crucial to England’s reconversion. “What happens in Walsingham matters for the rest of the country, spiritually speaking,” she said, adding that it means not just the conversion of a few, but “the entire population.”
“All Our Lady can do is to be their guide, while her population must have faith to believe that conversion is possible in this difficult age we’re living in, where we are not a Christian country anymore,” Clair-Mary said.
Drawing inspiration from the saints and mystics, she said they would speak of God “traveling around the earth looking for one willing soul to be so surrendered, abandoned and possessed by him, that many can be converted through the mysterious work and mystical life of God in our soul.”
“Everyone is invited to that place,” she said, “but how many are serious about entering into that journey? So it’s a call for each one of us.”