AN HOLY HOUSE
THE TRADITIONAL STORY of Walsingham tells how, in 1061, during the reign of St. Edward the Confessor, Richeldis de Faverches, the Lady of the Manor of Walsingham Parva, was mystically visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary. Richeldis was taken in spirit to Nazareth where Our Lady told her to build a shrine in honour of the Holy House of the Annunciation, and to build it near a spring of water which would miraculously appear. Our Lady promised: ‘All who are in any way distressed or in need, let them seek me in that little house you have made at Walsingham. To all that seek me there shall be given succour. And there at Walsingham in this little house shall be held in remembrance the great joy of my Salutation when Saint Gabriel told me that I should, through humility, become the Mother of God’s Son’. Many other stories were attached to the beginnings of the shrine by later generations, but what is certain is that Richeldis built a small wooden shrine as she was told to do, and pilgrims started coming from all around. People came to find succour and even healing from the waters of the Holy Well. They came in order to know God more closely through His loving Mother and their earthly home.
Walsingham was, is now, the greatest of all the shrines of Our Lord’s Mother in England, which used to be known throughout Christendom as the Dowry of Mary, because of the love of the English people for the Blessed Virgin. Walsingham was the most popular shrine in the whole of the country, not to be rivalled even by St. Thomas of Canterbury. Walsingham was popularly spoken of as ‘England’s Nazareth’, and was looked upon as a little bit of the Holy Land in England. It became a place of prayer, grace, healing, miraculous cures, penance, reparation and reconciliation. Walsingham ranked among the four major places of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, beside Jersualem, Rome and Santiago de Compostella. It was the only one dedicated to the Virgin Mother of God.
Tragically, in 1538, as part of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the great Augustinian priory, which had housed the Holy House and the Image of Our Lady of Walsingham for four centuries since 1153, was desecrated and destroyed. The famous statue of Our Lady was removed and reportedly taken to Chelsea and burned — though some believe it may have escaped this terrible fate. Walsingham was then left in desolation and fell into dereliction and anonymity.
Though never entirely forgotten, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that interest in restoring the honour of Mary at Walsingham was reignited. An Anglican convert, Charlotte Pearson Boyd (1837–1906) purchased the old Slipper Chapel, a mile away from the old shrine. In 1934 it became the National Shrine of Our Lady in England, and Mass was once again offered there. In 1921 Fr. Alfred Hope Patten (1885–1958) was appointed Vicar of St. Mary’s, the Anglican parish church of Little Walsingham. He had possessed a deep devotion to Our Lady since childhood and he firmly believed that God would use him to help rebuild a holy place destroyed during the Reformation. In July 1922 he placed a replica statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, modelled on the medieval seal of the shrine, in the Guild’s Chapel of St. Mary’s.
Despite the hostility to Fr Hope Patten’s restoration of the devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham from his ecclesiastical superiors, his strength of faith, prayer and vision never wavered. As numbers of Anglican pilgrims increased over the years it became necessary, in 1931, to translate the image of Our Lady of Walsingham to a newly-constructed Holy House within a shrine church, opposite the ruins of the medieval priory, and on the site of a spring of water, which shares the water from the old Holy Well. Fr. Hope Patten intended this shrine to serve as a ‘living act of reparation’ for the sin of disunity of the Church. Embedded in the walls of the Holy House, as an act of reparation, are stones from the major monastic houses, suppressed during the Reformation. The altar was built from stones which formed the original Walsingham priory.
Devotion to Our Lady under this ancient title is dear to members of the Ordinariate. In England and Wales the Ordinariate is named in her honour, and in Canada and the United States, Our Lady of Walsingham serves as our Patroness, with our Principal Church in Houston, Texas dedicated to her, complete with replicas of the Holy House and the remaining Western arch of the dissolved Walsingham Priory.