By Denise Trull
I can remember the exact moment when I made acquaintance with Our Lady of Walsingham. Her image was pressed into my hand by a very witty and wonderful British nun who simply said, “Hold her close. She is quite powerful.” And so I did. After all these years, she has traveled from one house to another with me. She has graced my home oratories and has received many a request, and at times a tear or two, in petition. Her face and that of her little Son, Jesus, who reigns from her lap are solemn but kind. They always seem to beckon me to pause awhile and rest, smiling down from their shelf near my books as I walk past. And I have always stopped, and still do, on my way to or from some busyness of life.
I am definitely a “card-carrying” Anglophile, so I was filled with great joy that this, my favorite of Mary’s apparitions, hails from England, and is one of the oldest apparitions of Our Lady in the history of this world. It is a very charming story, wreathed round by the almost magical qualities of Medieval England.
In 1061, near a small village nestled quietly in Norfolk, England, there lived a wealthy young widow named Richeldis de Faverches, the lady of the house at Walsingham Manor which overlooked the village. Richeldis was no doubt lonely, having lost her husband at a young age. She found comfort and solace in prayer and through long habit became quite devout. Our Lady took pity on this young woman who knelt there faithfully day by day asking her aid so patiently. She decided that Richeldis would be the one to whom she would come with a special request.
Our Lady quietly appeared to Richeldis three times, and each time she spirited her away in a vision to her home town of Nazareth. Up and down the narrow streets they walked together until they reached one small, unassuming little dwelling. Our Lady turned to Richeldis and told her it was here, in her girlhood home of Nazareth, that the Angel Gabriel asked her to be the Mother of God. This was the place she spoke her fiat to God’s will for the world. Our Lady asked Richeldis to remember what it looked like, to take dimensions in her mind, and to rebuild an exact replica of the house in her own little village of Walsingham. Richeldis took these visions to heart, and did as Our Lady asked. And so, there in her small village near Walsingham manor, a perfect replica of the holy house of Nazareth rose in its quiet simplicity to the wondering questions of the villagers. Our Lady said this to Richeldis:
“Do all this unto my special praise and honor. And all who are in any way distressed or in need, let them seek me here in that little house you have made. To all that seek me there shall be given succor.”
This all happened during the time of the Crusades, when pilgrims could no longer travel to the Holy Land to pray and honor the holy places where Jesus had walked. Our Lady knew the poor and needy of England could not travel to the Holy Land, so she brought the Holy Land to them! And they came. Poor, rich, suffering, thankful, needy. All came to her little house of Nazareth and found her there, ready to welcome them.
As time went on, a Church was constructed around the little dwelling to protect it from the elements. It is said that from the time of Henry III in 1226, almost every king and queen of England and those of Scotland visited the shrine. Most poignantly of all, Henry VIII visited the little house several times as a young king and did great penances on his journey to her door. He was said to have a great and filial devotion to her. Soon a priory of friars grew up around the site to serve the spiritual needs of all the pilgrims passing through the village. Walsingham became one of the most popular shrines in Europe. It is even rumored that the original manuscript of Dame Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love was left into the friars’ care.
Then came 1538 and Henry VIII’s willful declaration that he now was the head of the Church in England and that the popes would not be telling him what to do. He began a campaign to suppress all the religious orders and monasteries in his domain. He confiscated and burned the Holy House of Our Lady of Walsingham. The priory was ransacked and fell into ruin. Our Lady’s beautiful statue that had been carved for her shrine was taken away and rumors abounded that it was publicly burned in London.
Walsingham village lay in ruins for many years. But Our Lady was not to be bested. A wealthy Anglican woman named Charlotte Boyd took the shrine to her heart in the 1890’s. She discovered the small original building which had once been the “Slipper Chapel” which was a mile from the original shrine. Pilgrims were said to have taken off their shoes and left them at this chapel to make the last mile of sacrifice in bare feet. Sadly, over the years, this pretty space had been used as a barn. Charlotte was so moved by the story, that she determined to restore public devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham. She undertook to restore the Slipper Chapel and found herself converting to the Catholic Church in the process. On August 20, 1897, she oversaw a small procession with a humble statue of Our Lady of Walsingham into the renovated chapel. Strangely, though, it would be many years for the renewed devotion to catch on with the people of England.
Now enters one simple Anglo-Catholic parish priest, who happened to be the pastor of St. Mary the Virgin Church in Walsingham. His name: Fr. Hope Patten. A history buff of sorts, who liked digging for archival treasures, he found himself at the British Museum one day in 1922 and came upon an ancient medieval seal used by the friars of the old priory at Walsingham. The seal had been miraculously rescued from the scourge of the Reformation and preserved. At the center of this seal, lo and behold, there she was! The original image of Our Lady and her Child. Fr. Hope, who found himself drawn mysteriously, yet irresistibly, to this story of our Lady, was so excited he pooled some funds and had a statue made of this image and put it in his Church.
People began to flock once again in such great numbers that his small parish could not hold them all. In 1931 a new Church was built upon the old ruins where Our Lady’s little house had been. Our Lady had literally risen from the ashes of persecution to triumph as Mother of her beloved children in England. And there her image remains for all those who seek her help and love. Both Anglicans and Catholics alike found their way to Walsingham to pray at either Charlotte Boyd’s Slipper Chapel or to Our Lady’s image in the Church built by Father Hope. Many conversions to the Catholic Church came out of this devotion to Our Lady and continue even until this day. In 1934, the English bishops named the Slipper Chapel the Roman Catholic National Shrine of Our Lady. The first Mass celebrated there since the Reformation, was prayed on August 15, 1934.
I find it so beautiful that of all the things Our Lady could have asked of Lady Richeldis, it was this. Bring Nazareth to the people. The place where God began our salvation. In secret. In quiet. In poor surroundings. No fanfare except the exquisite words, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done…” He descended and no one knew, except Our Lady. His way with man is to take man’s way. That is what Our Lady seems to say in this apparition. Don’t forget Nazareth and the holiness found in humble surroundings, in the everyday tasks, in babies tended, meals prepared, rosaries prayed by a window, hugging your husband as you turn from the stove. It all counts. It is all important. It is what Jesus lived for thirty years, before He launched into the deep of His public life. This is of what Our Lady of Walsingham always reminds us as she sits quietly with her little Son in her lap. To seek faithfully the holiness of a hidden life where many fiats rise daily and where truly, Jesus dwells among us.
Our Lady of Walsingham, help us to love our Nazareths.