We are in the far west of Cornwall, and our parish includes Penzance, Hayle and St Ives. The Parish Church, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, is in Penzance. Opened in October 1843, it is the oldest and largest Catholic Church in Cornwall. There has been an annual Cornish pilgrimage to Walsingham since 1990, except for 2020 (Covid). First established by the Knights of St Columba, it has been animated since 1996 by our Parish Treasurer (and Treasure) Christine Pearce. Canon Philip Dyson, our Parish Priest, is our spiritual director. And let’s not forget our regular driver Val, of Mounts Bay Coaches.

A Pilgrimage

Going on a pilgrimage has become popular in recent years. The Camino de Santiago (St James’ Way) across northern Spain attracts thousands from all over the world. In Cornwall several ancient pilgrim routes that feed into the Camino have been re-opened. Something in many of us has a longing to search for meaning and peace in our lives.

Scripture tells us that we are a pilgrim people. “I am a pilgrim on the earth.” (Psalm 119:19) “We have no lasting city in this life but we look for one in the life to come.” (Hebrews 13:14)  A pilgrimage is a journey in faith to a shrine: a sign in a particular place, of the active presence of the Lord, of Mary His Blessed Mother, and the Saints and Angels. A shrine is also made holy by the prayers of the faithful.

Pilgrim journeys are not meant to be easy. The coach journey from Penzance takes about 12 hours, allowing for pick-ups from other parishes in the far–flung Diocese of Plymouth, and for several comfort stops en route. We were grateful for Christine’s everlasting bag of sweets. As we crossed the Tamar Bridge into England, we prayed the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be for a safe and successful pilgrimage. Long journeys have advantages too. As well as praying together, we can relax and enjoy ourselves. All good pilgrimages are convivial and full of laughter. We meet up with old friends and make new ones in a community in which we share faith, hope and love. Time spent with fellow pilgrims on the coach, at meal times, or in a café or pub is always precious.

Some of our parish pilgrims are frail, our oldest being 88. On our pilgrimage, the words of Jesus are so true “The last shall be first.” (Matthew 20:16) The weakest are always VIPs, enjoying the ungrudging support of all who travel with them. Our youngest pilgrim, aged 22, was a great help to us.

Walsingham: A Potted History.

Walsingham is a small village in rural north Norfolk, a few miles inland from Wells-next-the-Sea.

It was here in 1061 that the Lady of the Manor had visions of the Holy House of Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph brought up the child Jesus. Our Lady asked her to build a copy of that house and promised: “whoever seeks my help there will not go away empty-handed.” The house she built was called “England’s Nazareth.” Gradually pilgrims arrived from all over our country. Kings from Henry III in 1226 to Henry VIII in 1511 came, and Walsingham became one of the great shrines of the medieval Christian world with Jerusalem, Rome and St James (Santiago) of Compostella.

All this came to an end with the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Reformation. Much was destroyed in 1538 and now just one arch remains of the great Priory Church. A plaque marks the spot where the original Holy house stood.

The Catholic Revival.

The first pilgrimage in modern times was made in August 1897. A small group of pilgrims prayed outside the Slipper Chapel, a mile from the village. This once derelict fourteenth-century chapel was the place where pilgrims would leave their shoes (slippers) to walk the rest of their journey barefoot.

It was in August 1934 that the first National Pilgrimage was held, attracting a crowd of 12,000 led by Cardinal Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster and the local Bishop, who encouraged pilgrims to come to Walsingham.

In recent years the Catholic Shrine has been expanded with the building of the Chapel of Reconciliation (1981) symbolising the need to bring the Christian communities closer together.

The Slipper Chapel was named a minor Basilica in 2015 by Pope Francis.

The Re-dedication of England as Mary’s Dowry was made in March 2020. There is also a bookshop and, very importantly, a tearoom.

The Anglican Revival.

Devotion to Our Lady was revived in St Mary’s Parish Church in 1922 by its newly appointed vicar, Fr Alfred Hope Patten. In the Anglo-Catholic tradition, his vision and energy enabled him to build a Holy House in 1931, based on the Holy House of Loreto (1290) in Italy. There is evidence that many of the stones used in the House at Loreto were rescued from the original House in Nazareth, at a time when many churches and buildings in the Holy Land were being destroyed. Within the Anglican Shrine there is a well where visitors can be blessed with the spring water. Visits to this shrine are highly recommended.

At Walsingham, the Catholic and Anglican shrines are at opposite ends of the village. In our time, thank the Lord, both shrines work for Christian Unity, specifically asked for by Jesus Himself: “that they may all be one.. so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21) Now that Christians of all beliefs are tiny minorities, prayer for the visible unity of all believers is so essential. Both shrines have a carved statue of our Lady of Walsingham based on the figure on an ancient Abbey wax seal preserved in the British Museum.

Our Week in Walsingham

Above all, we rejoiced with the Mother of God in the truth that “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) – the essential message of Walsingham. We began each day with the Angelic Salutation or Angelus (from the opening word of the Latin prayer.) There was daily Mass in the Parish Church of the Annunciation near the pilgrims’ accommodation or at the Chapel of Reconciliation. There was time for Confessions, Rosary, and Chaplet of Divine Mercy and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction. We said Morning and Evening Prayer together. On the first morning we walked in procession with the statue of Our Lady from outside the Church of the Annunciation to the Chapel of Reconciliation, along the Holy Mile. One evening we had a Pilgrim Service and a candle-lit procession to the garden. The stars were wonderful too.

If all this seems rather intense, there were two Days Out – to Sandringham and Norwich. We also had a hilarious Beetle Drive and time to explore the village on our own before facing the long journey home. On that journey, I gently “grilled” some of our pilgrims about what they had received from Our Lady.

Several told me that they had found something of the peace that must have reigned in the original Holy House of Nazareth. One pilgrim felt “the need to pray for our mad, restless world.”

As we approached Cornwall, there was a vivid sunset calling to mind the words of the well-known hymn, For all the Saints

“The golden evening

brightens in the west,

soon, soon to faithful

warriors cometh rest.”

When we got back to Penzance at 19.55 night had fallen.