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Remembering Mary's 'Holy House'

By Katrina J. Zeno
The revival of an English Middle Ages pilgrimage site is leading to conversions and deeper faith.

Our Sunday Visitor - A sleepy, little town north of London was once a booming pilgrimage spot. On the feast of the Mother of God in the Jubilee Year, its significance is worth rediscovering.

Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, Walsingham.

Walsingham? Yes, Walsingham, England, one of the four great pilgrimage sites of the middle ages. Tucked into the quiet English countryside 117 miles north of London, Walsingham flourished for 450 years. It was so popular that the Milky Way was renamed the Walsingham Way because its many stars resembled the vast crowds streaming to the shrine. But where did the Walsingham Way lead?

It led to a simple rectangular house, 23½ by 13 feet, made of wood, twigs, branches, and mud. To the uninitiated, it resembled a common Anglo-Saxon house. But to the eyes of faith, it was England's own Holy House of Nazareth, established by the Mother of God herself. Here's how it happened.

Mary, seeing her beloved English children unable to pilgrimage to the Holy Land because the Turks occupied it, intervened on their behalf. In 1061, she appeared to an English noblewoman named Richeldis and showed her a vision of the house where Gabriel had greeted her. Mary asked the devout widow to build a replica of the house in Walsingham in honor of the Annunciation.  

Obediently, Richeldis called workmen together, but a dispute arose over the building's location.  During the night, heavy dew fell leaving two large, dry spaces of equal size (reminiscent of Our Lady marking the location for her church in Rome with snow). The workmen began on one spot, but couldn't get the foundation to set. The next day, the holy house was found completely finished on the other spot.

Word spread quickly about the holy house. Devotion to Our Lady, which already flourished in this land called Our Lady's Dowry, now found national expression. King Henry III visited Walsingham at least 10 times and King Edward I at least four times, including a thanksgiving pilgrimage for narrowly escaping a huge stone that crushed his chair. During the next 250 years, all eight English kings journeyed to Walsingham, bringing valuable jewels and wax, petitioning Our Lady for military campaigns, and returning in thanksgiving for prayers answered. The Dutch writer Erasmus described the interior of the holy house as resembling the abode of the saints, "so brilliantly does it shine on all sides with gems, gold, and silver."  

In order to guide pilgrims on the Walsingham Way, wayside crosses and chapels dotted the English countryside. The last chapel, dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria (patroness of pilgrims), was just a mile from the holy house. Here, pilgrims often left their shoes to walk the last mile barefoot as an act of penance, giving St. Catherine's its popular name, the Slipper Chapel.

According to a much celebrated 15th century ballad, Walsingham pilgrims were regularly showered with graces: the sick were cured, the lame made whole, the blind healed, sailors brought safely to port, and evil spirits cast out. The ballad compared England to the land of Zion who rejoices in God's favor and in her special relation to Our Lady.

If such an abundance of grace and healing flowed from Walsingham for half a millennium, what happened? Why is it relatively unknown in the Catholic world today? In a word: Revolt.

In 1534, Henry VIII opposed the pope, proclaimed himself head of the church, and immediately turned a suspicious eye to Walsingham. Although the prior and canons of the Walsingham abbey signed the oath acknowledging the king's authority, the king's beneficence was short-lived. Four years later the abbey and holy house were burned to the ground and the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham thrown into the River Thames. It appeared as though Our Lady's dowry was lost.

Plundered, yes.  Lost, no, for the memory of Our Lady's "yes" to God enshrined at the holy house in Walsingham couldn't easily be burned from the hearts of England's faithful Catholics.  For 450, they had lived the message of the joyful mysteries, singing Mary's praises and venerating her humble "yes" to God.  Now it was their turn to imitate Mary's courageous fiat, to walk with her not only the Walsingham Way, but also the Way of the Cross.

And the Way of the Cross lasted over 350 years for England's Catholics—persecution, martyrdom, and economic ruin. Walsingham seemed forgotten, reverting to a sleepy, little town five miles from the North Sea. The only remnant of its former glory was the Slipper Chapel, which became a poorhouse, forge, and barn.  

But in this barn, so reminiscent of the Son of God's birth, this English shrine was reborn: In 1896, the Slipper Chapel was purchased by Miss Charlotte Boyd, who intended to restore it as a place of prayer and penance for unity in England. Her desire was fulfilled on August 15, 1934, when Bishop Youens of Northampton celebrated the first public Mass in the Slipper Chapel in 400 years. Four days later, Cardinal Bourne led 12,000 people in the first national pilgrimage to the Slipper Chapel, and, with the pope's approval, designated it as the National Shrine of Our Lady for England.

The Walsingham Way was open again. Children, youth, religious, and laity streamed to the tiny chapel and rediscovered Our Lady's maternal love for England. After World War II, fourteen heavy wooden crosses were carried (as a national act of reparation and prayer for peace) to Walsingham from the north, south, and east. During the prayer and Benediction that marked their arrival, Cardinal Griffith consecrated England to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. A new era of public devotion to Mary had dawned.

Honoring Mary, however, can never be separated from honoring her son, Jesus Christ. This is especially true at Walsingham, for it is the shrine not only of the Annunciation, but also of the Incarnation. Walsingham recalls the moment when Mary listened to God, received the Word, and bore the Word to the world. It is this life-changing encounter with God that shrine director Fr. Alan Williams hopes will happen for the 100,000 plus pilgrims who will visit the shrine this year.

"Our Lady's heart was open to Almighty God, and so the Word became flesh and great things happened," Fr. Williams says. "If pilgrims come to Walsingham with open hearts, then the Lord's grace is poured into their hearts and conversion happens."

For seven years, Fr. Williams has witnessed the outpouring of this grace of conversion: "Some people walk into the Slipper Chapel and know they've got to become Catholic," Fr. Williams says. "Others have lost the practice of the faith and Walsingham reawakens it for them."

Physical healings have abounded as well: Catholic songwriter Maria Parkinson first sung her beautiful Ave Maria in the Slipper Chapel as a thank you to Our Lady for healing her of cancer.  A childless couple, after making a pilgrimage to Walsingham, conceived a daughter whom they named Richeldis. "God's power works very obviously in a place like Walsingham," Fr. Williams says.

And one reason it works is because of the quiet: Walsingham remains non-commercialized with one narrow main street, one general store, a couple guest houses and restaurants, a few souvenir shops, an Episcopal shrine to Our Lady, and the ruins of the abbey, which include one wooden square of the original holy house. There is no bank, no gas station, no train or bus service, just lots of fresh air and holy quiet.

Fr. Stan Fortuna, CFR, a Franciscan priest and singer from the Bronx who ministers to youth, tells pilgrims to take advantage of the quiet. "The mother of God appeared here, and it's quiet," he says. "Go walk in the field, pray in the Slipper Chapel, enter into the silence. Mary was able to say, "yes" because she entered into the silence."

The Mother of God entered into the silence. … So, too, in this Jubilee Year, we must not forget to enter into the silence. The Holy Father has invited every person to make a pilgrimage of faith during the Jubilee Year, not just so we can be more active, but so we can enter into the silence. In this silence, our hearts will become like the holy house of the Annunciation, waiting and willing to say, "yes" to God.

Originally published in Our Sunday Visitor, January 2, 2000. Visit their website at (

Katrina J. Zeno, a freelance writer and speaker on topics such as the nature of men and women, singles and romance, the culture of life, the new feminism, prayer, and parenting, is also co-foundress of Women of the Third Millennium, an organization that promotes the dignity and vocation of women through one-day retreats.  Her articles and interviews have appeared numerous periodicals, including Our Sunday Visitor, New Covenant magazine, Catholic Parent, and Franciscan Way, and she has spoken in the U.S., Canada, England, and Trinidad.

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