Our Lady of Walsingham
​​Walsingham is a tiny little village in Norfolk, about a hundred miles north east of London. By the end of the Middle Ages it had become one of the great pilgrimage sites of Europe, and England’s most important single shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary. How did this happen?

Some places become pilgrimage sites because of the saints who lived there or died there or were buried there. Canterbury is a good example: the Cathedral which had seen the brutal martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket could not fail to attract visitors.

Walsingham is not such a place: nobody famous ever lived there, nothing much ever happened there: it rained a lot, and the wind blew off the North Sea, and sometimes the crops did not do very well.

Some places become pilgrimage sites because of their physical grandeur. Glastonbury Tor is a good example: a single steep hill rising alone from the Somerset Levels, its summit commanding a 360 degree panorama of fifty miles in any direction. I walked to the top this summer, and it never disappoints. Such a spot has a magic, a “numinosity” of its own, and it could only become a place of Christian pilgrimage as it had formerly been a place of pagan pilgrimage, as far back as the Stone Age. It has become such an icon of England that they built a model of it for the opening ceremony of this year’s Olympic Games – but of course, for fear of offending anyone, they left out the church which has stood on the top of Glastonbury Tor for over a thousand years!

Walsingham is not such a place: the landscape is flat and featureless and unmemorable, a bit like the Midwest of America, but on a smaller and shabbier scale.

Some places become pilgrimage sites because of the splendor of their buildings, like the great mediaeval cathedrals and abbeys, with their stunning artwork and their glorious music and their splendid liturgies.

Walsingham is not such a place: its little parish church must have looked like a rickety garden shed in comparison with Norwich Cathedral, only a few hours walk away.

So how did Walsingham become one of the great shrines of mediaeval England? What happened was that in the eleventh century a lady of Walsingham called Richeldis had a dream, in which she saw Our Lady instructing her to build in Walsingham a replica of the house in Nazareth in which Our Lady had received the Annunciation from the Angel Gabriel. The Lady Richeldis complied, and slowly but surely this little house caught the imagination of the people of England.

I find something very attractive in the idea of the Lady Richeldis building a house for Our Lady – something very human, very domestic, very feminine: I picture the Lady Richeldis busy about the house, putting up the curtains and dusting the furniture, as if she were expecting Our Lady to come to tea. Perhaps the appeal of Walsingham was precisely that unlike Canterbury or Glastonbury or Norwich, it was not impressive or grandiose or breathtaking – it was small, and cosy, and familiar. It spoke to that part of us which wants to see Our Lady not as the majestic and awe-inspiring Queen of Heaven, but as a mother, a human mother, like our own mother.

The Walsingham shrine was, like all the shrines of mediaeval England, destroyed during the 16th century Reformation, and the great statue of Our Lady of Walsingham disappeared without trace. But in the 20th century, a revival of the cult took place, both among Roman Catholics and among Anglicans. A new chapel was built, and a new statue commissioned, based on pictures of the old statue which had survived on mediaeval seals. It is a copy of this new statue which stands in this church and in several churches of our diocese, including the cathedral in Indianapolis.

An interesting footnote: during the Second World War, when there was a real threat of a Nazi invasion of England, contingency plans were made to evacuate the statue to the United States. The church chosen to receive the statue was St James, Cleveland – which is now a parish of our diocese and which hosts our annual Walsingham pilgrimage.

So Our Lady of Walsingham is perhaps closer to us than you imagined. If people can dream of Our Lady in Norfolk, they can dream of Our Lady in the Midwest. If it happened in Walsingham, it can happen in Grand Rapids.

-Fr Richard Bowyer, October 2012