Return to Walsingham

March 06 2019 | by

IF YOU have ever visited Walsingham, England’s National Marian Shrine, you may have noticed a ruined friary standing on a small hill outside the village. This Franciscan Friary was built in the mid-14th century and flourished for nearly two centuries, until the dissolution of religious houses under King Henry VIII. Over the last five centuries, the friars of the order which served there until the 1530s  – the Order of Franciscan Friars Conventual, more commonly known as Greyfriars – never forgot Walsingham. They have prayed for friars buried there, for those who had caused the destruction of this holy place, and for the day when Greyfriars would return to Walsingham.

There were great celebrations then on 19 March 2018 when a small group of Greyfriars formally returned to Walsingham, to be based in the centre of the town; it was the solemnity of the Feast of St Joseph. Friar Marco Tasca, Minister General of the Greyfriars, attended from Rome. He said the friars aim to a prophetic sign of dialogue and reconciliation to the world today, ministering to Walsingham’s many pilgrims just as they did five centuries ago.


Ancient pilgrimage


Pilgrims have flocked to the small Norfolk village of Little Walsingham since the 11th century to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. It was in the Anglo-Saxon village pre-dating the Norman invasion that a devout English Lady, Richeldis de Faverches, experienced three visions in 1061 in which the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to her. In these visions Richeldis was shown the house of the Annunciation in Nazareth, and was requested to build a replica of it. Mary is said to have promised that, “whoever seeks my help there will not go away empty-handed.” In Medieval times, when travelling abroad became difficult because of the Crusades, Walsingham evolved into a place of great Christian importance and pilgrimage, ranking alongside Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. The popularity of Walsingham was boosted since it was impossible for Christians to visit Nazareth itself, which was in Saracen hands.


Central importance


It was during the lifetime of St Francis that the first Franciscans arrived in Britain – on 10 September 1224. They soon established friaries in Canterbury, Oxford, London and expanded to embrace many principal towns. As part of the Christian heritage of England, Walsingham was an obvious place to go, as the only one out of the four major shrines in Medieval Christendom which was devoted to the Mother of God. When the Greyfriars arrived in 1347 they had an active ministry of supporting pilgrims, including the very poor and lepers. Pope Clement VI, in approving the new foundation at Walsingham, wrote, “The grace of heaven has given us to see that you and your Order have the gift that, wherever you dwell, you call the faithful to the grace of salvation, teaching them by both word and example.” All of the English monarchs up to and including Henry VIII made a pilgrimage to the shrine. Walsingham was known as the centre of Catholic England.

In 1534 there were over 60 Franciscan friaries in England, but by 1538 nearly all were suppressed by King Henry VIII and the Friars were banished. The Conventual Franciscans only returned to England in 1906, and through tough missionary work re-established their presence in Rye, East Sussex, then Liverpool (1926) and Manchester (1929).


Walsingham today


On 16 July 1948 there was a solemn Consecration of England & Wales to the Immaculate Heart of Mary at Walsingham, and thousands of pilgrims and visitors visit Walsingham each year. A focal point of each day at the Shrine is the celebration of the 12 noon Pilgrim Mass, which is available live on the internet. There is also a regular daily programme of events and services. Every day at Walsingham, pilgrim groups walk in procession along the Holy Mile. They often pray the rosary as they walk.

The very names of the Chapels at Walsingham tell us something of the spirit and life of pilgrimage: the National Shrine for Catholics in England is the medieval Slipper Chapel, which has long been a place where pilgrims removed their footwear and walked barefoot into the Holy Land of Walsingham. Its near neighbour is the much larger Chapel of Reconciliation, which was blessed and opened by Cardinal Basil Hume in 1981. A pilgrim’s journey through life can be difficult and mistakes will be made, but at the Chapel of Reconciliation, the forgiveness and joy of God is celebrated and reconciliation offered.


Old and new


Most pilgrims to Walsingham also find their way to the Anglican Shrine, which contains a 1930s replica of the original Holy House of Walsingham. The Anglican Shrine houses many beautiful side chapels and the modem Holy House reminds us of the original focus of the medieval Shrine, the Annunciation of the Lord to Mary of Nazareth. There are regular Ecumenical Vespers in the Shrine Church at the Anglican Shrine.

At Walsingham, old and new mingle very easily. Just as the modern Chapel of Reconciliation and the medieval Slipper Chapel are comfortable neighbours, modern pilgrims find they have much in common with their companions in faith of earlier generations. The spirit of Walsingham has not changed over the centuries.


Three friars


There are now three Conventual Franciscan friars helping to found the new Franciscan friary in Walsingham. The two priests – Fr. Gerard Mary Toman and Fr. James Mary McInerney – have been made Shrine Priests. Fr. Gerard Mary Toman says, “this means that we hear the daily confessions at the Shrine, we celebrate and preach at the daily Shrine Mass, and we are available to talk with pilgrims, to bless religious items and to simply be a presence at the Shrine.” Brother Solanus works in the sacristy at the Shrine. “As Franciscans, we hope that our presence in the village will help to further build up and strengthen the Body of Christ in Walsingham” says Fr. Gerard Mary.

With both Catholic and Anglican worship sites in Walsingham, the Franciscans promote ecumenical dialogue. In his Encyclical ‘On commitment to Ecumenism’ (Ut unum sint, 1995) the now Pope St. John Paul II highlighted that, by working together and undertaking visible acts of ecumenism, the unity of Christ’s faithful can be powerfully manifested. “This is exactly the type of ecumenical efforts that all those associated with the Catholic Shrine and local Catholic parish in Walsingham, as well as the members of the other Churches and ecclesial communities who live in Walsingham, hope to engage in,” reports Fr. Gerard Mary, who added, “While we do not pretend that differences do not exist between what we, as Catholic believe and teach, and what other Christians might profess, we do not allow these differences to prevent us, where at all possible, from working together to show to the world the love and the truth, the majesty and the beauty of the Christian Faith, and the power of the intercession of the angels and saints, most especially, Mary, the Beloved Mother of God and of her chaste spouse, St. Joseph.”


Relevant shrine


Upon the return of the Franciscans, Friar Marco Tasca said, “We feel we have come home, as we respond to the invitation to assist with the life and ministry at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.” Many thousands of people annually make their way to Walsingham so that, as Our Lady said in a vision in 1061, “they may find succour.” Healing and wholeness of body, mind and spirit lies at the heart of pilgrimage to Walsingham, mediated through the joy of the Gospel, especially seen through Our Lady’s “Yes” to God at the Annunciation. Fr. Gerard Mary reflects that “the Shrine at Walsingham is as relevant today as it has ever been.”



What is the difference between the Conventual Franciscans, and the other two branches of the Order of Friars Minor: the Observants and the Capuchins. Even in St. Francis’ own lifetime, some of his brothers wished to live in larger fraternities, often in the developing urban areas, with a particular emphasis placed upon the common life of prayer, meals and ministry. These friars came to be known as the ‘friars of the community’ or Conventual friars (owing to the fact that they lived in large religious houses or ‘Convents’ in the city). Before the Protestant Reformation, these friars were known, throughout England, as ‘The Greyfriars,’ and they had over sixty friaries in England alone.



One of most famous Conventual Franciscans in modern times was St Maximilian Kolbe, who had a great devotion to Our Lady. When World War II started in 1939 he was guardian of a religious community in Poland and provided shelter for refugees, including 2,000 Jews whom he hid from Nazi persecution. He was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned at Auschwitz concentration camp. In July 1941 a man from Kolbe’s barracks vanished, prompting the commander to pick 10 men from the same barracks to be starved to death in notorious Block 13. One of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, saying he had a family, and Kolbe volunteered to take his place. His offer was accepted and he died three weeks later. Gajowniczek survived the war and was present at Maximilian’s beatification in 1971 and at his canonization in 1982.

Updated on March 06 2019