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The Orthodox Presence in Little Walsingham, Norfolk PDF Print

The village of Little Walsingham rests in the valley of the river Stiffkey, close to the sea coast in the northern part of Norfolk. It is about 120 miles from London in the part of England called East Anglia and is, on the face of things, not very important. Compared with the vast expanses of China or Russia, it is just the tiniest of dots on a map. Yet we know that outward appearances and estimations are very often deceiving and in the case of Walsingham this is also true. It takes time to get to know its true heart and its significance in the spiritual history of Britain.

 

About the year 1061 AD the most holy Mother-of-God revealed herself to Richeld de Faverches, a devout widow and landowner, and took her in spirit to Nazareth and showed her the house in which she herself had received the message of the archangel Gabriel. The lady Richeld called the local carpenters together and explained the plan of the Holy House and they prepared the timber for the building. She chose a place, close beside two wells, but the workmen found that, although they had measured every timber with care, nothing seemed to fit properly. They left the work and went home deeply anxious. Next morning they found the completed building standing by a fresh spring of water, about two hundred feet from the place where they had first tried to build the house. The Holy House was truly the work of both angels and men. Gradually pilgrims began to come to see the Holy House and to drink the water from the well and found there both spiritual refreshment and health-giving water. Later on a monastery was built, so that the monks could serve there and welcome the pilgrims. It became a place where many kings and queens came on pilgrimage and left their offerings of candles and money at the Shrine of the Mother-of-God. This continued until the reign of King Henry VIII, when the monastery and Holy House were destroyed, like all the monastic houses in Britain, and the buildings and ground were sold. Today a large private mansion stands where the monastery was and it incorporates some of the prior’s dwelling. A large archway of the old church also remains as well as the main gateway, but almost everything else has disappeared.

 

That would be the end of the story, but for the grace of God, Who inspired a rather unusual Anglican priest, Fr Alfred Hope Patten, who became the vicar of Little Walsingham in the 1920s. He loved to the Mother-of-God and was determined to revive devotion to her in the British Isles and especially in Walsingham, which had been formerly known as England’s Nazareth. At first he had a statue carved and put up in his parish church, basing it on the ancient seal of the monastery, but later his supporters helped him to buy some land and buildings just outside the old abbey’s grounds, where they built another replica of the Holy House, this time from stone and brick, and later enclosed it in a larger pilgrimage church. Once again pilgrims began to come to this new shrine and those who are interested in the detailed history of the place can find it in the archive section of the Shrine’s website.

 

Why is this of any interest to Orthodox Christians ? Well, firstly perhaps because the lady Richeld and all that she undertook at the prompting of the Mother-of-God represents perhaps one of the last flowerings of the Anglo-Saxon Church, which was still Orthodox, until it was overwhelmed and altered by the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD. And, secondly, because of the part that Orthodox Christians played, when the Shrine was revived and rebuilt in 1931 AD.

 

We know from Alfred Hope Patten’s magazine “Our Lady’s Mirror” that in 1936 two Orthodox priests visited Walsingham on pilgrimage. They were Father Vladimir Theokritoff and Father Nikolai Behr, both well-known in the history of the Russian Church in London. We also know that on Friday, November 19th, 1937 an Orthodox delegation visited the Shrine Church, at the invitation of the Guardians. It was led by Archbishop Seraphim of the Russian Orthodox Church, who brought with him a wonder-working Ikon of the Mother of God of the Sign, so that all might venerate it. He was accompanied by Archimandrite Nicholas Gibbes, who had been the English tutor to the Tsarevich Alexei. The Archbishop also blessed a plot of land, which had been outlined in coloured lights, close to the nave of the shrine church, where it was hoped that one day a permanent place for Orthodox worship would be established. This piece of land stretched eastwards from the bottom of the steps, which now lead up to the Pan-Orthodox chapel, but it has subsequently been built upon for another purpose.

 

On Whitsunday, June 6th 1938, another Russian delegation came for the blessing of the extension to the Pilgrimage Church. It was led this time by Archbishop Nestor of Kamchatka together with Archimandrite Nicolas and Father Mikhail Polski from London. On the following day, June 7th 1938, the Archbishop served the Holy Liturgy at the high altar in the extended Shrine Church, assisted by Father Nicholas and by Archimandrite Nathaniel. It was mainly due to the efforts of Archimandrite Nicholas that the small Pan-Orthodox chapel of the Mother-of-God was established. It is thought that he designed and built the present ikonostas and probably also gave the seven-branched lampada, which hangs in the altar behind the holy table.


On May 21st 1945 this little chapel was blessed by Archbishop Sava of Grodno, the chaplain general to the Polish Forces in Britain, and it continues to be used by Orthodox Christians from many different countries.

 

During November and December 1946 Bishop Saint Nikolai Velimirovich stayed in the College, after his release from Dachau concentration camp and before he set sail for America. He served the Liturgy here many times during his stay. Bishop Irinei of Dalmatia was also a visitor to the Shrine in the 1940s and 50s. In 1950 the Shrine authorities made a cottage available for a Serbian priest, Dr Dimitrje Najdanovich, and his wife, which they hoped would be come a hostel for Orthodox pilgrims, but after a year or two this idea seems to have been dropped. Indeed Fr Hope Patten had a habit of announcing new initiatives with trumpets, but when they came to nothing there was an equally loud silence.

 

Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira and Great Britain has been frequent visitor to the Shrine during the past fifty years, most recently at the opening of the new Milner Wing by HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh on October 8th 2009.

 

In 1966, at the suggestion of the Administrator of the Anglican Shrine, Father Colin Stephenson, Archbishop Nikodem of Richmond and Great Britain blessed one of his priests, Father Mark Meyrick [later Archimandrite David], to move to Walsingham to look after the Pan-Orthodox Chapel, to support his life by painting ikons and by forming a small Brotherhood, as the basis of an English language mission in Norfolk. Father Mark and those with him found that the only property they could afford to rent was the old railway station, which the Norfolk County Council had bought for a future road widening scheme. Here they converted the booking-hall into a small church dedicated to Saint Seraphim of Sarov the Wonderworker. This church is still open daily and is for many visitors their first experience of an Orthodox place of worship. It has now been purchased by a group of Trustees and its upkeep is maintained by two or three devoted people.

 

In May each year the Guardians of the Shrine hold a great national pilgrimage, which is attended by several thousand people, mainly Anglicans, but during the 1970s and 80s Bishop Christophoros of Telmissos used to come regularly to this event with many people from South London. Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia is also a regular visitor to Walsingham, especially when there is an Ecumenical Marian Pilgrimage. There is also now an annual pilgrimage and conference at the end of November for the Youth Group of the Fellowship of Saint John the Baptist.

 

It is not easy to witness to the Orthodox Faith in Little Walsingham, where the vast majority of residents and pilgrims are Anglicans and Roman Catholics, whose habits of thought and customs are often markedly Latin : but a small handful of local people continues to worship and witness in the Orthodox manner, venerating the Mother-of-God and praying for the union of all.


The present caretaker of the Pan-Orthodox chapel is priest Philip Steer, who makes arrangements for Orthodox services in consultation with the Administrator of the Shrine, Bishop Lindsey Urwin,OGS, who is responsible for ordering the worship within the Shrine. For those who wonder about Walsingham the best reply is the words of the Apostle Philip to Nathanael “Come and see”.

 

priest Philip Steer

21st October 2009

 
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