London's Marian Shrine - Our Lady of Willesden
Here's a little more about my parish, which happens to be the principal Marian shrine of London. Willesden might seem an unlikely place to find a shrine to Our Lady. In fact, when we think of shrines and pilgrimages, we tend to think of long, often expensive journeys and exotic locations like Fatima or Guadalupe. Yet for centuries Our Lady has been honoured at sanctuaries much closer to home. Situated in one of London’s most multicultural areas, right on the edge of Central London, the shrine of Our Lady of Willesden is a veritable ‘sign of contradiction’ and a powerful witness to the Catholic Faith.
The origins of the shrine at Willesden are obscured by the mists of time. It was originally located in the church of St Mary’s, Willesden which may go back as far as the tenth century and is now served by the Anglican Communion. A Visitation report of 1249 mentions the presence of two statues of Our Lady. The locals particularly honoured one of these statues there may even have been a vision or a cure in the distant past, though the evidence is sparse. It seems that the church also boasted a ‘holy well’, which was thought to possess ‘miraculous’ qualities (especially for blindness and other eye disorders). Indeed, the very name ‘Willesden’ probably means ‘spring at the foot of the hill’ and this spring was recently rediscovered and renovated. The Vicarage of St Mary’s must be one of the few in the country to dispense bottles of holy water to those who ask for them the nearest thing Middlesex has to Lourdes!
There is little evidence of pilgrimages to Willesden until the end of the fifteenth century. Devotion to Our Lady of Willesden may have been promoted by St Paul’s Cathedral (which owned the parish) in order to raise money for essential repairs, thus combining economic necessity with the promptings of Divine Grace. Willesden’s rise to fame was rapid. Already by May 1502 it was attracting the attention of the Queen (Elizabeth of York), who sent an offering of 30 pence during her seventh and final pregnancy. Londoners flocked to the shrine in the years leading up to the Reformation, including St Thomas More himself.This familiarity is expressed in some of his polemical writings where he defends the practice of pilgrimages (citing Willesden as an example) against the attacks of reformers like Thomas Bilney. St Thomas’ last visit to the shrine was in 1534 (probably in early April), just before his arrest. We can imagine the saint praying for strength and perseverance at the foot of the statue.
However, despite her popularity, Our Lady of Willesden’s days were numbered. Henry VIII’s break with Rome saw the emergence of a new orthodoxy, which frowned on the Kingdom’s shrines and images. In 1538 Our Lady was removed from Willesden and taken to Thomas Cromwell’s house in Chelsea. That autumn she was burnt on a great bonfire of ‘notable images’. According to a contemporary document, Our Lady appeared to a priest devotee of the shrine, a certain Dr Crewkehorne, around the same time as this bonfire. She said that she wished to be honoured at Willesden as she had in times past. Although Our Lady was not forgotten in Willesden - there is evidence of Catholics existing in the parish into the mid seventeenth century - the shrine was not restored until the close of the nineteenth century.
It was in 1885 that Mass was once again celebrated in Willesden by a young priest called Bernard Ward, who later became a respected Church historian and the first bishop of Brentwood. The following year a Catholic Mission was established in Harlesden to meet the demands of the growing population. With the help of the newly founded Convent of Jesus and Mary, devotion was fostered to Our Lady of Willesden and a new statue blessed by Cardinal Vaughan in 1892. This image was carved in wood from an oak tree that had stood in the graveyard of St Mary’s, the original site of the shrine. From humble beginnings with twelve parishioners the parish began to flourish, two temporary churches were built and a beautiful Romanesque church was finally opened in 1931 as both parish church and a ‘National Shrine’ for English Catholics. Our Lady of Willesden’s greatest hour came during the Marian Year of 1954. Willesden was made the centre of Westminster’s celebrations for the Marian Year and throughout 1954 some 60,000 pilgrims visited the shrine. On 3 October 1954 a Marian Pageant was held at Wembley Stadium in front of a crowd of 94,000. The climax of the celebrations came when Cardinal Bernard Griffin crowned the statue of Our Lady and she was carried back in procession to Willesden.
The Founder of Opus Dei, St Josemaria Escriva, often visited Willesden during his trips to London. On 15th August 1958 he made a private pilgrimage to the shrine, where he re-consecrated Opus Dei to the Name of Mary (as he did every year). He returned on 17th August 1962, this time with his future successor as Prelate, the Servant of God Alvaro del Portillo. They recited the Holy Rosary and bought some images of the statue to distribute to members of Opus Dei in Hampstead. Willesden can thus claim two saints among its pilgrims - a rare feat for an English shrine.
Prayer: O Immaculate Queen, Our Lady of Willesden, we consecrate ourselves and all we have and are to you forever in your holy Shrine. Make this Shrine glorious as of old. Bring pilgrims to worship at it. Convey their prayers to God in your own hands. Pray for us all. Pray for the conversion of all people to the religion of your Divine Son. And obtain pardon and mercy for our beloved Dead who have gone before us with the sign of faith and sleep the sleep of peace. Amen.
(Cardinal Francis Bourne granted an Indulgence of 200 days for this prayer in 1928)