In the year 1061 a young widow who was devout and generous, asked God in prayer how she could honor Him with her wealth. The answer came in the form of a dream that she had three times. In the dream, the Virgin Mary took the wealthy noblewoman, Richeldis de Faverches, to Nazareth to the site of the Holy House where Mary conceived Jesus. Our Lady instilled in Richeldis the importance of devotion to commemorate the great event of the Annunciation when the Angel Gabriel came to ask Mary to be the Mother of God. Our Lady requested that Richeldis construct a replica of the Holy House in England on her property in Walsingham as a way to honor the great mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus, provide consolation to all who would come in prayer, and to venerate Mary as Mother of God.
The details of how the England’s Holy House was constructed are gleaned from a ballad written in the mid-fifteenth century by Richard Pynson. Earlier written accounts have been lost to antiquity. Richeldis hired carpenters to construct the walls for the House. When the time came to raise the walls on the foundation site, problems arose and the walls didn’t piece together. Undaunted, Richeldis took up the matter in prayer that she continued into the night. In the morning, Richeldis saw the Holy House was built! It had been moved during the night to a foundation site 200 meters from the original one. The Holy House was so solidly constructed and miraculously moved that all assumed it had been ‘raised by angel’s hands.’
The miraculous Holy House became the site of many pilgrimages. Two wells of cold spring water close to the Holy House provided pilgrims with refreshment and in many cases provided a cure for stomach pains, headaches, and other afflictions. The property passed to Richeldis’s son who passed it to Augustinian priests. The priests noted how popular the Holy House had become as a site of Pilgrimage ranking third behind Saint James in Compostella, Spain and Rome. The Augustinians constructed a large church that enshrined the wooden Holy House. Rich and old, peasant and royalty made the pilgrimage to the ‘Nazareth of England’ as it came to be known.
We know from chroniclers that to the right of the altar in Holy House was a wooden statue of Our Lady. The origin of the statue has been described as miraculous but the details of how it came to be in existence and the appearance of the statue are lost to us. Ironically, King Henry VIII was a pilgrim to the shrine on three occasions. He removed his shoes at the slipper chapel like all the other pilgrims and continued the last mile barefoot to pray and give alms and on one occasion a valuable necklace as an offering at the Holy House. His devotions to Our Lady of Walsingham evidently weren’t strong enough to prevent him from doing the deed of dissolving ties to the papacy during the 1530’s when the divorce he sought from his wife wasn’t granted. He ordered the plundering of all the Catholic Churches of their relics, precious metal reliquaries, statues and other sacred vessels in the process of the dissolution and announced that he was the head of the Church of England. He ordered the Priory at Walsingham to be closed. When a priest and others dissented, they were executed and are known as the Walsingham martyrs and the priory was destroyed. Beloved statues including the wooden Our Lady of Walsingham were confiscated from Churches all throughout the villages and towns of England and burned at a bonfire in Chelsea in September 1538. Devotion and pilgrimages to Our Lady of Walsingham were suppressed and somewhat forgotten for centuries. It would be sad indeed if the story ended there, but these days reconciliation and renewal is in progress.
In 1863 the Slipper Chapel, which was being used as a barn, was sold to a devout woman, Charlotte Boyd. She desired that it be renovated from the dilapidated state it was in and returned to devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham. In 1897 the Slipper Chapel was reopened for Catholic devotions. Close by the Slipper Chapel, Anglicans began to construct a shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham. For sometime Anglicans and Catholics venerated Our Lady of Walsingham in their own respective ways. Pilgrimages started again in 1922 when the Anglican Vicar, Alfred Hope Patten organized an Anglo-Catholic Pilgrimage.
In celebration of the 1950 dogma of the Assumption of Mary, a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was commissioned. The statue was modeled after replicas of the original statue that survived the destruction of the dissolution and also based on a seal of the priory showing Our Lady of Walsingham that has been preserved. The statue sits in the Slipper Chapel and shows the Blessed Mother seated in the throne of wisdom holding the Child Jesus on her left knee. Both Mary and Jesus wear Saxon crowns on their heads and their glory is symbolized by halos around their heads. Jesus holds the Book of Gospels in his left hand and he extends his right hand in blessing and protection.
The Virgin’s right hand cradles the bottom of a lily branch with three lilies in full bloom symbolizing that “she was virginal before, during and after the Saviour’s birth.” Lilies symbolize the virtue of purity and Our Lady is Mother most pure.
On December 27, 2015 Pope Francis announced that the Slipper Chapel would be designated as a minor basilica which is a papal honor bestowed on Catholic chapels of pilgrimage and devotion. Bishop Hopes, in announcing the honor said, “The Holy See’s recognition of the importance of the church in Walsingham is a recognition of the growth and witness of the shrine over these many years since its re-establishment after its destruction during the period of the Reformation, for its constant witness to the importance of marriage and family life and its pastoral care of the tens of thousands of pilgrims who make their journey to the shrine every year.”