Something strange is occurring at the National Marian Shrine of England.
The shrine that began in 1061, when Lady Richeldis de Faverches had a vision of Mary, who asked her to build a replica of the house at Nazareth where the Incarnation took place, is seeing Catholic families moving there, with a sense of calling that this is where they are to live, work and thrive.
Because Richeldis obeyed Our Lady's request, this shrine continues to honor the Mother of God.
Although Henry VIII suppressed the shrine, the faithful restored it in the 20th century — and pilgrims continue to honor the Blessed Mother here, including on her feast day, Sept. 24, under the title of Our Lady of Walsingham.
The move entails all the usual difficulties of relocation, with an added one: namely, that any explanation for this move is hard to offer those without faith.
The Register spoke Sept. 11 to three mothers who have moved with their families to Walsingham in the last 18 months. All three have young children and all are converts to the faith who have moved to live near England’s principal Marian shrine in a little village in Norfolk that, in medieval times, drew countless pilgrims from across Europe and was known as “England’s Nazareth.”
‘My Heart’s Desire’
With great clarity, Charlotte Bromley-Davenport can remember the exact moment when she felt called to live near the shrine. “It was Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018, at approximately 10:46 at night. I was in a tent near the shrine at a family event run by the shrine.”
At that moment she turned to her husband, Justin, and asked if this was the place they had been searching for: Both had decided that London was not the best place to bring up their newborn son, Isidore. The thing was that Justin had been pondering the exact same question at precisely the same moment. Needless to say, they were overjoyed that their discernment was identical.
The next day they went to see Walsingham real estate agents, and a cottage was located and rented. By early November 2018, the family had left London and was exploring a different life three-hour car trip north of England’s capital in rural Norfolk. At first, Charlotte admits, there was “quite a lot to take in” and adjust to. But, she says, soon there were many “lovely things,” not least the “really deep friendships” that have quickly been forged with the other Catholic families who have also moved to Walsingham with the same sense of calling. Charlotte describes some of the young Catholic mothers she has met as “faithful, prayerful, generous-hearted women” singing, both metaphorically and literally, “from the same hymn sheet.”
While Charlotte still misses her friends and family in London, she increasingly finds her visits back to the neighborhood where she used to live a reminder of why she wanted to leave there in the first place. Sitting in her new home, surrounded by sunlit fields, she describes her former South London locality as “hemmed in, gray, dirty and at times frightening.” When revisiting, she is struck and sickened by much of the advertising on display and the attitudes and values that underlie it. All of this confirms for her that she made the right decision to leave and seek a new life with her family close to Our Lady’s shrine.
Although Charlotte is a trained psychotherapist as well as a professional photographer and artist, she is pleased with her new rural setting — and not just because of the better air quality. “We wanted to bring our child up with faith,” she said. She is also interested in home schooling for Isidore, now age 1, and a growing number of parents near the shrine are involved in this educational endeavor.
Raised an Anglican, Charlotte converted to the Catholic faith in 2013 shortly before her marriage to Justin, also a Catholic convert. Curiously, devotion to Our Lady was not a prominent feature of her faith until she moved to Walsingham. “I didn’t know what I was going to be given here,” she said, aware that now her Marian devotion has grown significantly. But the greatest discovery found at Walsingham, she feels, is one of joy at her new life, something she describes as “an incredible gift.” Smiling, she added, “Some days I just pinch myself! God has given me my heart’s desire, and I didn’t realize it.”
Anna Allen grew up in a devout Baptist family. She married Nick, a Catholic, in a Catholic wedding ceremony in 1997. She loved her husband but not his religion. For her, Catholicism was about “lots of things added in [to Christianity], praying to people other than Jesus, bells and smells.” She had no intention of converting. That all changed when she attended a Catholic charismatic event and, in particular, when she took part in a workshop on natural family planning. She says it was this Catholic teaching on how to achieve or avoid pregnancy through an understanding of the human body’s natural fertility cycle that suddenly all “made sense” and, furthermore, helped her marriage, more so as she discovered Pope St. John Paul II’s catechesis known as “theology of the body.”
Anna became increasingly curious about the Catholic faith. She began watching EWTN, especially The Journey Home, a program in which converts speak of their journey to Catholicism. Five years later, in 2011, she was received into the Church. She said it was like “dying and going to heaven: I had all the ‘evangelical’ bits and the sacraments.” That said, she recalls the challenge of having to tell her Baptist father of her decision, something that was hard for him to understand, but now is fully supportive. Yet for all her Protestant upbringing, she discovered a diary entry. It explicitly stated that she wanted to go to confession, to embrace the authority of the Church and to have a relationship with Our Lady.
That last desire was fulfilled by the Allens’ decision to move, with their seven children, from their home in Lincolnshire to Walsingham, located more than an hour by car to the east. They had gone to the shrine on pilgrimage to attend a family conference. At that time, they were especially concerned about aspects of the education curriculum being taught to their children in public school. But, in addition, Anna felt that “God was doing something” in her life. She felt called to grow spiritually, to meet a new challenge — and that this involved Walsingham. After the family made an Act of Consecration to Our Lady, their home was put up for sale with the express intention of moving closer to the shrine at Walsingham if they were able to sell their house. The house sold the next day, and they were on their way.
It has not all been smooth sailing, though. Nick still works at his old job as a fireman and thus has to travel quite a distance from the family to do so. Inevitably, the settling of a family of seven children into a new way of life has had its challenges. But Anna remains enthusiastic about the move, if aware that this has also been a time of purification for both her and her family. “It is tough, but we know we have been drawn here,” she said.
Speaking on the grounds of the shrine at Walsingham, she radiates joy and states she is “at peace.” And as to the world she and her family left behind, and which she loved, she simply said: “We could never go back.”
‘She Has Called Us to Share Her Joy’
Wendy Fannon had no interest in religion when she left her native South Africa for London. Working in finance in the City of London, her focus was on making money and traveling. All of that was to change, however, if gradually, when she fell in love with David. He was at that time being drawn back to his Catholic faith. Eventually, the couple attended a Catholic course of instruction in London where they both experienced the grace of the Holy Spirit in a profound way.
It changed their lives in an unexpected way. David left to discern a vocation to the priesthood. The couple were apart for seven years. At last, David found his true vocation, and by then so had the now-Catholic convert Wendy: The couple were married in 2010.
In 2015 the Fannons were camping near the Walsingham shrine. Although they had both heard of the shrine they had not visited it. So they made a mental note to do so — sometime. In 2017, they found themselves attending a marriage and family course at the shrine. Wendy said that during the event the couple “felt the Mantle of Our Lady protecting us.” This is all the more remarkable given that, up until that point, Wendy claimed to have had “no experience of Our Lady.” After that experience, Mary’s maternal care became very much part of her spiritual life. Increasingly, she was convinced that “Our Lady was going to draw me to Jesus.” And as a mother herself, Wendy “wanted to place my own children with Mary” in a physical place “where they could encounter her, a place where she is honored.”
Soon after this experience, the Fannons and their four children relocated from Bedfordshire to Walsingham. It was “an act of faith,” Wendy points out. They had decided to move to Walsingham with “no job, no home and four kids.”
That act of faith was repaid, however, as, two days after arriving, David found work and the family settled into a new home. They have benefited greatly from being close to other Catholic families, many of whom have also arrived recently and who share the Fannons’ desire to live their family life centered on their Catholic faith and devotion to Our Lady.
At Walsingham, Wendy feels the faith of her children has been “normalized.” But she also is in no doubt that there is a reason she has been called to live with her family here. Watching her children play on the grounds of the shrine, she paused and then added, “This is the place she has called us to share her joy.”
Register correspondent K.V. Turley writes from London.
This story was updated after posting.