The origins of devotion to Our Lady of Willesden are lost in depths of history; but there is evidence by the fifteenth century of a considerable pilgrimage tradition. Pilgrimage medals even now are occasionally found. St Thomas More visited only two weeks before his arrest. It would have been quite an undertaking to visit, as Willesden was just woodland, and bandit country too. But for those living in and around London, it was the perfect way to make a day pilgrimage to an acknowledged Marian shrine without taking the much more arduous route to Walsingham, 120 miles to the north.
In 1538 the axe fell. Along with images from Walsingham and Ipswich, the Willesden image was dragged to Chelsea and burnt in a bonfire: a classic case of Reformation vandalism. The Vicar of St Mary’s had an enormous fine imposed upon him in perpetuity, for idolatry and superstition.
Then at the beginning of the 20th century a new Vicar (Fr James Dixon) decided to throw off this antiquated shackle (and was not punished); and he set about reviving the Shrine. He acquired an image, which was gilded, and made much of the tradition of holy water, which is captured as it rises from beneath the ground here.
70 years later, after somewhat variable interest in the life of the Shrine, the then Bishop of Willesden, Graham Leonard, gave new impetus to it. Very well attended annual pilgrimages took place, and a new image was commissioned.
We are now in the latest phase of this development of the Shrine, hoping to restore it finally to the place it had in the affections of the faithful in London: as the Marian shrine of the capital city. The annual Pilgrimage is being built up again, after a joyous 1,075th Anniversary day in 2013. Parishes and individual pilgrims are beginning to make their own way here; as do local people, who come in to sit with the image, to pray and contemplate. Impassioned prayers are left at her feet daily.
The Companions: a society devoted to support of the Shrine
Under the patronage of Bishop Peter Wheatley, the Companions are being formed to commit to praying for the Shrine and visiting regularly. Priest-Companions will be able to bring parish pilgrimages and celebrate Mass.
The Companions will formally begin life in Spring 2014. As we grow, we will be offering day courses and events. And the highlight of the year is always the annual Pilgrimage festival, which takes place in the summer months.
The Companions will be advised and supported by a Chapter of priests and lay people. Unlike Walsingham, St Mary’s Willesden is straightforwardly a Church of England parish church, with all the governance which that entails. The Companions will therefore be a separate society, supporting and encouraging the life of the Shrine within the parish and across the whole of the London area. Our financial resources will be ring-fenced within the activities of the PCC of St Mary Willesden as restricted funds, and using a separate charitable bank account.
Episcopal Patron The Rt Revd Peter Wheatley