Sunday, September 28, 2008

Our Lady and the Martyrs

Lourdes is only one shrine where there is a long-established tradition of healing. For centuries, pilgrims travelled to the shrine of Our Lady and the English Martyrs at Fernyhalgh in Lancashire. The miraculous cures through the waters at Ladyewell date back to at least the fourteenth century…Of course, then the dedication of the chapel had nothing to do with martyrs.

For many, many years, old and young, men and women, sick and healthy, strode across the open fields of Lancashire, enjoying, perhaps, a brief rest on the banks of the River Ribble which then, as now, flowed through Preston. Even the Romans used this beautiful river, flowing through both Yorkshire and Lancashire and, at one time, forming the natural border of the ancient Kingdom of Mercia.

Time passed and the day dawned, in 1536, when Henry VIII ordered the stripping and destruction of monasteries and chapels across England and Wales. Some of the more remote chapels managed to survive unscathed, but not so Ladyewell. In 1547, it was destroyed.

…and yet it was not gone forever. The tiny shrine survived, secretly cherished by those who needed to keep their commitment hidden from the rest of the world, offering an easy escape across the fells and dark forests of the Trough of Bowland. Risking their lives, heavily-disguised priests, travelling around the country, would make their way to Fernyhalgh and secretly pray there with the beleaguered Catholics of the area.

Secret messages would have been sent around before the priest appeared on the scene: perhaps only an arrangement of washing hung out to dry would be the pre-arranged signal. There was always the danger of spies and blood-money.

The penalties for going to Mass were heavy: fines were the least of the people’s worries. The real threat was the charge of treason, for that incurred the terrible penalty of being hanged, drawn and quartered. There was no problem with being a Catholic. The problem was with practising Catholicism, for that was seen, in those days, as adherence to a foreign power: that of Rome.

The days of the Reformation are past, but the memory lingers on. The shrine of Our Lady has been rebuilt and reinstated, but with an ‘added extra’. Some of those priests of days gone by were subsequently martyred. In their honour, the shrine at Ladyewell is now known as that of Our Lady and the Martyrs.

Around the walls of the church are the names of some of the many Reformation martyrs of England and Wales, some of them probably secret visitors to this tiny shrine ‘in the middle of nowhere’.

Mary, Queen and Mother, grant that your children may be as ready to dedicate their lives to your Son as were our ancestors. However small we might be in the eyes of the world, we know that we are important to him. Help us to live our lives in his presence.

God bless,
Sr Janet