St Mary at the Elms

Haley Dossor and describes the restoration of its Shrine and a recent Pilgrimage

In the twelfth century, Ipswich was already a prosperous town and port for the wealthy hinterland of Suffolk, where large quantities of wool were produced for export. Amongst the 39 churches at the time, was a small chapel known as ‘St Mary’s Chapel’, or the ‘Shrine of Our Lady of Grace.’ Here pilgrims came to honour the Virgin Mary, as they did at up to a thousand such shrines in her honour throughout the country. No wonder England was called ‘Mary’s dowry.’

Within this chapel was a famous and beautifully carved wooden statue of the Virgin and Child. When pilgrims came to ask for Mary’s prayers, miracles sometimes happened – whether physical cures or spiritual healing. Many famous pilgrims visited, including Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey. As with all other shrines and religious houses at the time of the Reformation, the chapel was closed down, and the famous statue taken to Chelsea to be burnt, on 20 September 1538.

Saved and restored

But was it? In the Italian town of Nettuno, next door to Anzio, there is in an impressive sanctuary, above the high altar, a very old wooden statue of the Madonna and Child known as the ‘English Lady’ or ‘Our Lady of the Graces.’

It is reputed to have been rescued from burning at Chelsea by some sailors, who took refuge at Nettuno from a storm, and gave the statue to the townspeople as a thank offering for their safety. Also on the back, in Old English, are the words ‘thou art gracious.’ A number of other similarities and carbon dating make it highly likely that the Nettuno statue is indeed the one from the Ipswich shrine.

In 1977, the Guild of Our Lady of Ipswich was set up, with two aims – to pray for Christian unity and to plan and achieve the re-establishment of the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace in Ipswich. For 25 years the Guild worked towards these ends, and after many setbacks, the shrine was re-established in St Mary at the Elms in 2002. It is the nearest church to the site of the original shrine ( now a shop), and inside is a beautifully carved replica, although admittedly not painted and dressed in such a magnificent way as the statue in Nettuno.

The ecumenical nature of the shrine has been paramount in its re-establishment. At the Service on 10 September 2002, the Diocesan Bishop, the Bishop of Richborough, a Roman Catholic Monsignor, an Orthodox priest, the chairman of the Methodist circuit, and Muslim representatives were all present.

Work of the shrine

Since then the work of the shrine has gradually increased as more parish and other groups have made pilgrimages to it. At the same time the parish has been forging closer links with the much larger shrine in Nettuno, and has made annual pilgrimages there since 2002.

Each year in that fortified seaside town (one hour west of Rome) crowds gather as the statue of Our Lady is gloriously arrayed, and borne on a litter carried by a series of eight men from the Sanctuary to the parish church, a journey of rather over a mile. The procession of small children, civic dignitaries, barefoot penitents, several bands, and many priests, is almost as long as the distance covered, and punctuated by a splendid firework display. One week later, Our Lady is returned to the Sanctuary in similar style.

In August this year the Confraternity of Our Lady of Grace of Nettuno, who care for the shrine, made a historic first visit to Ipswich. The lack of English-speaking Italians or Italian-speaking English did not deter the group from enjoying an Anglican Sung Mass.

It was striking, that as we went on a conducted tour of Lambeth Palace and saw paintings of Pope Gregory and St Augustine, and the subsequent Archbishops of Canterbury, the idea of the ‘English Reformation’ and the formation of the Anglican Church was completely foreign to Italians, who had seen nothing of these religious upheavals in their own church history. They found it difficult and indeed painful to understand that we were unable to share the Eucharist together, and fully supported our intentions to foster church unity, assisted by the prayers of Our Lady.

An ordinary parish

Of course, the priest and parishioners of an inner-city parish like St Mary have to focus on many other aspects of its ministry, as well as the shrine itself. There is a large homeless population, as well as a stream of asylum seekers and immigrants. The Parish also houses a lot of what is euphemistically called ‘people needing care in the community’, but what in reality means people with mental health and relationship problems who often end up on the vicarage doorstep.

Nevertheless, the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace has given the parish new added impetus to seek the prayers of Our Lady in supporting its work.