Andrew Hammond on the ongoing revival of devotion to Our Lady of Willesden

In north-west London there is a path from St Matthew’s Willesden (which is actually in Harlesden) to St Mary’s Willesden (which is actually in Neasden), appropriately enough called Church Path. It does not so much snake silently between the houses as cut a remarkable swathe. It is very wide, very straight, and it is quite extraordinary that it has survived the vicissitudes of housing development over the last two hundred years. With Fr Andrew Teather at St Matthew’s and your author, the other local Fr Andrew, at St Mary’s, the path is being reclaimed from its sometimes less-than-salubrious occupations: so, for example, quite soon it will be the scene of two noisy processions.

The first will be for Corpus Christi, being marked on the following Sunday (purists may need to look away now). There will variously be confirmations, first communions and baptisms in both churches; and after a shared lunch at St Matthew’s a procession will strike out from there at 2.30pm to St Mary’s, the Blessed Sacrament being accompanied by the local Salvation Army Band. There’s ecumenism. The festivities will come to a conclusion with Pontifical Evening Prayer and Benediction at St Mary’s at 3pm. Bishop Nicholas Reade (retired of Blackburn) will be with us.

Three weeks later Church Path will be the scene of another procession. This time it will be pilgrims making their way from St Matthew’s to join the main procession for St Mary’s Annual Pilgrimage. As readers will know, St Mary’s is otherwise known as the Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden. The Black Madonna of Willesden, a 1972 reincarnation of the medieval original, is to be found here.

There have been occasional resurgences in this devotion in the last century or so. Fr Dixon, the Edwardian parish priest who refused to pay the perpetual fine for idolatry and superstition imposed after the Reformation bonfire of Marian images, was the first. Then again in the early Seventies Bishop Graham Leonard, of blessed memory, gave it huge impetus — including the commissioning of the new image. There is a marvellous, if somewhat Roald-Dahl-esque, soundless video to be found on Youtube, where crowds come to an open air Mass and the image is dedicated []

Spurred on by the 1,075th Anniversary of the parish last year (the church itself is mostly merely medieval), we are gradually working towards a third-time-lucky revival. Last year’s Pilgrimage was a rather joyous first step in this endeavour. In a day of medievally-inspired but modernly-done celebrations, there was a Procession, Pilgrimage Mass, Summer Fair and Solemn Vespers and Benediction.

This year’s Pilgrimage day is July 12th, and the details are on our website []. It would be good if you could join us, those of you who are within striking distance: and bring a banner! Our hope is that the Shrine will retrieve its original place and purpose: as the focus of Marian devotion for pilgrims in and near London. it would be good to know if you are coming… there may come a tipping-point where we have to transfer the Mass to the outdoors.

Part of this re-energizing of devotion is the establishment of the Companions of the Shrine, in effect a friends organization, under the patronage of the Bishop of Edmonton. Priest-Companions will have a role similar to that of Priests Associate of Walsingham. It is being formed to support the Shrine, and to encourage pilgrimage here. To receive information about this, please contact me [].

So why does Church Path survive, unimpeded by housing development and school building? Local pious lore has it that where St Matthew’s now stands was, in medieval times, a final way-station on the pilgrimage route to St Mary’s; that here pilgrims could refresh themselves before the last, sore-footed but bright eyed push to the Shrine. And so that trudge of so many thousands of holy wayfarers has branded itself into the ground, impervious — thus far — to the depredations of urban growth.