Harri Williams on the enduring legacy of Father Patten


The Revd Alfred Hope Patten was Inducted as Vicar of Walsingham on the 19th January 1921. As is traditional at an induction he rang the Church bell, and rather than ring a number which might equate to the number of years he hoped to be in the Parish, Fr Patten rang the Angelus. It was a sign of things to come. In July 1922 he restored the Image of Our Lady of Walsingham, and placed it in the Guild Chapel of the Parish Church, where it was to remain until its translation to the Holy House in 1931, and the rest is history. This year we celebrate and give thanks to God for the 100th anniversary of Fr Patten’s induction to this living. As we gather at this National Pilgrimage and as we emerge from one of the most harrowing years in living memory, perhaps we might consider what Fr Patten’s example has to say to us, as disciples of Jesus Christ? 

If Fr Patten was anything, he was a Christian of conviction. From the very outset of his ministry in this Parish he sought to place the celebration of the Mass, the recitation of the office, and the pastoral care of his people at the centre of his daily life and the daily life of the Parish. At times that brought him into conflict with parishioners, patrons and bishops, but he remained convinced of the need to defend, uphold and teach the Catholic faith in Walsingham. Fr Patten was a man of purpose who shaped both his physical and spiritual journey towards the new Jerusalem, a theme which is paramount in the reading from Psalm 84 which we have just heard. Fr Patten’s life and witness echoed the thoughts and desire of the psalmist who wrote: ‘My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord’. As we emerge from this time of pandemic, we need to be Christians of conviction too. Christians who place front and foremost their belief in the centrality of the sacramental life within the Church of England. Christians who value sacred space and physical presence as essential to the witness of the Church in this nation, despite what many might say both within and outside of the life of the Church. Because churches are not places offering entertainment, self-improvement programmes or social connections, they are to be places in which people meet the living God. And we meet the living God most chiefly when we celebrate the Eucharist, which is, as Bishop Rowan Williams wrote: ‘the moment where the body renews itself by feeding on the body, where one kind of presence is energised afresh by another.’ As Catholic Christians our faith is renewed and emboldened every time, we receive Jesus Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, and through that our voices too will say: ‘Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise’ But we must ensure that what we receive in the House of God translates into actions in the world, for otherwise we become Christians of convenience rather than Christians of conviction.  

Fr Patten also taught us what it is to be a child of Mary. Fr Patten’s deep devotion to the Our Lady, contributed significantly to the place of the Blessed Virgin within the life of the Church of England in the 20th century. He wondered at the humanity of Mary honoured by God in the bearing of divinity, and emphasised her attractiveness as an exemplar of obedience, humility and joy. In Psalm 84 the author writes of travelling through the valley of Baca. This was a barren, deserted and dry land. During these past 18 months, many of us I am sure may have felt that we too have been walking through the valley of Baca, as we have faced so many difficulties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The death of loved ones, the loss of jobs, separation from family and friends, deterioration in mental health, the inability to access education, all these things have had a detrimental effect upon our lives. And yet what the Psalmist knew, as Mary knew, is that if we trust in God, then when we walk through the valley of Baca, He will make it a place of springs, a place of fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Because our relationship with God is a never-ending supply of strength for the journey, even in difficult times. Mary faced difficulties as an unwed mother, a refugee, and as a widow, and yet God continued to bless her and provide for her, he continued to provide water for her soul.  We become children of Mary by following her example of discipleship, a discipleship rooted in service, trust and generous faith. We become children of Mary by invoking her prayers, confident in the knowledge that she understands and listens to our plight, that she too has walked through the vale of tears. We become children of Mary by witnessing to Jesus Christ in our lives, confident in the knowledge as Pope St John Paul II wrote that ‘that Mary leads us to Christ, and that Christ leads us to his Mother.’

The author of Psalm 84 testifies to the truth that the one who finds strength in God is one whose heart is set on pilgrimage. Fr Patten embraced that truth and made it possible for us all to experience the joy of pilgrimage to this holy place. The Shrine at Walsingham has existed to remind pilgrims of Mary’s joyful surrender to the Word and the will of God, and to prompt them to experience this joy themselves by doing the same. We come on pilgrimage not to escape from the world, but prepare for the life to come. To focus on the treasure that awaits us in heaven and to cast aside the earthly treasurers which so often weigh us down. As faithful pilgrims, we walk as the Psalmist wrote ‘uprightly’ in the Lord, because our hearts and minds are fixed on the highways to Zion. But we need to do more than merely walk uprightly ourselves. We need to do more than simply ensure that our pilgrim path to Walsingham is well trodden, we need to encourage others to walk uprightly too as Fr Patten did when he revived the practice of pilgrimage to this holy place a hundred years ago. What joys we could share, what blessings would be imparted, what evangelization could be achieved if we each brought a new pilgrim to Walsingham during this coming year. I ask you for a moment to think of one person in your life who has not come on pilgrimage to this holy place. Think of them, pray for them, and bring them. Fr Patten desired for us all to be people of pilgrimage 

Fr William Davage in his recently published work, Vicars of Walsingham wrote of Fr Patten that he was: ‘a figure of dignity, charm and innate spirituality.’ We give thanks to God for Fr Patten and for bringing him to this Parish in 1921. For here was a man who knew that he wished to be a ‘doorkeeper in the house of his God’ and through his vision, determination and devotion enabled us to encounter the Holy House here in England’s Nazareth. But his legacy should not be found simply in stone and wood, but rather in the souls of God’s people in this land. For he has set before us the example of what it means to be a Christian of conviction, a child of Mary and people of pilgrimage. The question remains do we have the courage to fulfil his legacy?  


Father Harri Williams SSC is the Vicar of Walsingham. This homily was preached  at the National Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in May 2021.