The Kent and Sussex Pastoral Areas of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham have arranged their own regional pilgrimage for the Feast of St. James, patron of pilgrims, Saturday 25th July. The destination will be the Southwark Archdiocesan Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Simon Stock at the Carmelite Priory in Aylesford, Kent, generally known as “The Friars”.
Aylesford Priory, which was in private hands since the Reformation, was resettled by Carmelite Friars in 1949 and was soon transformed into a Shrine. Architecturally you can clearly distinguish the historical buildings around a picturesque courtyard and the more recent Pilgrimage Esplanade with its three Chapel pavilions, where the main pilgrimage services take place.
My first visit to Aylesford was in 1969, shortly before I was received into the Catholic Church. I took part in a diocesan pilgrimage led by the late Archbishop Cyril Cowderoy, whose coat of arms are visible on the right-hand chapel. Although my parents were not churchgoers and my mother was Anglican, they often visited Aylesford together just to experience the peace and quiet.
So, on leaving Folkestone after Walsingham weekend, I decided to make my own personal pilgrimage to Aylesford on my way up to London. After passing through Canterbury, where I handed over five cases of old books, which I had brought from Germany, at the Hospice Bookshop on Burgate, near the Cathedral and the Catholic Church, I arrived in Aylesford at about 10.30 a.m.
The two remaining arcades of the original cloisters form one corner of the esplanade
Entering into the central pavilion you are led further along a corridor to the Relic Chapel with the beautiful modern shrine of the English saint Simon Stock, a former superior geeral of the Carmelites who is best known for having received the brown scapular from Our Lady of Mount Carmel in a vision.
The Relic Chapel opens into the small Chapel of the English Martyrs, which is currently used as a Blessed Sacrament Chapel. This chapel is decorated with some very striking ceramic reliefs by Polish artist Adam Kossowski (like the whole shrine actually). It was in this chapel that I felt most at home as an Ordinariate Christian. Apart from St. Thomas of Canterbury on the altar frontal all of the martyrs either named or portrayed are martyrs of the Reformation.
Here we can find St. Thomas More (Scranton and Toronto), St John Fisher (Potomac Falls), St. Cuthbert Mayne (Chelston), and between the lines of the two large panels naming the Forty Martyrs canonised by Blessed Pope Paul VI and showing Tyburn and the Tower of London I could see written all the names of the Protestant martyrs killed in the reign of Queen Mary. I spent quite a while in this chapel, which became the main goal of my pilgrimage.
It was in the corridor leading to the Relic Chapel that I first encountered a large group of young boys, who as it turned out later, were eleven-year-olds on an end-of-school retreat just before leaving their Jesuit Preparatory School Donhead in Wimbledon before going on to Secondary School.
When I returned from my visit to the Martyrs Chapel the boys were congregating for Mass in St. Joseph’s Chapel with some more Kossowski ceramics of the life of St. Joseph. I decided to secrete myself into the back of the chapel and join them for Mass. The Mass was interesting for a number of reasons, not least because the celebrant was a deaf mute (bearing a striking resemblance to the Bishop of Amiens in France, with whom I had originally confused him).
Father celebrated the whole Mass in sign language and asked us to join in signing “Amen” by putting our hands together into the Orate position. Although the priest was quite difficult to understand when he spoke he held a homily which all the young people listened attentively to, in which he told them the importance of love and its fruits as they moved on to the next phase of their life. Here were sixty or so boys beginning school and me, just having left school, and I felt he was talking to all of us equally.
At the end of Mass each of the boys went to the ambo and told some of their most important experiences and achievements at primary school – it was quite moving. Since Father could not read their lips and therefore did not know what they were saying, each of the boys gave him their notes afterwards for him to read.
As Mass ended the Angelus bell rang and I softly sang the Anglican version of the Angelus which so many of our Ordinariate parishes use.
Before leaving Aylesford, I had lunch in the beautiful Pilgrims’ Hall (beloiw with the parasols), then went to the shop and the pottery. A wonderful visit.