Ladyewell Fernyhalgh (Exterior)

St Mary's, Fernyhalgh & Ladyewell, Lancashire, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary's
Location: Fernyhalgh & Ladyewell, Lancashire, England
Date of visit: Saturday, 7 June 2014, 12:00pm

The building

Built in 1794, St Mary's looks like an old farmhouse of red brick under a slate roof set in a trim, well groomed graveyard, with a Georgian portico and small calling bell. The presbytery is attached at the east end. The rather ordinary, stark exterior gives no indication of the pious gaiety within. One finds an arched ceiling with central rosette; a starburst with the Latin text "Gloria Patri et Filio"; a Lady altar with statue and Latin text above; two arched arcades, north and south – the list goes on and on! The altar is much decorated with gold, red and blue diamond shapes and a wedding cake tabernacle, and sports pristine white altar linen. There is a gold reredos. richly adorned with cherubs with folded wings and blowing trumpets. The domed canopy above the high altar has a starry firmament painted on it. The shrine itself is located in the gardens of Ladyewell House, which was built in 1685. This white house can be glimpsed through the trees as pilgrims follow the route up the meandering lane.

The church

The name Fernyhalgh is thought by some historians to mean "ancient shrine," although others say that it means "watery meadow abounding in ferns." There has never been an apparition of the Blessed Mother here, but devotion to Our Lady of Fernyhalgh goes back to the 11th century. According to legend, a merchant caught in a storm prayed to the Virgin Mary to save him from being lost at sea. When the storm cleared, he found himself washed up on the Lancashire coast. A heavenly voice told him to look for a crabapple tree near which ran a spring. A serving-girl at the inn led him to the spot, where he discovered a statue of the Virgin and Child. The merchant built a chapel, and soon pilgrims were visiting the holy well and experiencing miraculous healing. During the reign of King Henry VIII, the well was left derelict and the chapel itself was demolished – to be restored and a new chapel built in 1685. Today, the main pilgrimage season runs from May to October, but pilgrims come daily, summer and winter, whatever the weather (as I was to discover!). The devotion at Ladyewell is ecumenical, attracting Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, and even the Kerala Indians living in this part of Lancashire. Travelling families also visit Ladyewell, its proximity to the motorway enabling them easily to stop en route to their destination.

The neighborhood

Fernyhalgh is a tiny, scattered hamlet between the villages of Broughton and Grimsargh, with pleasant countryside on all sides. The M6 motorway cuts right through the site: a long green, leafy lane, bursting with birdsong in the high hedgerows, bedecked with buttercups, periwinkle and Queen Ann's lace (cow parsley). During the days of persecution, recusants would hang washing on the hedgerows to indicate that mass was being celebrated. The location is very difficult to find! Ladyewell is not well signposted at all. I mentioned this to the very helpful and pleasant Richard, one of the Shrine helpers/stewards; he told me that when the motorway was built, the county council dispensed with most of the signs and has not replaced them since, in spite of requests to do so.

The cast

The principal celebrant was the Rt Revd John William Goddard, Anglican Bishop of Burnley. The preacher was the Revd Thomas Hoole, director of the Ladyewell Shrine and Roman Catholic parish priest of St Mary's. They were assisted by the Revd Deacon John Monk, two acolytes (male), crucifer, and thurifer/boat boy.

What was the name of the service?

Society of Mary/Forward in Faith, Joint Pilgrimage to Ladyewell. Rosary procession 12 noon at the parish church, weather permitting; Solemn Mass 12.15; Sprinkling 2.45; Benediction 3.30.

How full was the building?

Bursting at the seams.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Cars were parked in the lane leading to the Shrine, with people making their way wetly into church. I spotted several umbrellas abandoned in the church porch. A male usher gave me a very friendly hug and kiss, half lifting me off the ground.

Was your pew comfortable?

It wasnt a pew; it was a stair up to the organ/choir loft. All the pews were full, jam-packed! The pews were bog standard long benches with five or more people in each, with a ledge for books and drop-down kneeler. They looked like the kind that encourage an upright posture! A gentleman kindly offered me his seat but I declined, as he was with his family.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People meeting and greeting each other, swapping seats: "Can I sit here?" "No, its taken." General hubbub with a buzz of conversation, a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. Candles being lit and the choir tuning up. Unfortunately, the weather did not permit the Rosary procession. Rather a pity, as the Lady statue on the parish bier looked very pretty parked in the south aisle, flowers surrounding her, wearing a floral coronet. The steady drizzle, which had begun well before the start of the pilgrimage, had turned into a heavy downpour.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Welcome to church and Ladyewell this wet morning."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Order of service booklet printed for the occasion. These had run out but the usher gave me his own. I said, "No, really. You keep it." But he insisted. Hymn numbers were up on a board no evidence of hymn books, however. No sign of Bibles.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and keyboards situated in the organ gallery at the back.

Did anything distract you?

There were many people, so it seemed, up in the choir gallery. From my seat on the stairs, I had to get out of the way every time anyone came down and went back up again. I felt I was really in the way. From my vantage point at the back, the gloominess meant I had to hold my service sheet up to the window for better illumination.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Easy-going ecumenical festal do. In fact, I wasn't sure whether I was hearing a Roman Catholic mass or an Anglican celebration in a Catholic church. Smoke. Big six. Communion cafeteria style. Twenty-one priests and a bishop, all in matching Society of Mary chasubles, creamy white and Marian blue with a touch of gold. The Bishop of Burnley is close to retirement, so a presentation was made to him and his wife: a gift for him and flowers for Mrs Goddard. He was keen to tell us that his successor is another bishop with Anglo-Catholic leanings. Hooray! Father Tom also received a gift in a wine bag. He was keen for a kiss from the present-giver, which he made certain he got by holding out his cheek for her. A very friendly, warm man.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

16 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – Father Tom was very amusing. He kicked off the homily by saying, "Welcome to Ladyewell, and especially anyone who arrived late and are sitting at the back on the stairs." (Me, but I wasn't the only one.) Father's style was pick and mix, and make it up as you go along, even with his notes. A lot of quips slipped in very amusing and he laughed at his own jokes. as did we.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

God's love. Love him and he loves us back. Love him and each other. The flames of Pentecost fire us with love. What if Jesus came back? He loves us all. Mary loves us, and she accepted the gift of the Spirit. Follow his will and you will live in peace. In a nut-shell: love one another!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The holy smoke and the gongy bells.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The rugby scrum for communion from the choir gallery, the assembled late-comers on the stairs at the back having to get out of their way – and there was really nowhere else for us to go. About 25 assorted choir members kept coming, and coming, and coming! I asked the gentleman next to me where he thought they had all come from, and he replied that it was a bit like the Tardis up there (referring to the Doctor Who time machine that can transport its occupants to any point in time and any place in the universe). There were several stations for the distribution of communion – very useful, but rather a long queue, and some interesting footwork was required in order to fight one's way to where the distribution was.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

The sidesman/steward/service sheet giver searched me out and gave me another big squeeze, lifting me off the floor again. He was a big bloke too. He said, "Come up to the Ladyewell with me and meet the fathers. You'll like Father Tom. He's a real hoot!" How could I refuse after such an enthusiastic invitation? As I caught my breath and was traversing the churchyard, the water seeped like a sponge into my footwear. I heard gales of laughter emanating from the priest house – Father Tom and friends, no doubt. I decided to give the benediction and sprinkling a miss, largely due to the fact that I had already been well and truly sprinkled from on high all morning and my clothes had started to steam.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The Ladyewell is approximately one-quarter mile from church, and I arrived sopping wet to be greeted by two ginger cats lying across the doorway. Tea and coffee (served hot in proper mugs), snacks, etc. were on offer to purchase. Refreshed, I squelched my way back up the lane to the car and departed for home, Father Tom's jokes still ringing in my ears, with a robin serenading me in the rain.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 – I would make it my regular church if I could find it again.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Certainly. I felt as if I had entered a parallel universe on a wet Saturday afternoon in rural Lancashire. I would like to return and have a proper look around sometime – in better weather!

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The heavy and at times thundery downpours and the difficulty in finding Ladyewell.

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