English Catholics Return to a Medieval Well of Healing
Photos by Michael Durnan and Emily Prest
Its origins lost in the mists of time, St Winefride’s Well in Wales echoes with the magical timbre of ancient Christianity. Continually visited since the 600’s, the Holywell is one of the few locations mentioned by name in the great medieval ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, a King-Arthur era tale.
In recent years, the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales has organized a Latin Mass and procession to the Well. This once-popular pilgrimage has lain dormant since the years after Vatican II, but today is experiencing a renaissance. REGINA caught up with the celebrant, Fr James Mawdsley, FSSP as well as English Catholics Emily Prest, Michael Durnan and Anna Maria Vesey, to get their impressions.
“I am always struck and impressed, as a photographer, by the visual beauty and richness of The Traditional Rite. It is a feast for the eye. The beauty of the vestments, the dignified and reverential gestures, movements and demeanour of the clergy and the laity. This visual beauty and sense of theatre is reinforced by the choral chant, music and singing which accompanies what is happening on the sanctuary and altar.” – Michael Durnan
The legend of Saint Winifred is reminiscent of many of the young female saints of pagan times. In AD 660, Caradoc, the son of a local prince, severed the head of the young Winifred after she spurned his advances. A spring rose from the ground at the spot where her head fell and she was later restored to life by her uncle, Saint Beuno.
“As St Winefride’s Well has been a place of unbroken pilgrimage for some 1370 years, not even interrupted by the Reformation, all the pilgrims of the present can enjoy the sense of being part of something huge, universal.” – Fr. Mawdsley
“I felt a connection to all the pilgrims who had done that procession over the centuries, and of being a part of the ‘cloud of witnesses’.” – Anna Maria Vesey
“Offering Holy Mass in Holywell one is deeply impressed that God desires this sacrifice to continue uninterrupted. “ – Fr Mawdsley
“The story of St Winifred herself is an amazing story of dramatic healing, and that many healings and answers to prayer have continued here over the years. I believe that St Winifred’s intercession may be having an effect on a certain situation that I prayed about when there.” – Anna Maria Vesey
“It is by God’s power that St Winefride had her head restored to her body so that she survived death and became abbess of her convent. So it is by God’s power that England and Wales will be re-united with her spiritual head, the Pope, and surviving the Reformation, England and Wales may once again live a life given to God.” – Fr Mawdsley
“Processing to the Well, following St Winefride’s relics, one senses the divine security that no matter what the world throws at the Church, it is God Himself Who is writing the narrative. The healthy turnout of prayerful and glad pilgrims reinforces this confidence.” — Fr Mawdsley
“After Mass, I followed the procession to The Holy Well of St. Winifrede from the parish church and was struck by the faith and reverence of the pilgrims. One again was reminded of the sense of history and continuity with the past. We trod were so many had processed before in ages past. One is united in Faith with them no matter how long ago that was. Pilgrimages are not just about the present, as with the celebration of Mass, but a sign of continuity with the past. We are united across oceans of time by an unbroken Faith. As modern pilgrims, our path and procession, is far easier than it has been in the past. Our ancestors did as we still do but during a time when it was dangerous, and even treasonous, to make this pilgrimage.” – Michael Durnan
“The major attraction is the unbroken connection to Catholicism that existed before The Break with Rome. Even after Henry VIII and during Penal Times under Elizabeth I and James I, pilgrimages to The Holywell continued. Holywell is the only shrine and place of Catholic pilgrimage to lay claim to this in England and Wales. It is this sense of unbroken continuity with the past that holds a powerful appeal and claim to the Catholic imagination. One thinks of all those pilgrims from ages past who have trod the same route the modern pilgrim still does. One is reminded of their sacrifice to witness their Catholic Faith and the price paid by our ancestors to keep the flame of Faith alive. It is a very poignant, inspiring and humbling experience to tread the path where so many have trod before. “
– Michael Durnan
In the 17th century the Well became known as a symbol of the survival of Catholic recusancy in Wales. From early in their mission to England, the Jesuits supported the well. In 1605, many of those involved with the Gunpowder plot visited it with Father Edward Oldcone thanks for his deliverance from cancer, or as some said, to plan the plot.
“At the Well, I was immediately taken and struck by the age of the shrine with its weathered Gothic stone and its obvious great age and construction. I also saw the ancient grafitti carved into the stone that told of past pilgrims, their names and towns from which they had journeyed. Here was a visible testament and witness to what one had already sensed and known. The water at the well still springs anew from deep underground as it has done since time immemorial. Yet another sign of continuity with the past. As the water still springs and flows from deep underground, so the flow of faithful pilgrims still springs from above.”–Michael Durnan
The well is known as “the Lourdes of Wales” and is mentioned in an old rhyme as one of the Seven Wonders of Wales. James II is known to have visited the well with his Italian wife Mary of Modena during 1686, after several failed attempts to produce an heir to the throne.
“One of the particular attractions for me, was the ancient nature of this site, that it has been a place of pilgrimage since the 7th century, and has a history of uninterrupted worship for 13 centuries, which must be pretty unique as most had a significant gap for the Reformation.” Anna Maria Vesey
“The hiddenness of Holywell, the age of the stones and the clarity of the water, all add to the sense of peace there, of the shrine’s indestructibility and purity. It is of little account to the world, but much loved by God.”-Fr. Mawdsley