Father Michael Doherty, Parish Priest of St Hilda’s Church, Stevenage, was clearly delighted with the Pilgrimage Visit of the Miraculous Relic Image. “It was like being a cathedral for the weekend!” he exclaimed. “St Hilda’s has become the National Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe!”
He was standing in his beautiful church with its cathedral-sized sanctuary, which was lavishly decorated with flowers – mainly roses for Our Lady, but also a number of cheerful sunflowers on the back wall and, of course, with the Miraculous Relic Image taking pride of place in the sanctuary.
This came at the end of five months of planning and four very busy and well-attended days of Masses, talks, devotions, reflections, veneration and other events from Friday 6th to Monday 9th October 2017. What was evident throughout was the warmth of the welcome and the hospitality shown by Father Michael and his parishioners, their love for Our Lady and the great effort they had put in to make sure that this was a visit to remember for everybody.
The Pilgrimage Visit started on the Friday evening with the Service of Reception and Guadalupe Mass. It was a privilege to have with us The Right Rev Paul McAleenan, Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, as our Principal Celebrant.
Bishop Paul received into his care, on behalf of Father Michael and the Parish of St Hilda’s, the Miraculous Relic Image for the duration of the Pilgrimage Visit. The Guadalupe Mass following straight on, including Bishop Paul’s homily focusing on Our Lady as Protectress of the Unborn and the Mother of us all.
Each day, following morning and evening Mass, The Guardians, supported by Father Michael, gave a series of themed reflections, using the Guadalupe Miracles as the starting point to examine our place within the Church and the call for a New Evangelisation. The Guardians were ably supported by the Knights of St Columba (KSC) Brothers led by Grand Knight Leo Williams. The KSC Brothers were in place from church opening until closing, controlling the management of pilgrim numbers and assisting with the visitors’ spiritual experience.
Saturday brought long lines of pilgrims who queued patiently for a chance to venerate. In the afternoon, SPUC Stevenage hosted a Pro-life prayer service, and the congregation and visiting pilgrims listened to a Reflection Our Catholic Witness to Life.
Later in the afternoon St Hilda’s was packed with a visit from the Polish Community for Mass and Veneration. It was a beautiful occasion and one of the many highlights of the Pilgrimage Visit. Following Evening Mass, Veneration continued until after 9.00 pm.
On Sunday, a steady stream of pilgrims came to venerate, and long queues built up after each Parish Mass. Veneration stopped while the baptism of baby Johanna took place. Her parents, in front of the Miraculous Relic Image, dedicated Johanna to Our Blessed Mother; it was a very joyous occasion.
In the afternoon it was the turn of the Filipino community to come and celebrate the Pilgrimage Visit with a unique service focusing on Our Lady of Guadalupe as Patroness of their Country and they sang the hymn to Our Lady in Filipino. Some community members had travelled a great distance to be with us.
Later, as the programme continued, a highlight of the Pilgrimage Visit took place during the reflection A Call to Conversion: pilgrims were called forward to venerate the Blessed Sacrament in a privileged and intimate way, kneeling before Father Michael and touching the humeral veil, which enclosed the monstrance. All who experienced this were deeply moved, and the reflection ran over by nearly an hour, due to the pilgrim numbers taking part.
In the evening, the Kerala Indian Community celebrated at a very colourful and musical Mass in the Syro-Malankara Rite, their musicians having learnt the hymn to Our Lady of Guadalupe in their native language.
Monday was the day when the two Catholic Primary Schools, St Margaret Clitherow and St Vincent de Paul, represented by their Year 5 and 6 pupils, head teachers and staff, came to learn about the Relic Image. Guardians Teresa Williams, Anne Reddin and Barbara Kay gave the Schools and Young Persons presentation. The children’s behaviour in the church was exemplary, and they had some interesting questions. They were particularly concerned about the fate of those humans who had been sacrificed in the times before the arrival of Catholicism in Mexico! After the presentation, the children were able to touch a rose petal to the Image and put a petition slip in the box before returning to their schools to reflect on what they had learnt.
All too soon for the people of Stevenage and the surrounding parishes, the Pilgrimage visit concluded. Early Monday evening saw the Service of Return that followed the Evening Mass. St Hilda’s congregation and pilgrim visitors were there in significant numbers to say goodbye.
At the end of Mass, Father Michael returned the Miraculous Relic Image to the care of the Guardians. At the conclusion of the Service of Return, Guardians Dick and Michael led the traditional presentations to Father Michael, the parish and the Knights of Saint Columba. Guardian Michael presented to parishioner Louise, a Home Shrine for use by a parish in Goa.
Ten members of the organising committee and volunteers received enrolment as Honorary Guardians. During the Pilgrimage Visit, the team spent much time listening to heartfelt and humbling testimonies from the many pilgrims who felt inspired to share a story from their lives with us. The generosity of the Pilgrims, via the donation box and repository, was truly humbling and a magnificent testimony of their desire to assist our future work. We hope, at this year’s Feast Day Mass, to see the many friends we have met during this beautiful Pilgrimage Visit.