At this week’s plenary meeting of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales, a resolution was passed that has elevated the status of the Shrine of St Winefride in Holywell, north Wales to that of a National Shrine.
The announcement will mark a new chapter in the history of this remarkable place, which has provided solace, refuge and hope for Catholics for more than 1,400 years. In fact Holywell can boast quite confidently that it is the oldest continually visited Christian pilgrim site in Britain.
Its story was first recorded in the 12th century, but its origins stretch even further into the past. St Winefride was a 7th century daughter of a local tribal chieftain who, at an early age, took a vow of chastity and pledged her life to the service of God. Her father, who had permitted the illustrious St Beuno to establish a church in the locality, also agreed to to let him become her religious instructor.
According to legend, one Sunday morning while her parents were at Mass, a local prince visited her and tried to force her to sleep with him, threatening to take her by force if she refused. Winefride escaped his clutches and fled towards the church, but the prince caught up with her and struck at her neck with his sword, allegedly decapitating her.
Where her head fell – or in the church where it rolled according to another version – a spring came forth from the earth. On seeing this, Beuno cursed the prince, and the earth opened up and swallowed him. He replaced Winefride’s head, said a fervent prayer, and her life was miraculously restored, leaving only a distinctive white scar around her neck.
Thenceforth the shrine became a place of refuge and healing for Catholics, growing in importance and popularity over the centuries. Across the Middle Ages the fame of St Winefride and the well’s healing powers spread across Europe, and accounts of miraculous cures abound down to the present day.
The modern-day visitor is reminded that the shrine is a ‘spring of grace’ – that its healing power derives not from the chemical composition of the water itself, but rather from the profound spirituality of the place, and the accumulated devotion of countless pilgrims. More than 30,000 visit each year, to bathe and take the waters, but also to sit in contemplation and wonder that such an historic and beautiful place could have survived both the ravages of time, and the years of Catholic persecution.
Elevating Holywell to national status is something that has been talked about in the Diocese of Wrexham for many decades, and comes at a time when the legend of St Winefride has a particular contemporary resonance.
“One of the things that I inaugurated this year, drawing on the story of Winefride and sexual abuse of her and the attack upon her, was seeking to make Holywell a place of consolation for those who have suffered similarly in their own lives in the 21st century,” says Bishop Peter Brignall of Wrexham, in whose diocese the shrine is located.
“Drawing on the great tradition of healing in Holywell, that healing that comes through the intercession of Winefride through the Grace of God – that those who in our own time, and particularly women who have been domestically or sexually abused or suffered violence of any sort, and who are inevitably traumatised by this, may find at Holywell a consolation, a hope, some comfort, some reconciliation – and even that they are healed.”
Bishop Peter’s vision of a modern place of refuge and healing for contemporary suffering underscores the long tradition of sanctuary and regeneration that Holywell has offered across the centuries. If you’d visited a century or so ago you might have stood amazed at the hundreds of crutches and medical aids hanging all around the walls of the grotto, each bearing in bold white ink the shrine’s confirmed date of a miraculous healing event. No doubt the physical cures are still occurring, but today there’s just a small selection of the crutches in the shrine’s interpretation centre, and acknowledgement perhaps that the strength of Holywell lies in what it can do for your inner soul as much as it might do to ease your bodily complaints.
Throughout Catholic history, and even stretching back into the earliest depths of human history, a shrine of any kind has always been a place of singular and potent importance.
This was pointed out quite beautifully by Pope Francis just last Saturday (11th November), when he addressed the participants in the II International Conference for Rectors and Pastoral Personnel of Shrines.
“In the history of every shrine it is easy to touch directly the faith of our faithful people, which must be kept alive and nurtured,” said Francis.
And the Holy Father also recognised that these days whilst we tend to centre our faith around our parish church, the experience of visiting a shrine opens up an entirely different dialogue with God that often eludes us in even the most fervent communal worship.
“It is important that, in the Shrines, particular attention is dedicated to adoration. We have lost something of the sense of adoration. We must regain it,” said the Pope.
“Perhaps we need to realise that the ambience and atmosphere of our churches do not always invite people to gather and worship. We must encourage pilgrims to experience contemplative silence – and it is not easy – adoring silence. This means helping them to fix their gaze on the essentials of faith. Adoration is not a departure from life; rather it is the space to give meaning to everything.”
To have a place that one can visit and have a real, individual encounter with God is a rarity in this busy, congested world we live in. Modern life, employment and the struggle to get by really don’t lend themselves to peace. Sadly we are also living in age where – for all our interconnectivity – the human person has never been more spiritually isolated, and therefore separated from God.
In providing a bridge between this human isolation and inner peace, the Catholic shrine takes its visitors out of the mundane and reconnects them with the divine. Holywell has been doing this spectacularly for many centuries now, and in its chattering waters and cool alcoves you can’t help but feel a connection to something immeasurably beyond the Self.
Pope Francis said that above all one visits a shrine to be “consoled”, and in this Holywell has a unique advantage – it has its history and its countless human tales of healing, but it also has St Winefride herself. Her story, be it half-remembered history or pure early Christian parable, puts a living person in a living place, which only naturally calls to those who are in need of consolation.
Again, to quote Pope Francis last weekend:
“One goes to Shrines also to be consoled. The mystery of consolation. How many people go there because they bear in the spirit and the body a weight, a suffering, a worry! The sickness of a loved one, the loss of a family member; so many situations in life are often the cause of loneliness and sadness, which are laid on the altar and await a response. Consolation is not an abstract idea, and is not made up first and foremost of words, but of a compassionate and tender closeness that understands pain and suffering. Compassionate and tender closeness. This is God’s style: close, compassionate and tender. This is the way of the Lord.”
As winter closes in, and the pilgrimage seasons draws to a close at St Winefride’s, the gates will remain open. Whatever the weather, whetever the time of year there is always a steady stream of souls bearing petitions, or coming to perform whatever little private ritual it is that moves them closest to God. Just as pilgrims have been doing here for centuries, along with kings and queens, and numerous unacclaimed saints.
“Everyone is more than welcome,” says Bishop Peter, “whether they are of faith or not, to come and discover a bit of our country’s tradition and heritage, and that they come with open hearts to that commitment to God that they may not have within their own lives, but are able to recognise in the lives of others and be prepared to be touched by that.”
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian
St Winefride’s Shrine
T: 01352 713054.
Open: 1st October – 31st March: 10.00 – 16.00
(No admission after 15.30)
Closed 25th & 26th December
There will be no further admission half an hour before closing.