Going on pilgrimage can be a costly affair, especially when air travel and overnight stays are necessary. There will always be a draw to many of the more famous shrines and centres of devotion, but there are also many historic places of pilgrimage within our own isles that deserve closer attention.
A few weeks ago I led a short ‘micro pilgrimage’ where we travelled to Wales and visited several fantastic and holy places in one day. Here are the destinations that we visited. Each place has its own merits and together they led our group into a deeper appreciation of some of the holy sites that are virtually on our doorstep.
St Mylin’s well, Llanfyllin
Llanfyllin is a charming little town just over the border from England between Shrewsbury and Bala. Once an important market town it is now a sleepy back water in the valley of the River Cain. Our small group climbed the gentle hill behind the town to visit the holy well, Ffynnon Coed y Llan. The well is dedicated to St Mylin who is reputed to have baptised many people here in the 6th century. Little is known of St Mylin, although some believe that he was an Irish bishop.
Although disputed, the well lays claim to be the first place where full-immersion baptisms took place in the UK. The water can still be accessed via a small well house which was renovated by the town council in the late 1980s.
Making a pilgrimage to the well today will only take a short time. When my group visited we made the sign of the cross at the well and renewed our baptismal promises using the water which is still used today for baptisms in local churches.
As well as appreciating the views from this stunning location, it was moving to renew our vows in a place which has such a long and noble association with baptism.
St Melangell’s shrine and church, Pennant Melangell
St Melangell’s shrine was an unexpected find when I discovered it by chance a few years ago. It can certainly claim to be one of the most remote shrines in the UK, located in the Berwyn Mountains. It is only about 20 minutes’ drive from St Mylin’s well. Attracting pilgrims for over 1,200 years, St Melangell’s church is now part of the Anglican Church in Wales but many Catholics and Orthodox pilgrims visit each year. During our recent pilgrimage I was able to celebrate Mass for our small group and we were given a very warm welcome by the centre director.
St Melangell lived in the 7th century and she is believed to have travelled to the isolated Tanat valley from Ireland to live as an anchorite. Legend has it that one day Brochwel, prince of Powys, was hunting a hare which took refuge under St Melangell’s cloak. The prince was moved by her courage and sanctity and gave St Melangell the valley as a place of sanctuary. Later on St Melangell become the abbess of a small religious community.
Today’s church is Grade-I listed and sits in what is believed to be a Bronze Age site. One of the main features of the church is a 15th-century oak rood screen, with carvings that tell the story of the meeting between Brochwel and St Melangell.
However, the greatest treasure is the 12th-century shrine itself. It contains a blend of Celtic and Romanesque motifs. The shrine was dismantled during the Reformation and was not pieced back together until the 20th century, where it has now been reassembled in the chancel behind the altar. Many parts were discovered over the years in the walls of the churchyard. It is believed that St Melangell’s relics are buried beneath the shrine.
Two medieval effigies are displayed within the church and one is believed to represent St Melangell.
In 1987 the future of the church looked bleak and there were plans to remove the shrine to a museum and leave the church as a ruin. Thankfully a restoration project commenced in 1988 and since then the place has gently grown in popularity.
I would recommend making a pilgrimage to this wonderful place. It is very much a sanctuary where God speaks in the silence and the beauty. Groups are welcomed and prior arrangements can be made with the director to use the St Melangell centre which lies near to the church.
There is access to the church via a single track road but I would recommend parking at Llangnog, about two miles down the valley, and walking to the shrine. Our group did this and prayed the Rosary as we made our way through the stunning and unspoilt scenery.
The Church of Our Lady of Fatima, Bala
Situated about half an hour from St Melangell’s church, this special place is an equally unexpected find due to its slightly unconventional setting. Fr James Koenan, a Dutch Dominican priest, created the church in the 1940s in what was a former café, fish and chip shop and stable. From outside, the church blends into the rest of this main shopping street and is hidden at the rear of what now serves as a house and small piety stall.
Fr Koenan raised the money and carried out much of the work himself. He is said to have sawn through many of the oak beams to create today’s beautiful and simple church. This was the first church outside of Portugal to be dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima because Fr Koenan had promised that he would give the church this dedication if the money could be found to purchase the property.
The oak statue of Our Lady of Fatima was carved by José Ferreira Thedim who also made one for the Fatima basilica. The statue now sits in a purpose-built shrine which was a millennium project. The shrine is lined with Welsh slate with a striking stained glass window depicting the image of the spinning sun.
The church and shrine are unpretentious and many groups and individuals visit the shrine each year. Every first Saturday there is a special day of devotion with Eucharistic adoration, Mass, the Rosary, Reconciliation and Benediction which attracts a wide range of pilgrims.
The church is about to lose its Sunday Mass, which will be replaced with anticipatory Mass on Saturday evening. This is part of the reorganisation that is taking place within the Diocese of Wrexham. It was a privilege to attend the Sunday Mass recently and see the little church full to capacity. I hope that the reorganisation does not diminish the faithful congregation who maintain this special and holy place.
Our Lady of Sorrows, Dolgellau
This church is worth a visit just to receive the reassurance that it is possible to build a modern church that is not ugly. This is thanks to an anonymous donor who insisted that the church “must be a fine building, harmonising with its austere, mountainous surroundings”.
The church was founded by a Maltese priest, Fr Francis Scalpell. He arrived in Dolgellau in 1939 and celebrated Mass for many years in a leaky windswept stable.
During the 1950s the Catholic population grew and so a larger, more permanent church was needed. Work on the building started in 1963 and over the next four years a fine, normal-style church grew constructed of the local grey stone. Over the main west door is a striking crucifix which was sculpted by the well-known artist Benigno Castiglione.
The church is open every day and is popular with visitors. When our group visited there were a number of people walking around and lighting candles at the various shrines and altars inside the church. Reading through the visitor’s book revealed that this church had welcomed people from all over the world. Although the church is less than 50 years old it has a timeless and hallowed feel.
The church sits within the main town centre which is in the shadow of the mountain, Cadair Idris. It is only a few miles from the sea – we ended our day on the beach.