Franciscan friars have returned to England’s national Marian shrine for the first time since the Reformation.
Three Greyfriars – members of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor – arrived at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in June.
Fr James Mary McInerney, the guardian of the community, said: “It’s a great joy for us. We feel we’ve come home.”
He and two other Franciscan priests will welcome pilgrims, hear Confessions and oversee a daily Holy Hour, as well as assist in the work of the shrine in whatever way is needed.
Franciscans first came to Walsingham in the 14th century. They ministered there for 201 years, looking after lepers and giving poor pilgrims a place to stay.
During that time the shrine became one of the most significant pilgrimage sites in Europe, but in 1538 it was dissolved.
The Holy House was burned to the ground and the priory attached to it was left in ruins.
The site has never been restored and the present-day Catholic shrine is at the 14th-century Slipper Chapel, the final “station” chapel for medieval pilgrims a mile away from the priory ruins.
Fr James Mary said he and other friars had been moved by their visits to Walsingham in recent years and had longed to return.
“People would see us and say: ‘When you are coming back?’
“You can imagine what went through our hearts when we saw the ruins,” he said. “We prayed about [returning] and we longed for it.”
Fr James Mary made clear their desire to Mgr John Armitage, the rector, who then offered them a property where they could live.
The chapter of the Greyfriars in Great Britain and Ireland later met and voted almost unanimously to start a new foundation at Walsingham.
The new community comes amid a sharp rise in vocations among Greyfriars in Britain and Ireland. Before 2008 there had been a 20-year vocations drought. Since then, 14 men have joined the order.
One of the characteristics of the new members, said Fr James Mary, was a strong devotion to Mary and to the Blessed Eucharist.
“Because we love Our Lady so much it is natural for us to work at a Marian shrine,” said Fr James Mary.
The first Franciscans came to England in 1224. St Francis himself ordered the mission and appointed the friar to lead it, Blessed Agnellus of Pisa. Nine men disembarked on the coast of Kent and within weeks had set up friaries in Canterbury, London and Oxford.