St Walburge Shrine, Preston (Exterior)

Shrine of St Walburge, Preston, Lancashire, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Shrine of St Walburge
Location: Preston, Lancashire, England
Date of visit: Saturday, 27 September 2014, 12:00pm

The building

Also called The Spire, as that particular architectural feature ranks among the tallest in England, this is an iconic landmark church, a Decorated Gothic masterpiece dating from the 1850s. The local red sandstone structure with dressing stones of a more natural colour is the work of architect Joseph Aloysius Hansom, famous for his design of the hansom cab. The spire itself is located outside the main body of the church on the south side and rises to over 300 feet. It is topped by an eight-foot iron cross. The thick walls of the church are supported by buttresses. Inside, the nave has no side aisles and is flooded with natural light. The decor is a veritable riot of carved statues, white and black and cream and green-veined marble, wrought iron open-work screens, alabaster arches, and abundant stained glass. There is a war memorial made as an altar with inscribed triptych. This is a building that brings you to your knees immediately you step inside. Such is the "wow" factor that I felt I ought to live out the words of that marvellous old hymn "My God, How Wonderful Thou Art": "Prostrate before thy throne to lie, and gaze and gaze on thee!"

The church

Threatened with closure in 2007 as being surplus to diocesan needs, this magnificent church was entrusted in 2014 to the care of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, which has a proven track record of restoring redundant churches for use in the extraordinary form, to be maintained as a shrine church. St Walburge's is open every day of the week for prayer, adoration and daily mass, with regular access to other sacraments and religious devotions.

The neighborhood

Preston, in the northwest of England, derives its name from the Old English word meaning "priest settlement." Preston was an important textile centre from the 13th to the mid 20th centuries, but as textiles declined new industries took over amid economic downturn. Today Preston is a major centre for aerospace, transport, financial, telecommunications and other ventures. St Walburges is surrounded by rows of Victorian terraced houses, many of which are given over to student accommodation. Light industry on an industrial estate is only a short walk away. The town centre offers the usual shops, pubs, eating houses, and a large railway station.

The cast

Mass was celebrated in the presence of the Rt Revd Michael G. Campbell, OSA, Bishop of Lancaster, who preached. The
Very Revd Monsignor Gilles Wach, Prior General of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign priest, was the celebrant. Msgr Wach was assisted by the Revd Mr Scott Tanner, deacon, and Guillaume Fenoll as subdeacon.

What was the name of the service?

Opening High Mass of the Shrine Church of St Walburge

How full was the building?

It seats about 1000 and really was bursting at the seams, or rather "packed to the gunls." Standing room only, and not much of that. You needed a shoe horn to get in at the back.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I arrived early. A few ladies were doing the stations and an old gent was saying the Rosary, telling his beads with practised devotion. So I went off for a walk around the church grounds: neatly mown grass and a well kept, brushed courtyard surrounded by railings decorated with bunting flapping in the breeze. On my return, the church was filling up nicely. I was welcomed profusely by a gentleman handing out orders of service. He said, There are a few places left in the nave. And this was a good one-half hour before the service began. A lady with a couple of small children gave me a lovely smile and said, Isnt this lovely? Ive never been here before. No, I thought, neither have I.

Was your pew comfortable?

Wooden pine bench pew with red leatherette fold-down kneeler and ledge for books. It was hard on the bottom for the duration of the service (one and three-quarter hours).

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

A lot of pre-service busy-ness: candles being lighted, choir tuning up. Subdued chatter despite the notice in the porch reminding us to be silent! A murmur of anticipation permeated the building, as did the smell of freshly lighted charcoal.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The bell rang and a long, colourful procession slowly wended its way up the nave, the bishop in episcopal purple leading the way. The bishop blessed us as he passed by, splashing holy water on us. Then came the seminarians in their saxe blue cassocks with black cloaks and a touch of lace. Others followed in crimson cassocks with white lace cottas. There were priests in white lacy albs. Servers in blue with white cottas and blue shoulder capes. Eventually, taking his place on the altar steps, Monsignor Wach greeted us in French, with a translator, welcoming the people of Preston and us all to this solemn and much awaited occasion. [An excellent photo montage of the service can be found on the bishop's blog.]

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Specially printed order of service booklet containing the mass, prayers and hymn, and responses, in Latin and English. (Celebration Hymnal seems to be the usual hymn book – not used today, but stored at the back of church.)

What musical instruments were played?

Electronic organ. I only realised afterwards that it was not a pipe organ. The organist was absolutely tops! Two choirs led the singing: Gregorian chant by some of the seminarians of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest; and a volunteer scratch choir who sang everything else, harmony and all – a goodly noble effort.

Did anything distract you?

Lack of audibility. It was difficult at times to hear. I lost my place in the service booklet several times. Once I asked the man next to me, sotto voce, Where are we? But He shrugged his shoulders and whispered, I dont know. Well, everything was in Latin after all.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Definitely not happy clappy! It was rather like going back to how it would have been in the 1930s, the Roman Latin rite in all its glorious mystery. Mass vestments (chasubles and tunicles) were Roman-style, Latin mass vestments in white and gold, with gold edging. Birettas. Long lacy albs. Splayed-end stoles and matching maniples.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

5 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 – The bishop arose from his chair in the sanctuary and ascended the stairs to the pulpit. He spoke from notes in pleasant modulated tones. What a lovely man, I thought, gently encouraging us.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The bishop spoke on the gospel of the day, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). In recent years there has not been much oil in the lamps of St Walburges Church. A question arose as to the church remaining open. Our presence here today answers that question with a definite yes! A new beginning cannot help but bring down blessings from heaven on the city of Preston. The wise virgins stayed awake to welcome the bridegroom whenever he came. St Walburges offers the people of Preston the chance to meet Christ when he comes to them.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

During the distribution of the holy Sacrament, the choir sang two motets: Mozarts Ave Verum Corpus and Saint-Saens Tollite Hostia. Oh, bliss and Joy! Because the distribution took about 20 minutes, they continued on with Ecce Panis Angelorum. That did it for me. I was crying in the aisles, remembering the last two motets from my convent school days, complete with white lace mantillas and Rosary beads looped over my hands. A lady behind me in the congregation was joining in with this singing; she had the voice of an angel. Quite a lot of people were crying, overcome with the emotion of the occasion.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Sadly, a lot of what was said was lost amongst the rafters of the lofty naves hammer beamed roof. The acoustics in here are terrible.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Once the altar party had left the church, the building erupted in a cacophony of sound. A photo-op was happening outside on the steps and nobody was able to leave just yet. Meanwhile the organist was letting rip with his postlude. I must put in here again that the organist was exceptionally good. I was able to have a good look round during this time. The door to the tower in the south aisle beckoned me. I opened it: a stone spiral staircase lay ahead of me. Before I knew it, I was ascending the stairs. Up and up I climbed, as far as I could go. I discovered that another intrepid soul had already beat me to the top – there he was, clicking away with his Nikon. We exchanged pleasantries. I peered out through the tower windows across Preston and beyond: truly breathtaking.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I descended to find an exceptionally good buffet served in the parish hall. Trestle tables were groaning with food: sumptuous sandwiches of all kinds, pork pies, sausage rolls, cooked sausages, salads, lovely fresh bread, crisps. There were hot cups of tea in disposable plastic cups. Fruit juices, apple and orange, in cartons. Buttered fruit loaf. Assorted cakes, chocolate, coffee and walnut, buttered scones, lovely home-made quiches. Cheesecake. Strawberry flan. And two magnificent large iced cakes with the diocesan coat of arms on one and the Institutes logo on the other, lovingly hand crafted in coloured icing. I had three cups of hot tea; I was ever so dry with all that singing and climbing and wandering around. I had a good eat too, sampling most of the fare.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

9 – Id go there like a shot. Everyone was so very friendly and happy. In the hall, little children were dancing and singing The farmers in the dell with a large lady in a green frock and permed hair. Come and join in, she said. So I did. No one seemed to mind; perhaps nobody even noticed. Round and round we went!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

It certainly did. In fact, the whole day seemed surreal. I mused on this as I made my way to the railway station much later. The sun was beginning to sink in the west, casting a rosy glow over the silhouetted skyline and Prestons noteworthy skyscraper which is the spire of St Walburges.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The entire day had been a day to remember.

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