Around 400 people witnessed the official opening of Walsingham House at Abbotswick on Saturday 1 September and went on to enjoy a day in the sun, with family, friends, food and music.
A Mass at 12 noon was concelebrated in the gardens by Bishop Alan Williams, Fr Dominic Howarth, a driving force behind the project, and priests, deacons and seminarians from the diocese. At the end of the Mass, Bishop Alan dedicated Abbotswick’s new chapel to Jesus the Adolescent, Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis of Assisi.
In his opening remarks, Bishop Alan thanked three important people who unfortunately could not be present – Emeritus Bishop Thomas McMahon, Mgr John Armitage and Mgr Bill Nix, all involved in the development of Abbotswick and the Brentwood Catholic Youth Service. “We hold them in our prayers,” he said. “And at this moment in Walsingham, Mgr Armitage is saying Mass for us.”
In his homily Fr Dominic Howarth talked about the development of the diocesan model of youth ministry which has seen the Brentwood Catholic Youth Service make its 40th trip to Lourdes this year and has now brought it to a permanent home at Abbotswick. He paid tribute to Sr Agatha McEvoy, the Franciscan Missionary Sister of the Immaculate Conception who founded the House of Prayer at Abbotswick. “She went to lunch with Bishop Thomas in 1981 and asked him for a house with lots of land around it. She came away with an end of terrace in Chadwell Heath but that was just the beginning.”
Sr Agatha (right in 2004 with Bishop Thomas) was a powerhouse of prayer and conviction, he said. “This house is here, today, because Sr Agatha did not let anyone dampen the dream. Five years after moving into Chadwell Heath, when she found this house, she knew immediately that it was the home she had dreamed of. Thank God for her faith, her conviction, and her persistence. Thank God for her brother Bill who did so much work here. Thank God for the volunteers across the decades who have sustained this house, and for the hundreds of adults who have visited, saturating the house and grounds with prayer. That mission continues – and everyone is welcome here, always.”
“In our Church right now there is a great hurt, a heart-ache and a terrible wound; abuse that has devastated lives. Today is not the day to dwell on that, though we pray fervently for all involved. And we pray that this House is an antidote, for this House welcomes young people leading very happy lives, and those needing great help. For each of them, it is a place of safety, and for some it is most certainly a place where healing begins.”
In the same years that Sr Agatha found Abbotswick, he said, Youth Chaplain Fr Pat Sammon and Sr Margaret Soper, a Brentwood Ursuline Sister, caught a new vision for Youth Ministry – inspired by Pope, now Saint, John Paul II – believing that “young people are the best evangelisers of other young people”. And so, like the mustard seed mentioned in the gospel, the ministry of a young ‘Walsingham House’ team began in Chingford, leading retreats for those just a few years younger.
Said Fr Dominic: “It is such a fragile model – it is raw and messy; sometimes young people get things wrong. And yet, when young people come on retreat, or they come to Lourdes, and they are met with young leadership, the dynamic is transformed. There is a joy, energy and authenticity that breaks down barriers, opens doors and opens hearts.”
A move to Canvey Island, courtesy of the Sisters of Mercy, followed and over the next 22 years 100,000 young people on retreats discovered a vision of a welcoming young church there. Meanwhile, the work of Sr Agatha had been continuing under the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham at Abbotswick. When the nuns moved to Walsingham in 2017, the ministry and mission of Walsingham House found its first permanent home. Throughout it all, from Chingford to Abbotswick, the words of the Prophet Micah (heard in the first reading) have been the focus: ‘Act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly with God.’
“That was the spirit Sr Agatha lived and with which I pray we welcome every visitor, of all ages, to the chapel and grounds, which are always open for you here at Walsingham House at Abbotswick,” concluded Fr Dominic.
That spirit was very much in evidence as the Mass came towards its conclusion: as priests and nuns associated with BCYS walked towards the new chapel for its dedication, Fr Dominic and Bishop Alan tenderly assisted the elderly Sr Bridget over the uneven lawn.
Later on, young and old, past BCYS members, teachers and families enjoyed a barbecue, bouncy castles and live music. Many spoke of being moved by the service and convinced of the worth of the project. Angela Prince, who herself has experience of youth work, said: “I can see there being a lot of growth here. People will be interested in coming to adult retreats for individuals or groups here – it is such a lovely, peaceful place, set back from Brentwood. People need time out. Hopefully it will grow and bear fruit – it certainly has good roots and a good foundation – and the right priest to bring it forward. Young people are very perceptive about who is authentic.”
For Fr Dominic, though, it is all about the young leaders and the youth team. “There are young leaders and team members here who have sat – literally and metaphorically – with their arm around the shoulders of another young person, listening to them, praying with them, and – as they pour out their stresses – offering them the hope that infuses our faith, just by being there, as Christ’s compassion, in a moment when it is so needed.
“If we can show young people that they are welcome, no matter what, that they are made in God’s image and likeness, that they are beloved and included, no matter what; if we can show them the Blessed Sacrament as a sign of pure love, a place where they are adored by Christ precisely in the same moment as they adore Christ; if we can journey with them as they grapple with stress and self-esteem, sexuality and poverty, social media and family break up – if through all of that they discover other young people who will lead them with Christ’s compassion, tenderness and inclusion, along with priests, teachers, chaplains, bishops, parents, grandparents and catechists who will support them on the journey – and for whom this is also a house of welcome – well, dear friends, all of that truly is the shelter in the branches of the Divine mustard tree.”
To read Fr Dominic’s homily, click here: Homily for the Official Opening of Walsingham House at Abbotswick
To find out more about Walsingham House at Abbotswick, its youth team and what it has to offer both young people and adults go to https://bcys.net/whabbotswick/