A Brief History
The Church was founded in c.938 on land given by King Athelstan. Nothing now remains of the original Church.
The origin of the shrine of the Black Virgin of Willesden in St. Mary's Church is unknown, although we do know that from the earliest times the Church had a patronal statue of Our Lady Mary. The first mention of a statue occurs in 1249, when an inventory of church goods mentions two large sculptured images of Our Lady. Legend has it that the shrine originated due to an appearance of Our Lady Mary in the Churchyard. The celebrated black image of Our Lady was a centre of pilgrimage until its destruction at the Reformation. In 1535 the statue was torn down and taken to Chelsea and publicly burned on the same fire as the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham.
Following this, Henry VIII imposed a fine on the "idolatrous" Church to be paid every year by the Priest at Willesden. Revival was feared. A Dr. Crewkerne received a vision of the Holy Trinity and also spoke with Our Lady, which he related to the Archbishop of Canterbury (Cranmer). Mary had taken him by the hand and told him to preach abroad that she wished to be honoured at Ipswich and Willesden, as she had been once before.
From then on we hear very little about the Shrine, until in 1902 Fr. James Dixon became Vicar and set about restoring the shrine to its original beauty. A statue of Mary and the child Jesus was placed in the Chancel. From the time of Fr. Dixon devotion to Our Lady of Willesden has been encouraged. In 1972, Prebendary George Oakley wrote: "The people of Willesden wished for something better, more in keeping with their glorious past", and in 1972 on the feast of Corpus Christi the then Bishop of London dedicated the new statue of the Black Virgin of Willesden.
The Holy Well of Willesden
Some experts state that the name Willesden, or as it was called "Wilsdon", or "Wellesden" means the spring or well at the foot of the hill. The well is natural and still exists under the Church today. The Church and the well are forever linked. A constant source of pure, clear water was very much valued in early medieval times for drinking and for "cures" - and the well at Willesden Church was known for its healing waters. Pilgrims to the Shrine were blessed with the water and given some to take away to anoint the sick or to repeat the act of blessing. The water from the well is used extensively to this day, for Baptisms, anointing and mixing with the wine in the Chalice. On Saturday 4 July 1998, at the Annual Willesden Pilgrimage, a new Holy Well was dedicated enabling the healing Waters of Willesden to flow freely at St. Mary's. The waters are available to be used in Church and to be taken away.
St. Mary's Community Today
True to its history, St. Mary's continues to be a place of prayer and pilgrimage. The doors are left open from dawn till dusk. There is a well-kept pattern of the week. During 1994 the Church was re-ordered, as was the way we worship. In 1999 there was major restoration of the floor and the stonework, giving a secure and level surface.
In an area of London that sees high levels of social deprivation and a lack of community life, the Church offers a place of refuge. Our community centre is the altar, and each time we celebrate the Mass, the community gathers around it. Morning and Evening prayer are offered daily, and as with our whole lives and worship, everyone is invited to take a full part.
The Willesden Pilgrimage Prayers
O blessed Virgin Mary, our Lady of Willesden,
to your loving intercession we commend ourselves,
our homes and families, and our community.
We recall with thankful hearts
the love you showed your son on earth
and the blessings given us through your prayers.
As your devoted children
we dedicate ourselves to his service.
Our Lady of Willesden, pray for us
that we may do whatever he tells us. Amen.
Eternal Father, we adore you,
In Christ Our Lord, we know you,
For the gift of the Holy Spirit, we praise you,
For the obedience of Mary, we thank you.
Give us the grace to serve you through all eternity.
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