Charlotte Boyd gave her life to the Church; among other achievements, she bought and restored the Slipper Chapel, now the nucleus of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. It is time for her dedicated life to be recognised, argues Luke Coppen The sky above St Mary's Catholic Cemetery looks like it's been torn out of a travel brochure. It's a dazzling, tropical blue with large, immobile clouds. Visitors are treading carefully among the gravestones, plucking at their collars and making visors with their hands. A small crowd is forming, on this sweltering April afternoon, around grave number 3038, a short distance from the cemetery chapel. The tomb is modest — a plain slab with a brilliant white headstone — like a pauper's grave beside the burial chapels of the rich Catholic families. The wording on the gravestone is spare and unemotional. It reads:
An elderly priest is standing at the head of the grave. He is Mgr George Ttitto, a respected devotional writer and chaplain to the Hungarian community. He should have been in hospital today. But instead he has chosen to come here, to lead a prayer service on the anniversary of Charlotte Boyd's death.
Butterflies flutter over the gravestones as the group prays the Divine Mercy chaplet. When it's finished, the crowd places holy objects on the tomb — a cross, a luminous rosary, a Medjugorje medallion, a Divine Mercy image. Mgr Ttitto bows his head to read a prayer composed specially for occasion.
"Heavenly Father, in your saving plan, through the mediation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, you have destined Walsingham to become England's Nazareth, to be a place where you wish to show your great mercy to all who ask for the help of the Virgin Mother of Nazareth.
"Sadly this holy place became a prey to evil forces centuries ago, but thanks to the humble efforts of your servant, Charlotte Pearson Boyd, Walsingham became once again the national shrine of our land, though still divided.
"Heavenly Father, grant in your mercy that our country may become once again Mary's Dowry, united in faith, for which Charlotte worked and prayed so ardently."
Wiping his brow, Mgr Tutto prepares to say a few words about the remarkable life of Charlotte Boyd.
It is 1850. A plump 12-yearold girl with long, mousy hair is wandering around the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. As she walks among the piles of stone, she imagines the abbey in its eleventh century splendour. She sees the crowds streaming from all over the country
side to visit the tombs of King Arthur and St Dunstan. She sees the Benedictine monks reciting the office in the chapel. In the breeze, she hears their voices travelling across the centuries. At that moment she hears a voice inside her.
This voice, which is not her own, urges her to restore the ruins. In that moment, the direction of her future life is set. It is Charlotte Boyd's mission to restore as many of England's monasteries as possible to their former glory.
Boyd had to wait before she could begin her task. She was in line to inherit a vast fortune from her parents. Her father, Alexander, was a successful merchant. Her mother, also named Charlotte, came from the prosperous Buckle family. The Boyds and the Buckles had become rich through joint ventures in shipping, insurance and the wine trade. Charlotte, the first of the Boyd's five children, was born in Macao and baptised by the Anglican chaplain to the East India Company. The family returned to England a year later, shortly before the outbreak of the opium war.
It was in 1875, at the age of 38, that Boyd finally began to answer her inner calling. In that year she founded the English Abbey Restoration Trust. But it was another eight years before she bought her first ruined abbey, in West Mailing, Kent. Even then she was only able to buy part of the eleventh century Benedictine foundation. It took another nine years of wrangling before she purchased the whole abbey, which she donated to a community of Anglican nuns.
Boyd then set her sights on the greatest medieval shrine of all: Walsingham. Nobody knows when or how she first heard of the shrine. What is certain is that its story captivated her and she sensed that the restoration of Walsingham lay at the heart of her mission. In 1894, she approached the owners of the original site with an offer. She planned to give the land to a community of Anglican Benedictines. The owners, however, were unwilling to sell.
Boyd must have been greatly disappointed by their decision. But she continued to believe in her mission. Later that year, she crossed the chan nel on a pilgrimage to the Marian shrines of Belgium. While staying in Bruges, she attended a retreat led by an English Jesuit priest. At the end of the retreat, on September 22, she was received into the Catholic Church. Shortly afterwards, she left a large sum of money at the celebrated Benedictine Abbey of Maredsous for a daily Mass to be offered for "the unity of the Churches in England".
Boyd returned to England determined to restore Walsingham to its rightful place in English life. After long negotiations, she bought a fourteenth century chapel dedicated to St Catherine, patroness of pilgrims, on the outskirts of the Norfolk town. The site was known popularly as the Slipper Chapel because medieval pilgrims would leave their footwear there and walk the last mile to the shrine barefoot. She engaged the architect Thomas Garner to restore the building, which had been used over the years as a cowshed and barn. A year later, in 1897, the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom organised the first post-Reformation pilgrimage to Walsingham, from King's Lynn. The day the pilgrims arrived must have been one of the happiest of Boyd's life.
And yet Boyd soon found that not everyone in the Church shared her enthusiasm for the revival of England's most celebrated shrine. The cautious restored hierarchy did not share her vision of Walsingham as the centre of a reunited English church. When she offered the Slipper Chapel to Bishop Arthur Riddle of Northampton, with the request that it be used as a place of prayer and penitence for Christian unity in England, she was politely turned away.
She tried instead to give the chapel to the Benedictines of Downside offering them the astonishingly large sum of £3,000 to celebrate daily Mass for the conversion of England. The Bene dictines were prepared to accept the offer, but Bishop Riddle intervened to stop them.
These setbacks must have frustrated Boyd, but they did not stop her giving everything she possessed to the Church. She became a Benedictine Oblate and helped to found the Benedictine abbey in Ealing, West London. She founded an orphanage nearby and another in Kilburn, north west London. After a debilitating illness, she settled down at the Kilburn orphanage to lead a quiet life of prayer and service. It was there at 7pm on April 3, 1906, that she died. In her will, she left her all estates to Downside Abbey.
The English Church had neglected Boyd during her life. After her death, it almost let her memory slide into oblivion. She was buried in an unmarked grave in St Mary's Cemetery. There was no tombstone, no burial slab, possibly not even a cross. The grave soon became overgrown and, after her closest friends died, it was forgotten.
As her grave lay untended, the Slipper Chapel became one of the most important pilgrimage sites in England. In 1934, the first national pilgrimage to Walsingham, led by Cardi nal Bourne, took place. On August 19, the bishops of England and Wales and 12,000 pilgrims celebrated the first Mass since the Reformation in the chapel. And yet the woman who had restored the shrine to the Church lay unrecognised.
More than half a century after Boyd's death, a man named Martin Gillett picked his way among the gravestones in St Mary's Cemetery to plot number 3038. It was here, the cemetery's records said, that Boyd was laid to rest. Gillett, a devotee of Our Lady of Walsingham, was shocked to see the grave unmarked and overgrown. He wrote to the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal William Godfrey. and the Abbot of Downside urging them to provide a fitting memorial. The archbishop agreed to provide a gravestone; the abbot a Benedictine headstone cross.
After Gillett's death, in 1980, the grave again fell into disrepair. Three years later, the Benedictine cross was removed and placed against the east wall of the Slipper Chapel, where it can be seen to this day. A decade later, it was Mgr George Tiitto's turn to stumble around St Mary's looking for the grave. He found it overgrown and the inscription unreadable and decided to pay for its restoration.
Mgr Tuna has come to the end of Charlotte Boyd's story. He is standing over the grave, holding a hand to his burning temple.
"Would it not be right," he asks the crowd, "to take Charlotte Boyd's earthly remains to Walsingham? It was because of her that we have Walsingham. It's time that the Catholics of this country honoured someone to whom they should be grateful that the shrine of Walsingham exists." The ashes of Martin Gillett, he points out, are in the Slipper Chapel, but Boyd still lies hundreds of miles away.
Would it not also be right, he asks, if the Church opened an investigation into Boyd's life to see whether she could be a candidate for canonisation. "In four years time, it will be the centenary of her death. What a wonderful thing it would be if she could be beatified by that time." The bishops, Mgr Taub explains, have listened to his ideas respectfully, "but nothing happened".
The crowd have heard Mgr Tiltto's story with growing disbelief. They cannot understand how someone who gave so much to the Church could be so neglected by so many for so long.
"She died in obscurity," says George McLowry, an American now living in London. "But it's sad, because he gave everything she had to the Catholic Church, but she wasn't recognised."
Brenda Walsh, who owns a small Catholic pilgrimage company, adds: "We know that it's through Walsingham that England will come back to Our Lady. It would only be proper and fitting that Charlotte Boyd be interred in Walsingham. She's very, very special."
It would not take much for Boyd's body to be laid to rest in Walsingham — just the approval of the Church authorities and a nod from the Home Office.
Perhaps our Church leaders are reluctant to take on yet another task. Perhaps they are afraid that honouring a Catholic convert would create difficulties with the Church's ecumenical partners.
If this is so, they might do well to recall the words of Pope John Paul II during his visit to Britain: "In thii England of fair and generous minds, no one will begrudge the Catholic community pride in its own history."