THREE humble men far from home, guided by the light of a single star to a Bethlehem hillside, found a poor girl huddling to herself an Infant of less than two weeks, warmed by the soft breathing of an ox and ass.
Could it have been something of the same brightness of magnetic providence that nearly two thousand years later led to a beautiful resemblance of this girl and her child finding themselves sheltered again by the stout oak-beams of a tithe-barn, in Hartley, warmed by the soft blue radiance of the lighted lamps at her feet?
Cave-bear and musk ox
ON the way from Fawkham, Kent (the nearest station), ribs of chalk cut into the rising hill so that once the upland is gained apple and cherry tree can send down their roots to be fed by the secret springs of cave and conduit.
For these rounded slopes and orchards, divided one from the other with hedges made by toppings of the boughs, lay at one period beneath an ice-cap, the glacial home of cave-bear and musk-ox.
There are relics, too. of the Stone Age—as there are signs also of the Celtic invasions and the Roman occupation until later Saint Augustine was to bring the word of God to Kent. " Ler my speech be expected like the rain: and let my words fall like the dew. Like the shower upon the grass, and like the snow upon the dry herb. because I will iavoke the name of the Lord ".
Have you a Cottage?
THAT text from the early
Christian Easter Vigil is perhaps particularly apt when the white blossoms arc out, when the thin branches of the overshadowing trees are growing heavy with green and the lane can forget the intellectual austerity of the winter. For it is a twisting lane that leads through to Middle Farm at the centre.
"Have you a freehold cottage? " wrote Miss Beatrice Davies-Cooke to an estate agent in 1913, hoping to find a place to start a Mass centre and choosing this corner of North Kent simply because it was within easy reach of London and there was no Catholic Church for several miles.
Previously, in 1910, the rector at Northfleet had asked his flock to pray to Saint Joseph for those of their brethren scattered through the outlying hills—many of them lapsed—and then three years later he was able to announce that there would be a service at Hartley on Saint Joseph's feast day. Miss Davies-Cooke had bought Middle Farm and with it a 14th century tithe-barn not twenty yards way.
Where rhinos walked
WILT. establish my covenant with thee, and thou shalt enter into the ark." On this hillcrest, where long before the days of Hartley Manor the tall masts of trees swayed to the lunging impact of pre-historic rhinoceros and wild boar, there now gathered, sheltered under the thatch held high by the oak beams, the first congregation of the Oratory of Saint Francis de Sales.
That mid-March day. 1913, charabanes had brought them from Northfleet. So, on the beaten ground they knelt and adored, the rafters still smelling of the winter crops which until the week before they had housed. Yet plans were already afoot, and before April was out a short mission had been preached and Mass celebrated.
A concrete floor was laid and windows let in at the side—not as portholes, but square and paned with glass: at the high entrance where the hay carts used to come in. leaving trails of straw to mark the rutted path back to the fields, a shrine was built for Our Lady.
The statue that was chosen had been picked up second hand in a shop in Kensington, and only quite lately has Mr. Martin H, Gillett been able to identify it as the double of one existing in Belgium.
There are close iconographic resemblances between the two—for instance, the colour of the hair, the shape of the neck, the cut of the robes and the position of the feet. Again there are occurrences which make these similarities more than just iconographic.
Wonders of Hartley
IN the hospice of the Chapel of
Saint Anne, Lierre, a nobleman of the house of van Grasen was cured in 1604 after having prayed before the statue; and, although within a decade, the statue was moved to the church of L'Hermitage (where it now is) cures still continue. And the same has proved true of Hartley, beginning With a case of tuberculosis.
A poor carpenter's wife found that her lungs were infected: she had two children to support and feared for their upbringing should she die. Several attempts were made to get her into a home and finally after a dozen doctors had examined her and it was arranged for her to go to a sanatorium in Kent, the district medical officer reported that both her lungs were now clear.
Pope Benedict XV hearing of cures and wonders referred to Our Lady at Hartley for the first time in 1921 as Our Lady of Hartley, declaring that a hundred days' indulgence might be gained by all those who invoked her by this title to pray for them and adding that three hundred days' indulgence might be gained by all those who visited her shrine.
In 1937 the Carmelites took over, building walls along the open sides of the cart sheds and thus uniting Middle Farm under one roof as their Priory. The foundations axe 11th century and there are records of further additions in the 16th. Later it is hoped to build a novitiate.
Back to the Friars SO it is along with Faversham
and Aylesford that this corner wing of Kent is once more returning to these friars—though perhaps here ljes another example of that magnetic providence which informs the life of the land, persuading men to send down roots in one corner rather than another.
For when Miss Davies-Cooke chose Hartley it was largely because the ordnance map of Kent showed a blank so far as Catholic religious life was concerned, and only subsequently was it revealed (after the solicitors had drawn up the deeds for her) that one Thomas Cotyer had made a will in 1473 in which he asked that his money be distributed to " the three [parish] priests " for Masses to be said for his soul, and, in the same pre-Reformation church of All Saints to which he left his money, there have been discovered lately brasses of special Carmelite interest —effigies of Saint Elias and Saint Jude.
Now Mass is said daily, and during the twenty-four years before Miss Davies-Cooke handed the Oratory over to the friars only twice was Sunday Mass missed.
In recalling such a record this is perhaps the place to mention the silk-covered card on which the Blessed Sacrament rests. On it are inscribed these aspirations: "Credo, spero, amo, me paenitet
I believe, I hope, I love, I am sorry ... ", and there then follows the prayer: " Have. dear Lord, m thy keeping all those whether
living or dead connected with this mission, and those near and dear to them. Be mindful of the intentions pleasing to thee, of the. members of the congregation, and those who visit this sanctuary ".
Those strange incidents
THAT last phrase is significant " and those who visit this sanctuary ", since there have been many gifts, a number of which, such as the altar rails, floor matting and cassocks, having been presented by non-Catholics.
Or there is the strange incident of the silk ciborium cover. A Protestant officer saw a Catholic priest shot at Ypres. Beside the body something shone. Not sure of what it was. he snatched it up, brought it home on leave and gave it to a friend at Hartley who in turn gave it to the Oratory.
Or there is the curious history of the font. Chipped and battered at the Reformation, it fell into the hands of the Luhienski-Bodenhams who preserved it at their Hertfordshire homes at Rotherham until their own house was dismantled, when they presented it to Hartley.
Or the vestments. A mediaeval chasuble was discovered slung across a drawing-room sofa; the guest who recognised it asked her host if she might buy it. Nuns repaired it and now it is amongst the treasures of the sacristy . . These stories, like the cures and the prayers answered (fifty-four in one year), are but few of many ...
Hartley is a new shrine to Our Lady—unlike the ancient ones at Walsingham or Willesden, In less than fifty years, it has established itself, and the fame is spreading even to the Antipodes: a priest from Melbourne once wrote: "Be sure that Our Lady of Hartley can hear you though you whisper from Australia's farthest shores".