Shrine of Our Lady

1893 marked the centenary of the birth of the Church's foundress, Elizabeth, Countess of Clare and also the 50th anniversary of the first Mass in Ryde since the Reformation, celebrated by Fr. Thomas Richardson. In the same year Pope Leo XIII requested that the English Hierarchy consecrate England to Our Lady and St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. This duly took place on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, 1893 at Brompton Oratory. Two weeks later, a statue of Our Blessed Lady at West Grinstead was crowned by the Papal Delegate, Bishop Butt, representing Pope Leo XIII. This solemn crowning at the shrine in the Sussex countryside, established in 1876, in thanksgiving for the preservation of the faith throughout penal times, was the first such crowning in England since the Reformation. It was Edward the Confessor who offered England to Mary following her appearance at Walsingham in 1061. Three hundred and twenty years later, King Richard II re-dedicated England to Our Lady in a solemn ceremony in Westminster Abbey on the Sunday after "Corpus Christi", 1381 and consequently Marian shrines gradually appeared throughout the kingdom which became known as the Dowry of Mary.

Originally St. Mary's had been built without a Lady Chapel, as this was the custom at the time for churches dedicated to Our Lady. However with encouragement of the parish priest, Fr. John Baptist Cahill, a future Bishop of Portsmouth, who had great devotion to Our Lady, and following Pope Leo's request to the English Hierarchy, and a keen desire by parishioners to mark the centenary of the Countess' birth, permission was eventually given and the beautiful shrine was built at the front of the south aisle of the church, with an altar built from the design of the famous Victorian Catholic architect, Augustus Welby Pugin. The carving in the centre panel of the altar front depicts Our Lady of Walsingham, with angels decorated in gilt on the outer panels. Although Pugin had died in 1852 he left many drawings and designs which his son and "disciples" carried out in Catholic churches throughout the country and this was one of the first representations of Our Lady of Walsingham, even pre-dating the restoration of the Norfolk Shrine itself. Consequently, St. Mary's, Ryde, has always had a special devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham, whose feast is now celebrated on 24th Sept.

Pugin did much to restore the gothic style in architecture and as well as work on the Palace of Westminster, he was responsible for two of the early cathedrals in England after the restoration of the Hierarchy, namely Southwark and Birmingham. Fr. Cahill found a generous benefactor in Frederick de Courcy-May, a parishioner at St. Mary's, who agreed to finance the work on the shrine, in response to a wonderful and unexplained answer to a petition as he prayed one day in the church. When he finished his prayer he suddenly felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around but the church was empty. Was this Mary signifying that she was answering his prayer? He certainly thought so and consequently the beautiful shrine was constructed in 1893 and blessed by Bishop Vertue on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This was repeated in many Catholic churches throughout the country with many grottoes, shrines, chapels dedicated to Our Lady.

In the following year (1894) the famous Victorian painter, Nathaniel Hubert Westlake, FSA, who had been commissioned as a painter by members of the Royal Family, painted the walls and ceiling of the Shrine with devotional and biblical scenes. In addition to the beautiful paintings of the Annunciation, Visitation, Assumption and Coronation of Mary, there are also Old Testament scenes showing the prophets Elijah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah forecasting the birth of Jesus. The ceiling panels highlight the Litany of Our Lady with scenes of the Mystical Rose, Ark of the Covenant, Morning Star and Gate of Heaven. The words of the "Magnificat" (My soul doth magnify the Lord...), recording Mary's response to the Angel Gabriel are inscribed on the south wall of the shrine and the beautiful prayer of petition by St. Bernard, the "Memorare" (Remember O most Blessed Virgin Mary...), are painted into the stonework at the foot of the shrine. The beautiful stencil works, evident on the lower walls, depict scenes from the Garden of Eden before the Fall of Adam. At one time similar stencil work covered much of the sanctuary and the church pillars, but this has sadly been lost with the passage of time. They were painted over in the 1960s. There is a similar story in St. John's Cathedral, Portsmouth, where Westlake painted similar scenes that have now all but disappeared.

In the centenary year of the shrine (1993), the parish priest at the time, Fr. John Dunne, was concerned at the condition of the shrine and its decoration and he had it restored by a parishioner, Mrs Marianne Rodrigues of Seaview, who was an Art teacher at the local Archbishop King Catholic Middle school. She painstakingly removed years of emulsion paint and repainted some of the scenes on the south wall that were almost lost and so the shrine was restored to its former glory. It has undoubtedly helped to develop a great devotion to Our Lady in the parish and it is sponsored daily by parishioners with their own private petitions. This is known as "Our Lady's Light". There are frequent visitors to the church and shrine, (Catholic and non Catholic), especially in the holiday season. The Lady Chapel and the shrine are now considered to be one of the finest in the south of England. The October and May devotions are always well supported, and after each decade of the rosary, there is a meditation on one of the shrines of Our Lady around the world. Every May the statue of Our Lady is brought to the high altar to be crowned by a child. On the various feast days of Our Lady throughout the liturgical year, lighted candles and flowers are placed on the altar. Some of these feasts have a special significance:

  • The Countess of Clare was born on the feast of the Annunciation (1793)
  • Her first High Mass as a Catholic was in Rome on the feast of Our Lady's birthday (1841)
  • Fr. J.B. Cahill was appointed Rector of St. Mary's on the feast of the Assumption (1868)
  • His brother, Fr. Edward Cahill, died at St. Mary's on the feast of the Visitation (1889)
  • The first Rector of St. Mary's, Fr. Thomas Richardson, died on the feast of the Assumption (1890)
  • The patronal feast of St. Mary's is on the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary
  • The Presentation Sisters' patronal feast is on the feast of Our Lady's Presentation.
  • Mary is Co-Patron of the Diocese. This is celebrated on the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
  • This chapel and shrine was blessed by Bishop Vertue on the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

You may wish to pause for a few moments at the Shrine and light a candle for your own private petitions and in thanksgiving for our generous benefactors who gave so much in the past that we have now inherited and to pray that England may once again become the Dowry of Mary and return to the one, true faith that was once hers for a thousand years before the Reformation. The words of the Lourdes hymn (frequently sung at the Shrine in the May and October Devotions) underline Mary's patronage of England:

"O Mary, O Mother, reign o'er us once more,
Be England thy dowry as in days of yore".


Move to the front of the nave from the Lady Chapel. The altar rails (now around the Baptistery) were at one time fixed between the narrow clustered columns of the chancel arch. The ornately carved stone reredos and the coloured, decorative ceiling with celestial blue embossed with silver stars was a design chosen by the Countess of Clare. Much of the sanctuary has been altered to accommodate the liturgical changes deemed to be necessary as a result of Vatican II. However the tabernacle set in Portland stone and encased in oak is the original. The hanging silver sanctuary lamp to the right of the tabernacle is permanently lit as a reminder of the presence of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. Unfortunately the original tomb-shaped stone altar, a replica of the altar in York Minster, could not be moved successfully and a new gothic style stone altar was installed when the sanctuary level was raised by a former parish priest, Canon James Murray in the 1970s. The two recesses with matching design and decoration on the south side are the (double) piscina, originally used for the ablutions and to hold the wine and water, and the sedilia, where the three ministers would sit at a High Mass. Here can be seen the coats of arms of St. Wilfrid, Patron of the Island; St. Edmund of Abingdon, Co-Patron of the diocese; and Bishop Hollis, the present Bishop of Portsmouth.

Originally there was a large painting of the Crucifixion above the high altar and tabernacle. It was replaced with a modern Cross depicting Christ the King in the 1960s. This was subsequently replaced by the present Calvary Cross, acquired in Ireland in 1993 by Fr. John Dunne and brought to the Island on the roof rack of his car! Either side are statues of the two great apostles and saints, Peter and Paul; the apostles of the Jews and Gentiles respectively, who, like the Countess of Clare, made the journey to Rome, but for them it ended in martyrdom, as they brought the gospel news to the capital of the pagan Roman Empire. The window above depicts the Immaculate Heart of Mary. This is traditionally the patronal feast of the Church (22nd August; although under the revised calendar, it is now the feast of the "Queenship of Mary"). In the window we see the Countess of Clare on the left presenting a model of St. Mary's to Our Lady, with an angel bearing her coat of arms and being introduced to the Blessed Virgin by her patron and sponsor, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, a reminder that she built and endowed our church and offered it up to God and the Mother of his Son, Jesus. This window was installed soon after her death in 1879 as a memorial to her by grateful parishioners. The inscription encircling the window asks us to "Pray for the soul of Elizabeth, Countess of Clare and Foundress of this Church who died 30th April, 1879". On the south wall of the sanctuary there are windows showing St. John the Baptist, St Michael the Arch-angel and St. Mary Magdalene highlighting that in Heaven the saints are angels, prophets and former sinners who have repented of their sins. John the Baptist is holding the symbol of a lamb, reminding us that Christ was the sacrificial lamb who shed his Blood for mankind. St. Michael is portrayed with sword and spear, having slain the devil and reminding us evil can be defeated with the help of God and his angels and saints. Mary Magdalene is holding the ointment with which she anointed Christ's feet. The classical design on the ceiling reflecting the stars and sky reminds us of heaven and the hope of salvation waiting for us. To the left, the lectern / pulpit which was originally octagonal has been modified to complement the present re-ordered sanctuary. The foundation stone of the church recording its opening and dedication can be seen on the north wall of the sanctuary with angels bearing the coat of arms of the Countess of Clare encircled in a wreath. Above the foundation stone one can see typical early English style decorated interior windows of the Countess of Clare's chapel, with geometrical tracery, delicately designed with corbel figureheads of her patron, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, in the centre and St. John and St. Clare on either side in memory of her husband, John, Earl of Clare. This is where she went to hear Mass with her family, servants and friends.

The early Bishops associated with the Church have their coats of arms painted on the north wall, namely Bp. Thomas Grant of Southwark (1851-70) and the first three Bishops of Portsmouth who all lived for some time here at St. Mary's: Bps. John Vertue (1882-1900), John Baptist Cahill (1900-1910) and William Cotter (1910-1940).

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