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Our Lady returns to Ipswich church after 485 years

Almost 500 years after a statue of Our Lady of Ipswich was removed from its shrine in the town by Thomas Cromwell’s men, a replica has been produced and now rests in St Pancras church. Fr Joseph Welch reports.

In 1538, the statue of Our Lady of Ipswich was removed from its shrine in Lady Lane by Thomas Cromwell’s men and taken to Chelsea in London, to be burned, along with statues from many other shrines around the country including Walsingham.

But there is a twist in this particular tale. The story goes that the statue of Our Lady of Ipswich was rescued and taken by sea to Italy. In the seaside town of Nettuno (where St Maria Goretti was born) there is a statue of Our Lady which the locals call ‘The English Lady.’ It is thought to have appeared in 1550. Certainly, before then there is no mention of it.

Tests have shown that there is a higher-than-expected salt content in the wood, such as might be consistent with the statue having spent some time at sea. These details, along with a number of others, suggest with a surprising degree of certainty that the English Lady in the coastal town of Nettuno, roughly half way between Rome and Naples, is indeed the original statue from Ipswich.

In 1977 some parishioners, including the late Stanley Smith, Maire ‘Doc’ Heley, and Judy Fell, as well as Jean Johnson, established the Guild of Our Lady of Grace of Ipswich with two objectives in view. The first, to work for greater Christian unity, and the second to re-establish the Ipswich shrine of Our Lady of Grace. Curiously, it would seem that it was in Ipswich that Our Lady was first given the title of Our Lady of Grace.

Working with parishioners from St Mary at the Elms Anglican church, and Guild members from other local churches, a shrine was indeed re-established in the closest spot possible to the site of the original shrine which had long since vanished. Today, there is an annual walk, organized by the Guild, every September from Wolsey’s Gate near the waterfront into the centre of town to the church of St Mary at the Elms, stopping at the plaque  in Lady Lane, which is the nearest point to the site of the original shrine, before concluding at St Mary Elms church.

Yet it seemed odd that there should be no statue of Our Lady of Ipswich in any Catholic church or home in the town itself. So, in 2022, St Pancras parish commissioned a brand new statue from the Italian workshop of Stuflessers, paid for by three remarkably generous parishioners. The newly carved statue was to be as close a replica as possible of the statue in Nettuno.

After a lengthy wait, and many e-mails back and forth, the new statue finally arrived on June 23, safely crated and packaged. Statue and throne had been carved separately but were quickly reunited and placed on the sanctuary at St Pancras where it could be inspected by everyone before being removed to the Lady chapel, her new home.

Next year, on May 15, the feast of Our Lady of Grace, Bishop Peter Collins will come to Ipswich to bless the new statue. In the meantime, we have already celebrated a Mass of welcome at which Fr John Barnes, the local dean, preached a beautiful homily explaining that whilst we were welcoming Our Lady of Ipswich to St Pancras. Nonetheless, it is really Our Lady who is welcoming us into God’s house. Even so, everyone present was delighted simply to say to our Blessed Mother, after an absence of 485 years from any Catholic church in the town, welcome home!

Pictured above are St Pancras parishioners, left to right, Laura Isaacs, Victoria Davres, Brigitte Newman-Sanders, Philomena Haining, and (front) Anne Abbott, with the new statue of Our Lady of Ipswich. Picture by Stephen Griggs.