The Shrine of Our Lady of the Taper, Cardigan, Wales
The beginnings of devotion to Our Lady of the Taper takes us back to around 1160 AD in the Middle Ages. The details of the story of the Shrine have been summarised by Bishop Barlow who was intent on implementing the orders of Cromwell. The examination of 16 March 1538, states: "that the image now situated in the Church of Cardigan which is used for a great pilgrimage to this present day was found standing upon the River Teifi and her Son upon her lap and the same taper burning in her hand. The said image was carried to Christ Church of Cardigan and the image would not tarry there but was found three or four times in the place where is now built the Church of Our Lady, and the taper burning in her hand which continued burning the space of nine years without wasting".
The original image of Our Lady is believed to have originated in Arras, where Flemish wool traders established links with the market town of Cardigan. According to tradition, the statue continuously returned to the site where it was first found along the Teifi estuary. Therefore, the Church of St Mary (1158), now the present-day Anglican parish church, was built as a shrine in order to house the statue. The church was established as a Benedictine Priory, founded from Chertsey Abbey, and the monks remained in Cardigan until Cromwell ordered that all principal images of Our Lady be sent to London for destruction. In the Autumn of that year, Our Lady of Cardigan doubtless suffered the fate common with other notable shrines and places of pilgrimage in the land.
In 1904, a group of exiled Benedictine monks settled just outside Cardigan and dedicated their abbey church to Our Lady of Cardigan. In 1912, a new town church was also dedicated to Our Lady. An image of Our Lady with the Christ Child was placed in this church but did not seem to match the original accounts of the description of a seated Virgin and Child with a taper candle. In 1914, the French monks were conscripted and the church closed in 1917.
In the Marian Year of 1954, Martin Gillet, who subsequently founded the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary, wrote an article on the Shrines of Wales and England. The Cardigan Shrine was rediscovered and Bishop Petit sought its restoration.
Dom Vincent Dapre, OSB, a talented woodcarver from Farnborough Abbey, was commissioned to make a new statue. Using various sources, including those from Bishop Barlow's examination and research from medieval sacred art, Dom Vincent sought to outline the features of the original statue. And, once again, the image of Our Lady of Cardigan came to light.
On 8 April 1956 in Westminster Cathedral, Cardinal Griffin blessed the new statue of Our Lady of Cardigan. Finally, on 27 May 1956, the statue arrived home in Cardigan and was welcomed by thousands of people who gathered in the local playing field opposite to where the present Shrine Church is located.
Following the restoration of the Shrine, the statue was housed in the small parish church on The Strand in Cardigan. As this building could only seat 70 people, plans were made to build a new larger church to accommodate the growing number of Catholics and also to house the statue. On 23 July 1970, the new Church in honour of Our Lady of the Taper was consecrated and a few days later, on 26 July, the statue was carried through the streets in procession to her new shrine home. This is where she still resides ready to greet each pilgrim and to guide the way to her Son.
Inauguration of the National Shrine and New Statue
On 18 May 1986, the Church of Our Lady of the Taper, was inaugurated as the National Shrine for Catholics in Wales. In order to mark this occasion in a befitting way, it was decided to commission a new statue. Hence, Mother Concordia, a Benedictine nun, cast the statue in bronze and Pope John Paul II blessed the first taper candle that was to be lit in the hand of Our Lady of the Taper. He then signed a Letter affirming that the medieval Shrine of Our Lady of Cardigan was the National Shrine of Our Lady for Wales by the solemn placing there of a new statue of Our Lady of the Taper.
Significance of the Image of Our Lady
The image of Our Lady of the Taper portrays the Blessed Virgin as being seated with the Christ Child in one hand and a taper candle in the other. Popular piety associates the image with the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord; Candlemas. The Scriptures tell us that, forty days after His birth, the Christ Child is taken in the arms of His mother to be presented at the Temple. The aged Simeon proclaims Christ as the "Light to enlighten the Gentiles" whilst throughout his public ministry, the Lord refers to himself as the "light of the world". In the pilgrim's prayer used at the Shrine, reference is made to the fact that Our Lady holds out her Son for our adoration and we are reminded of the Epiphany of the Lord where He is revealed to the Magi of the East. The wise men, upon following the light of the star, enter the house and see the Child on his mother's lap; they offer him homage and present their gifts. Christ is once again manifested as the light of all nations, of all people.
Such an image of light, symbolized by the taper candle, is important for the Shrine. The early traditions tell that the taper candle burned continuously for nine years without wasting. Indeed, the taper was regarded as a priceless relic. The practice of lighting candles is a common element of a pilgrimage to a shrine. The pilgrims bring their petitions and those of loved ones and families; they seek light on the problems of the dark shadowy areas of their lives. The candle is lit and Our Lady of the Taper enkindles hope, guidance and faith as she leads the way to her Son. The candle then serves as a light for the next pilgrim, encouraging the continuation of faith and reminding us that darkness is always defeated. It is the light of Christ which vanquishes and extinguishes the darkness that is experienced through problems, difficulties or sin. Just like the returning Magi, the light of the Lord leads us onto new paths, new ways, and we are renewed and comforted by the encounter with our Lord on his Mother's knee.
The pilgrim, who seeks the intercession of Our Lady of the Taper, comes to the woman of the Apocalypse; the woman adorned with the sun. Our Lady is the one who fully reflects the light of her glorified Son and she embraces each pilgrim in the warmth of her love. Renewed by this care, the pilgrim has the strength to continue with the vision of the pilgrimage of life.
The annual National Pilgrimage to our Lady of the Taper, led by the Bishops of Wales, takes place in May, the month of Our Lady. This year it took place on 3 May and, mindful of the Beatification of Cardinal Newman, the pilgrims sang the hymn "Lead kindly light amidst the encircling gloom". We also sang "Christ be our light, shine on your Church gathered today"; how appropriate these words are for us as the pilgrim People of God.
In the Baptismal Liturgy, we receive the candle which is lit from the Easter Paschal candle and the celebrant says "receive the light of Christ". It is through Baptism that sin is washed away and we are enlightened with the gift of faith as we become members of the Church. It is now that the pilgrimage of life begins with all that it entails. Yet, we do not travel alone, for we have the Communion of Saints and the example and intercession of Mary the Mother of the Church. One of the important aspects of making a pilgrimage to a shrine is to remind us of our future homeland in Heaven and how we as the Church journey towards this final destination. We can be greatly encouraged that Our Lady has gone before us and awaits our company in Heaven.
Throughout the year, various groups, organisations and individuals come on pilgrimage to Our Lady of the Taper. These include the Union of Catholic Mothers of Wales, a Welsh language pilgrimage, the Society of St Vincent de Paul, the Latin Mass Society of Wales and England and the Legion of Mary. A number of parishes and confirmation groups attend for days of recollection. There is also a unique pilgrimage of reparation and consecration; on this day representatives of the four principal Marian Shrines of the United Kingdom, Carfin, Knock, Walsingham and Cardigan are united for a day of prayer.
The Mysteries of Light
In the course of these different pilgrimages we pray the Mysteries of Light given to us by John Paul II and outlined in his Rosarium Virginis Mariae. These mysteries are beautifully portrayed in a specially commissioned set of charcoal drawings in the Church. For Our Lady of the Taper, these mysteries are especially poignant and appropriate. They enable pilgrims to reflect on their own lives in the light of the public ministry of Our Lord. We can focus our prayer on our baptismal calling, marriage, family life and making present the light of Christ through kingdom values and conversion.
We can focus on our need to listen to the Beloved Son especially through his Passion and Cross, and the sacramental life of the Eucharist.
Wales and Our Lady
One of the most striking features of the Church is the flower windows which portray the devotional history of the people of Wales towards Our Lady. There are over 50 flowers which, in the Welsh language, are associated with Our Lady and are named accordingly. Mair (Mary) forms the basis for many country flowers; Mennyg Mair (foxglove), Mantell Mair (Lady's Mantle), Chwys Mair (buttercup), Rhos Mair (rosemary) and Dagrhau Mair (fuchsia).
*Priest and Rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of the Taper, Diocese of Menevia, Wales