Four young friars have marked 800 years of the Dominican Order's presence in England by retracing the journey of the original friars in 1221 from Ramsgate to Oxford. Their 15-day pilgrimage ended at Blackfriars in Oxford earlier this month.
Following the route to Oxford via Canterbury and London were Fr Toby Lees, chaplain at King's College London, Br Bede and Br John, both students at Blackfriars Oxford, and Fr Sam Burke from Edinburgh, a law lecturer at the University. Along the way, and clearly recognisable in their distinctive white habits, they were joined in places by other friars and friends with Dominican connections.
They set off from St Augustine’s Church in the seaside town of Ramsgate on 1 August, after the 9am Mass. Before heading west, they received a traditional Dominican blessing for safe travel, and so began a pilgrimage of some 240 miles to Oxford in the footsteps of Gilbert of Fresnay and his Dominican brothers 800 years ago.
They were warmly greeted by parishes en route, including Dartford and Chiswick and one night was spent at historic Aylesford Priory where they described being received “as fellow friars with great fraternal warmth”. Aylesford is England’s oldest Carmelite Priory, founded by St Simon Stock in 1242, just a couple of decades after the Dominicans arrived. Canterbury Cathedral hosted a “memorable” ecumenical Vespers. At St Barnabas Church, East Molesey, Dominican Jubilee Vespers were sung by pilgrims and parishioners. The walkers gathered rosary prayer intentions which they prayed three times a day.
Passing through London, one vvisit was to the now-Anglican parish of St. Bartholomew the Great, famously featured in one of the weddings in the hit comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral. Originally an Augustinian priory, it was given to the Dominicans in the reign of Mary Tudor, before being confiscated in the reign of Elizabeth I.
The pilgrims arrived in Oxford on the Feast of the Assumption, as did the first friars who played an important part in the development of the University. By this time around 40 people surrounded them in the photos!
“For all of us the pilgrimage was a real time of grace,” Fr Toby Lees told The Tablet. “While we were consciously walking in the footsteps of the founders of our province, this wasn't a medieval re-enactment. To walk in the shoes of our founders was also to seek to bring something of the perennial vitality of the Gospel (in our own particular Dominican way) to those who have never heard it, or for whom it has been misheard or misspoken as stale.” He was delighted that the number of walking companions swelled, “with ever-increasing numbers joining us, some already friends, others initially strangers, but all part of something much bigger than ourselves by the end, the end that is the ultimate end of any pilgrimage, not Oxford or Santiago, but life in Christ.”
The pilgrims have happy memories of warm hospitality and being given prayer requests by people they met on the path. Also passing through “wonderful lavender field that were just being harvested,” and singing Salve Regina in the “marvellous acoustics” of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.
Short videos of each stage of the pilgrimage available here.