Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark has formally established Pugin’s church of St Augustine in Ramsgate as a shrine of ‘the Apostle of the English’. In an official decree the Archbishop grants the shrine canonical privileges and designates it as a place of pilgrimage.
The establishment of this new pilgrimage site fills a five hundred year gap created when the last shrine of Augustine was destroyed in the 16th century. A shrine to St Augustine existed on the Isle of Thanet before the Reformation and so this new place of pilgrimage recovers an ancient tradition. St Augustine’s is a Catholic church already dedicated to the saint and stands closer than any other to the place of Augustine’s landing, his first preaching and his momentous encounter with King Ethelbert of Kent in 597AD.
The official day on which the foundation of the shrine will be remembered is 1st March. This is Pugin’s birthday and recently the day of popular bicentenary celebrations in his honour. This day links the erection of the shrine with the church’s founder who is buried within. The cult of St Augustine is fully in tune with the heart and mind of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852). He states in his letters that he selected the Ramsgate site because ‘blessed Austin landed nearby’ and he personally chose the dedication name and wanted the church to be a memorial to the founding identity of Christian England and its early saints.
There already exists a strong local interest and devotion to the saint. His feast day each year is celebrated in Ramsgate with a festival of Catholic history and culture called ‘St Augustine’s week’. Prayers are said and hymns sung in his honour. St Augustine’s has already functioned as a quasi-shrine and pilgrims already journey there from all over England and beyond to learn about the conversion of the English and the beginnings of Christianity in this land. In 1997 thousands descended upon the St Augustine’s site to celebrate 1500th anniversary of the Augustine landing. Hundreds of Monks joined Cardinal Hume and Archbishop Bowen in the pilgrimage. In the year 2000 St Augustine’s was a ‘Jubilee Shrine’ and had special indulgences attached. This continued a long pilgrimage tradition surrounding St Augustine in Ramsgate and Thanet.
St Augustine’s attracts a huge number of Christians from other churches and communities who are interested in learning about common roots in the faith of Christ. Many secular visitors come to enjoy the architecture, the art and the atmosphere of the place and thereby enhance their relations with the Catholic Church. Local schools have a visiting programme and come to learn about the saints and about Pugin. The building is highly catechetical and new resources help to make a visit to St Augustine’s an opportunity to deepen one’s faith. The church is adorned with a collection of images of St Augustine in the finest stone and stained glass including a ‘Hardman Powell’ series of windows above Pugin’s tomb relating the story of Augustine’s mission and especially the moment of setting foot on a land explicitly demarcated as ‘Thanet’.
Fr Marcus Holden, the parish priest and custodian of St Augustine’s, commented “This is amazing news for us. Pugin’s church is secured by this added living identity which also fulfils many of his own dreams in honouring the English saints and St Augustine in particular. There was need here not only to rescue the church as a great work of art but also to find a fitting spiritual significance for the future of the site. Through his decree, the Archbishop has done just that. The shrine will now draw pilgrims keen to learn about the early saints and to pray for a conversion of England in our own times”.
The church is presently being restored and brought back to its former glory and major celebrations are planned this year surrounding the feast day of St Augustine. The shrine will highlight the close bond between Rome and England as St Augustine was sent on his mission directly by Pope Gregory the Great. One of the pastoral recommendations of the Holy See for the upcoming year of faith proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI is precisely to ‘work toward the dissemination of a knowledge of the local Saints’ because the saints give an ‘authentic witness to the faith’. In renewing devotion to England’s apostle, Archbishop Smith is responding directly to the Holy Father’s call for a new evangelisation and a deepening of faith.