Beginnings of the Easter Monday Pilgrimage

Youth of the churches in the Diocese walk to St. Albans

By John Cox

On the Bank Holiday following Easter Sunday in 1944, groups of young people walked to the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St. Alban for a service in celebration of the 'Risen Christ'.

They picnicked in the Abbey Orchard before visiting the Abbey and finally taking in the first service of its kind ever held in St. Albans. The purpose of the pilgrimage was stressed by Bishop Heywood, the then assistant Bishop of St. Albans, who in an address at the opening of the service said "we are all on a pilgrimage towards a goal beyond our vision, and it is not possible to make sense of this life, unless we look forward to that future life, but make no mistake that because there is a future life this one is of no importance.We are serving our apprenticeship here and I would urge you to make the utmost use of this life"

The then Dean of St. Albans, the Very Reverend Cuthbert Thicknesse conducted the service and afterwards the youth pilgrims converged on the Abbey Institute, Romeland and the Abbey Schools, Spice Street for tea, which was served by the Redbourn kitchen. The offerings (donations) amounted to £45 and were divided between the Diocesan Council for Youth who arranged the pilgrimage and young people in the church overseas. The then Diocesan Youth Organiser - Miss Hadingham was responsible for the general arrangements.

From 1945 onwards this annual event flourished as numbers of young people, assisted by their parish clergy, youth leaders, friends and parents flocked to the Abbey over the Easter weekend. Generally they arrived in Verulamium Park and the Abbey Orchard on the morning and gathered near the Fighting Cocks hostelry at about 1.30 pm when the Lord Bishop of St. Albans, possibly the Bishop of Bedford and the Diocesan Youth Chaplain would walk down Abbey Mill Lane to lead the pilgrims up the hill to the Abbey. The procession was headed by a member of the Cathedral Guild of Servers who carried the Cathedral Cross. After walking through the Abbey Gateway the procession turned right through the "Carriage Gates" to the western precincts of the Abbey and were led into the building where they were seated on chairs in the nave and elsewhere.

In January 1964, I was left a message by the Abbey's Youth Chaplain who was moving to a new appointment in Southwark Diocese, asking me to "look after" the Abbey Youth Fellowship membership until a new appointment was made. By March the young people had begun to accept this 24 year old male and we talked about the forthcoming pilgrimage. For a few years, possibly since the departure of the former Sub-Dean, (the Revd. Canon Douglas Feaver), the Abbey Youth had taken no part in the pilgrimage, instead going for a ramble away from St. Albans on Easter Monday to Redbourn or elsewhere.

By now numbers attending had run into 3-4,000 people and so it was decided to stack all the chairs in the Nave moving them into the North and South Transepts. After Evensong on Easter Sunday evening a work-force of young people moved in and emptied the Nave of its furniture for the following day's event. On that morning the members were available to make the place for the afternoon. I attended the meeting of Deanery Youth Chaplains in the Vestry before going down to lead the procession up the hill together with taper bearers. Once in the Abbey building, the pilgrims sat on the floor standing when called upon to sing hymns and when they then went on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. Alban, via the processional doors on either side of the High Altar. In fact at that time there was a double-headed procession as two teams of Cross and Lights headed procession from beyond the Shrine north and south through the aisles to the west-end where once again they filled the space in the Nave. After the final blessing by the Bishop of the Diocese and as all those who had been there left the building, the Abbey Fellowship swept the Nave floor and moved back chairs and hassocks into place before Evensong was said at 5.15pm in the Choir. The young people and I left quietly and were welcomed to the kitchen of the Hudson family in Gombards for a well-earned drink.

Throughout its history, all pilgrims have received a "pilgrim badge" as they past the Shrine and I well remembered seeing those who had long lines of past badges on their outer attire. Pilgrim groups from far far away in Bedfordshire may have organised coaches to take their tired people home. Others walked or caught buses or relied on friends and family for lifts in cars.

After 12 years or so, I realised I was no longer as young as I was, so I handed over my role to younger servers and successive Abbey Youth Chaplains. Within the last 10-15 years a complete re-appraisal of the Easter Monday Youth Pilgrimage took place and instead of the 1000s who attended in the 1960s – early 1990s, a new format was introduced. Its name may have changed – but the St. Albans Easter Monday Pilgrimage remains as one of the events in the Diocese of St. Albans each year. It continues to celebrate Jesus Christ's rising from the tomb having overcome death.

This page was added by John Cox on 02/01/2012.

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