The history of Our Lady of the Taper is linked to a shipwreck in the twelfth century. It seems a statue of Our Lady washed up on the shores of Cardigan Bay in West Wales. As part of the Year of Mercy, Our Lady of the Taper in Cardigan, one of the Holy Doors of Mercy in the Menevia diocese, hosted the Lampedusa Cross, which was placed in the small Shrine chapel, from Friday 17th June until Sunday 3rd July.
And one man, Francesco Tuccio, a carpenter from the small Italian island of Lampedusa proved that one act of kindness can make a massive difference. Mr Tuccio used his compassion to craft a cross of hope, the Lampedusa Cross.
Three years ago, a boat set sail from Africa towards Europe, filled with over 500 refugees who were fleeing Eritrea and Somalia.
On the way, the boat caught fire, capsized and sank; 311 people perished. Inhabitants of Lampedusa helped save the lives of 155 people.
Heartbroken, Mr Tuccio met some of the survivors at his local church, he wanted to help. He wanted to give them a symbol of hope.
Mr Tuccio collected the broken pieces of wood that had washed ashore and made the Lampedusa Cross. He offered a handmade cross to each of the survivors as a sign of hope, solidarity and love.
Our faith calls us to act. Together we can offer hope, love and give refugees dignity as we stand alongside them.
During The Year of Mercy, Pope Francis reminds us that “we ourselves need to see, and then enable others to see, that migrants and refugees are brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected and loved.”
Pope Francis carried the Lampedusa cross at a memorial service.
Inspired by the Year of Mercy, people across England and Wales have begun to write messages of hope, which will be shared with refugees.
Parish and school communities are organising pilgrimages to reflect on the refugee crisis and demonstrate how, through our faith, we can stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters.
As we make our own pilgrimages, let’s look at the history of Our Lady in Cardigan.
Devotion to Our Lady of the Taper began in the Middle Ages, around 1160. The details of the history of the Shrine can be gleaned from Bishop Barlow (1538): “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 come from Arras, via Flemish wool traders who established links with the market town of Cardigan.
Pilgrims flocked there, and in 1512 the Pope granted them the same spiritual privileges as those who visited the churches of Rome in person.
According to tradition, the statue continuously returned to the site where it was first found along the Teifi estuary. It is believed that the church of St Mary (now the Anglican parish church) was built in 1158 to house the shrine.
The church was established as a Benedictine Priory and the monks remained in Cardigan until Cromwell ordered that all principal images of Our Lady be sent to London for destruction. There seems little doubt that Our Lady of Cardigan met the same fate as many other places of pilgrimage at that time.
The current shrine statue depicts Our Lady, being seated with the Christ Child in one hand and a taper candle in the other. The image of Mary is unusual but seated statues were normal until the late Middle Ages. It was also common at the time to place a symbol in Mary’s hand, referring to her Son, for example; a sceptre to say he was King, or a lily.
The image is associated with the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord: Candlemas. Forty days after His birth, Jesus is taken in his mother’s arms to be presented at the temple. Simeon proclaims Christ as the “light to enlighten Gentiles.” Throughout his ministry, Jesus refers to himself as the “light of the world.”
The image of light, as symbolised by the taper, is important for the Cardigan Shrine and is rare in Christian iconography. Mary is inviting us to accept her Son as our Light. Christ is the light of all nations, of all peoples.
Early traditions record that the taper candle burned continuously for nine years without wasting. The taper was seen 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 in their lives. The candle is lit and Our Lady of the Taper inspires hope, guidance and faith as she lights the way to her Son. The candle lights the path for the next pilgrim, encouraging a continuation of faith and the knowledge that darkness is always defeated. It is the light of Christ which extinguishes darkness in our lives.
Designated as Welsh National Shrine of Our Lady, a new statue was commissioned to commemorate the occasion and a Benedictine nun, Mother Concordia Scott, created the current bronze statue. It was blessed in Cardiff Metropolitan Cathedral and taken all over Wales before, on Pentecost Sunday, 18 May 1986, it was solemnly installed in the presence of 4,500 pilgrims. Its beauty catches the imagination and arouses devotion.
Saint Pope John Paul II wrote a special message for the occasion and blessed the first taper candle that was to be lit in the hand of Our Lady of the Taper and affirmed that the medieval Shrine of Our Lady of Cardigan was the National Shrine of Our Lady for Wales.
In today’s unceasing rush, some may think that we have lost the true concept of pilgrimage as a symbol of our lives – a sometimes tough journey to arrive at the vision of God. Travelling and waiting are part of life and of pilgrimage and prayer. Our life is a pilgrim journey into the mystery of the love and mercy of God. Making a pilgrimage reminds us of that constant journey.
In the words of Pope Francis: “…making pilgrimages to shrines is one of the most eloquent expressions of the faith of God’s people, and is a form of evangelization which needs to be increasingly promoted and valued.”
Those that go on a pilgrimage and who reach their destination, Pope Francis explained, should feel at home, loved and looked on with eyes of mercy. Anyone, he said, young or old, rich or poor, sick or troubled, the curious tourist, can receive a welcome because in each one there is a heart that seeks God.
The diverse sources of light, beautiful statues, carvings, stained glass and tapestry all contribute to a welcoming, warm atmosphere in the main church.
Not wanting to detract attention from the wonderful statue of Our Lady of the Taper, there are many beautiful artworks in this church namely:
There is casket crafted by Harry Comley containing the candle blessed by Pope John Paul II in 1986 for the inauguration of Cardigan as the National Shrine of Our Lady for Catholics in Wales.
The famous Penrhyn quarries of Bethesda made the altar in green slate, together with a baptismal font and a ledge to hold the tabernacle. The pedestals 26 are heptagonal to recall the seven sacraments. The first Mass was offered on 28th June 1970. On 23 July Bishop John Petit with Bishop Langton Fox consecrated it.
There are outstanding wood carvings from Harry Comley. In 1970 he also installed the figures for the Stations of the Cross and subsequently carved a unique Paschal Candlestick to represent the winding sheet of Christ, no longer needed after Easter Day.
In 1976 a friend of the church funded a wall hanging seven feet square and suggested Lt.-Col. (later Baronet) Berowald Innes as the craftsman. At Berowald’s request David John designed it on the theme of the Shrine: Christ, Light of the World.
Symbolic rather than representational, it shows the Paschal Candle dipped into the waters of Baptism (once called the Enlightenment), and also suggests the Pillar of Fire, while the background hints at the Light that shone in the darkness (John 1:5). Bishop Langton Fox blessed it on 22 May 1977.
In 1984 Trudie Forbes wove a tapestry for the Shrine Chapel to enhance the setting of the statue. Its theme was the glow of a candle-flame set against a formalised Welsh countryside including sky, land, the mediaeval pilgrims’ coastal path and the sea.
Amber Hiscott of Swansea created the stained glass. The windows at the back of church are on the Seven Sacraments. Later she made glass for the shrine, turning its long slim windows into decorated candles with a flame on top with scenes from shrine history incised on them.
In 1999 she created her striking masterpiece for the church, converting the high windows in church that faced the road into glass depicting flowers named after Our Lady in Welsh.
They 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).
The sunlight streaming through them on late summer evenings turns them into a riot of colour. Amber Hiscott was also commissioned for the stained glass in the Millennium Centre in Cardiff.
Caroline Davies owned Noyaddwilym, where the Breton monks had lived from 1904. In 1986 she donated the cross that the monks made to stand over their church door. It now rests in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.
Our thanks to Fr Phillip Harries, current Shrine Rector for his kind welcome to the Door of Mercy at the National Shrine for Wales.
CAFOD have created resources to help anyone to organise a pilgrimage in parishes, schools or groups, or use as part of any other Year of Mercy pilgrimage. During the pilgrimage, there is an opportunity to write messages for hope for refugees.
To find out more, order or download the pilgrimage reflection and cards for your messages of hope, visit cafod.org.uk/yearofmercy
Acknowledgements: Fr Jason Jones: Christ the Light of the World (previous Priest and Rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of the Taper, Diocese of Menevia, Wales) (L’Osservatore Romano, 11 August 2010)
Seamus Cunnane: Our Lady of Cardigan, A History and Memoir (2006)