Celia White has retired from her role as Custodian of Padley Chapel and she reflects on her seventeen years of experiences of the shrine and its visitors.
Padley really is the most extraordinary and amazing place. Despite the thousands of visitors it manages to maintain an atmosphere of peace and holiness. Whether I am alone or surrounded by hundreds of visitors I always feel the gentle presence of God and the martyrs, Fr Robert Ludlam and Fr Nicholas Garlick, who envelop the chapel and the grounds with the sanctity of their love.
Seventeen years ago, when Barbara Smith suggested that I might be interested in taking over from her as custodian of the chapel, I agreed but with much trepidation. Barbara and her husband Leo had brought the chapel from being a rather dusty and gloomy place to becoming a bright and hugely interesting place of worship and a fitting shrine to the two martyred priests.
Barbara regularly embarked on careful and scholarly research and she published many papers and booklets on Padley and related subjects, bringing to life the histories of the families who had lived there. Without her work and learned interpretation of the facts the Padley story could have been lost for ever.
What a teacher I had – gentle but persuasive, always available to discuss the many questions I had, never too busy to listen and frequently correct my understanding of Catholic recusant history in general and always calm and unflappable. The Diocese of Hallam has everything to thank Barbara and Leo for.
I still find it difficult to put into words what I have felt about Padley. From day one of my tenure I realised that whatever I gave I received back tenfold from the chapel and I am sure that many would agree with me.
I am always struck by the number of people who come into the chapel just to sit and drink in the atmosphere, to pray and to contemplate the Padley story, or their own.
There are those loyal pilgrims who come back time and time again. I particularly remember an elderly gentleman who would travel from Manchester, walk to the grounds and just sit outside, “alone with his prayers” he told me, and then quietly leave to catch the next train back home again.
Last year I had a visit from a man who had been coming with a friend for many years to share in the annual pilgrimage, despite neither of them being Catholics. Tears flowed as he told me that the friend had just died but he would continue to come. I have many other such tales of faith and quite a few that I would love to tell you but which are too private to publish.
Happily I have kept fairly accurate records of my 17 years and was amazed when I added up the numbers. We welcomed 577 school visits not counting the annual schools’ pilgrimage, 67 Parish groups, 45 Catholic societies, 161 groups who booked a ‘talk and tour’ visit plus all the casual visitors who called in as they were walking past or came specially on the days that we were open, not to mention the thousands who came to the annual pilgrimages. In all Padley received around 62,700 visitors – I am surprised that my helpers and I have any voices left!
And what were the highlights? First of all, I must say my greatest highlight was the help I received from the volunteer guides – Pat Hayhurst, Catherine Hand, Neville Garrett and more recently John Rigby and my own husband, John. My most sincere thanks to them for all their help.
I must also thank all those who have helped over the years to oil the wheels of the various events held at Padley, a whole page would not be enough to list you all and my thanks are profound and sincere.
Stand-out occasions were many for all sorts of reasons. The visit of Cardinal Vincent Nichols, then Archbishop, was a great honour, as too was the visit of Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark and those of all our distinguished visiting speakers at the annual pilgrimages.
More privately, I had the great pleasure of welcoming several newly ordained priests who celebrated their first Mass at Padley. Other joyful days include those when a young couple held a blessing of their recent marriage and the baptism of a child whose mother had herself been baptised in the chapel. Another event stands out in my mind as being one of the most beautiful, that when students from Sheffield University came on a warm June evening to say and sing their evening prayers. Their beautiful voices floated out across the fields and passing people stopped to listen. It was truly one of those moments that you want to go on and on.
The Mad Moments
There have been the slightly mad moments too of course. A couple with three small children came in to check up with me what the rules were on divorce in the Catholic Church! Then there were the woman and her mother who came to visit. The older lady got as far as the bottom of the stairs and then rushed out of the big front doors and took refuge in the Victorian pig sties opposite saying that she couldn’t go any further because something very bad had happened here and there were too many spirits annoying her. Her daughter continued her visit and, after apologising for her mother, informed me that there was a man in the pig sty who had been there since the 16th century and said he couldn’t go into the Chapel until someone had come to give him confession. She added that a second man had been tapping her on her shoulder all the time she had been looking round the Chapel. I am happy to report that although I have been there alone many times I have yet to encounter any unearthly phenomena except the aforementioned presence of God.
On another occasion, when showing a school party around the ruins I asked one young boy what he thought the circular stone in the hall was. He thought briefly and then decided that it was the medieval hot tub.
The Worst Moment
My worst moment came when I received a ‘phone call from the fire brigade to tell me that the roof had been struck by lightning and was on fire. I rushed there and found two fire engines and several firefighters on the scene. The fire was out but the damage was substantial. I shall always be grateful to the railway signalmen who spotted the blaze after having heard the tremendous noise of the strike. The Peak Park rangers, who have a base across the track from the chapel, told me that the next day they were picking up pieces of the cross for 100 metres away. I did rather hope that it might have persuaded the resident bats to move house – they do make a mess of the chairs! No such luck – they were back before we were.
Padley … will always be in my heart
I shall not miss Padley as it will always be in my heart, but what would be a joy would be the canonisation of the two brave and holy priests who gave so much for our liberty to worship freely at Padley Chapel today. Who could have predicted that more than 400 years later our freedom has continued without cease?
Thanks are also due to the recusants who secretly kept the faith alive in this corner of Derbyshire and in all the other places in the country as we continue to visit this remarkable and blessed place.
As I write this we are still in ‘lockdown’ due to the Corvid 19 Virus pandemic and so the chapel is not open as it should be at this time of the year. However, I’m sure our beautiful chapel will be open again soon and is waiting to welcome you all to come and make the most of this wonderful asset to our Diocese.