Visits to a number of religious congregations are included in the newly developed ‘Augustine Camino’ – a pilgrimage route through Kent – which is a project of St Augustine’s Catholic parish in Ramsgate. The walk, designed with the famous Spanish Camino de Santiago in mind, begins at the Anglican Rochester Cathedral and wends its way to Ramsgate via Canterbury, stopping off at parishes along the way, as a means of being authentic to the spirit of pilgrimage from the medieval era.
Walkers will encounter three congregations along the route: the Carmelites, Benedictines and Vincentians and it is also an ecumenical experience, taking in the Cathedrals at Rochester and Canterbury.
Founder of the walk, St Augustine’s parishioner Andrew Kelly explains: “The original pilgrimage to Canterbury was to the Shrine of St Augustine and the Augustine Camino leads to the new Shrine of St Augustine in Ramsgate. The re-emergence of pilgrimage infrastructure in England has been a gradual process starting in the early 19th century. Medieval pilgrims would have visited monasteries and shrines along their route which were run by religious orders. It is now possible to re-establish this experience, often in the original buildings and it is this that has informed the route of the Augustine Camino. Hence the visits to Aylesford Priory and the shrine of St Jude (run by the Carmelites) and Minster abbey, which is a Benedictine Convent.”
Prior of Aylesford, Fr Francis Kemsley, has noticed an increase in the number of people passing through on foot and that for some, who are burdened by difficult problems in life, the Camino offers spiritual solace and a release: “We are just a mile away from the Pilgrims’ Way – the ancient route from Winchester and London to Canterbury. Over the last few years it is very noticeable that a lot more people are walking the modern camino; there’s a sense of pilgrimage – a reminder that people are leaving their everyday concerns. And I like to think that a shrine is a place where heaven and earth meet.”
Minster was the site of an important monastery in the medieval era. In 1937 Benedictine nuns, fleeing Nazi persecution, re-founded the community and dedicated it with a Shrine to St Mildred. It continues as a thriving community of Benedictine nuns. The Camino brings them into direct contact with walkers who arrive to get their ‘pilgrim passport’ stamped.
Sr Walburga commented: We had a lovely couple here the other day doing the Camino. They were radiant despite the wet weather. Such a joy to meet.”
Arriving in Canterbury, pilgrims pass Eastbridge hospital, an old pilgrim hospice now run by Anglican Franciscans as an almshouse. The Franciscan Gardens are at the rear of Eastbridge and are a haven of peace; they are the grounds of the first Franciscan settlement in the UK and are a Scheduled Ancient Monument. In the 20th century a Franciscan movement, the Society of Saint Francis, grew within the Anglican Church and the establishment of a Franciscan house in 2003 saw the Franciscan Brothers return once again to the site.
Another newly arrived community are the ‘Vincentian Canons of Kerala’ who follow the Syro Malabar rite of the Catholic Church ; they have installed themselves in Ramsgate and now conduct a very busy ministry of retreat giving.
Camino founder Andrew Kelly explains: “There is a lovely story about how they came to be in Ramsgate. When the previous occupants of the Abbey – a community of Benedictine monks – decided that they could not manage the upkeep of the building any more there was a possibility that it would be put to secular use. The mother of the then Parish Priest, Fr Marcus Holden prayed that a religious use would be found. Some visiting Missionaries of Charity noticed the building was for sale and mentioned it to the Vincentians who happened to be looking for a base for a retreat centre.”
They have thrived within a short period of time; there is a retreat nearly every weekend and events during the week ; on average 150 people attend each session from all over the South and the Midlands.
Local Priest and administrator of the Shrine of St Augustine, Fr Simon Heans commented: “The Vincentian presence, as well as enabling the Abbey to survive as an ecclesiastical building, is of enormous benefit to the parish. Parishioners have been drawn into their retreat sessions and have become volunteers helping to administer them in some cases. In the other direction, retreatants come to the Shrine to learn about St Augustine and to venerate the relic we have. Permanent staff from there often come to Mass and Confession at the Shrine during the week. The priests of the Shrine and ‘the Divine’ as the Divine Retreat Centre is known support each other with cover for Masses and Confessions. Parishioners have been encouraged by the youth and the fervour of the visitors to the Divine who can be guaranteed to turn out in force for any event organised at St Augustine’s especially if it is an outdoor procession. We consider we are very lucky to have such a vibrant worshipping community on our doorstep.”
The ‘Divine’ website sums up the impact that these new missionaries - following in the footsteps of St Augustine - are having: “It is quite remarkable! The arrival of the Vincentians fitted perfectly with the history of Ramsgate, as this was where the first preaching took place, and where the first retreat was made for the English. The charism of St Augustine lives on through the ministry of the Vincentian congregation, their preaching, and charitable works……..During the weekdays, the Retreat Centre arranges outreach programs to parishes around the UK, to revive, strengthen and develop the parish community. Within the short span of 5 years, the Vincentian priests have visited over 100 parishes and have preached in nearly all the dioceses here in Great Britain.”