Our Lady of the Forest Church, Forest Row

Introduction

Our Lady of the Forest Church, Forest Row was a Roman Catholic Church in Forest Row, a village in East Sussex in southern England. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark built the church in the 1950s. When the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton was formed in 1965 from part of Southwark’s territory, it assumed responsibility for the church. It was registered for marriages in February 1959, but closed in 2009. The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, attended mass at the church in 1963.

Our Lady of the Forest Church, Forest Row church closed after mass on Christmas Day in 2009. The church had a regular congregation of 50 and 90 at the time of its closure. The primary reason for the closure of the church was a shortage of priests; retired priests were conducting services at the church in the absence of the parish priest, Fr Steven Purnell.

Following the closure of the church the fittings and vestments were moved to the parish of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Kwadaso-Kumasi in the Archdiocese of Kumasi in northern Ghan.

John F. Kennedy Visit

Our Lady of the Forest Church, Forest Row – John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States, attended mass at the Church on 29 June 1963. Kennedy’s attendance ensured that this was the first Roman Catholic Mass at which an American president had been present in England. Kennedy had been staying at Birch Grove, the family residence of the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan during his only official visit to the United Kingdom.

Kennedy travelled to the church in a large motorcade of police and Secret Service agents. Crowds were present along the route as well as campaigners for nuclear disarmament. Kennedy and Macmillan had been discussing what would eventually become the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty at Birch Grove.

The parish priest, Fr Charles P. Dolman, omitted his typical 15-minute sermon due to constraints on Kennedy’s time, but expressed gratitude that “one of the world’s leading Catholics should be with us in our little wayside chapel this morning”. Kennedy shook hands with villagers outside the church as he left after the mass.

Kennedy was accompanied by Philip de Zulueta, a fellow Roman Catholic and private secretary to MacMillan. On his way to and from the church Kennedy’s sole topic of conversation was sexual gossip connected to the Profumo affair, much to Zulueta’s astonishment; MacMillan was shocked by reports of Kennedy’s conversations.

Kennedy was assassinated in November, just under six months following his visit to Sussex; MacMillan subsequently unveiled a memorial plaque to Kennedy at Forest Row Village Hall. Kennedy’s visit to the church was commemorated by a small plaque; a memorial mass was subsequently held on the anniversary of his visit for several years.

Our Lady of Forest

Brittany is a land noted for its pilgrimages, and that of Folgoet is one of the foremost of them. In the year 1419 a church took the place of a small chapel of Our Lady in the Forest of Lesneven, and it became the center of a big ecclesiastical establishment, with a famous pilgrim-shrine.

In 1380 there lived near Lesneven a good old man named Salaun or Solomon. He had no one to care for him, lived alone, and did not associate with any person; he walked with his eyes to the ground, but his heart in Heaven.

As the years went by, old and crippled as he was, he might be seen every evening hobbling toward the chapel of the Blessed Virgin where he spent most of the night in prayer after the villagers had returned to the warmth and security of their own homes. He was a simple man of the woods, and here where the chapel of Our Lady of the Forest was later built he slept in the open under an oak tree near a fountain.

History of Our Lady of Forest

Solomon loved to swing from the branches of a tree that hung over the fountain, all the while singing his praises to “Ave Maria!” at the top of his lungs. He begged for bread each day to obtain his meals, and in doing so he was often laughed at, jeered at and otherwise mistreated by the small boys. He was commonly known to one and all as “The Fool of the Wood.”

One day, while the villagers were on their way to the chapel, they found the old man in the snow dying of exposure. They tried to help him, but it was too late for their kindness, as the old man soon died with the words “Ave Maria” on his lips. The fool of the wood had finally gone to his Queen in Heaven. Legend further relates that he was buried in an out-of-the-way place in Lesneven, for he had no family to mourn him.

When spring came, a snow-white lily rose from the outcast’s grave, and on the delicate petals of the lily, in letters of gold, the words “Ave Maria!” could be seen. The grave was opened, and it was soon discovered that the lily had taken root in the mouth of the penniless old hermit. News of the miracle drew crowds to the scene, and a church was built to honor Our Lady of the Forest. The gravesite of the simple hermit can still be seen nearby, and visited even in our day. It is marked by four simple stones.

After a chequered history, the shrine fell into decay and was destroyed by fire during the French Revolution. It was restored by the people in 1818 and the venerated image of Our Lady was brought back and crowned in 1888. The pilgrimage has grown in popularity ever since.

Feast Day - 17th June

Annual Feast Day of Our Lady of Forest held on 17th June.

Contact Info

Our Lady of the Forest Church, 
Hartfield Road, Forest Row,
Wealden District, East Sussex, England

How to reach the Church

The nearby airport to the Church is London Gatwick (LGW) Airport which is 9.4 miles away. Other nearby airports include London City (LCY) (28.2 miles), London Heathrow (LHR) (33.4 miles), London Stansted (STN) (55.9 miles) and London Luton (LTN) (57.1 miles).

East Grinstead Railway Station in the south of England in West Sussex is the nearby Train Station to the Church.

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