Pilgrimage to Aylesford Priory with the Knights of St Columba

Midday Mass in the open air shrine

Midday Mass in the open air shrine

‘The future belongs to God, and it is only he who reveals it, under extraordinary circumstances.’ — Paulo Coelho

Sunday I found myself on a trip organized by the Knights of Saint Columba. What was I doing here I asked myself?

The Knights of Saint Columba is a fraternal organisation founded in Glasgow in 1919 by Patrick Joseph O’Callaghan and based on its sister organisation in the USA the Knights of Columbus. It is named in honour of Saint Columba, a Christian missionary from Ireland. Membership is limited to Catholic men. The Knights at local level are organised in councils and provinces.

Motto: Charity, Unity and Fraternity.

The Knights of Columbus is a Catholic secret society founded in New Haven, Connecticut in 1882. If this sounds like the Masons you are spot on. It was founded by Irish-American priest The Venerable Father Michael J McGivney (who is well on the way to sainthood) as a Catholic alternative to the Masons. Catholics at the time, and maybe true today, were barred from joining the Masons (though this begs the question why many prominent Catholics were members of the powerful P2 lodge?). Knights of Columbus has evolved into a very powerful and wealthy, far-right organization. Anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, powerful backers of George W Bush. A propaganda wing for the Catholic Church. In true Catholic fashion it is male only. Jeb Bush is a prominent member. Masons have lodges, Knights of Columbus councils. Like masons they have a fondness for dressing up and a multiplicity of ranks and titles. A group in California calling themselves Californians Against Hate, put the Knights on their Roll of Dishonor. But they do dish out loads of dosh as charitable donations, and were originally established to help poor working class Catholics.

As an aside: The Lost Symbol, the latest novel from Dan Brown, features the Masons and their influence in Washington DC.

I had planned on a day trip to Brighton, so what was I doing on an awayday with the Knights of Saint Columba? It was my lovely friend Sian’s idea. We were on a pilgrimage to Aylesford Priory in Kent, a Carmelite Order.

Not my idea of a pilgrimage. My idea is travelling on foot to a Holy Shrine or some place of spiritual significance. Not a coach trip. This was more like a penance as I hate being cooped up in a coach at the best of times.

My idea of a pilgrimage is what Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho undertook over twenty years ago when he walked the Camino de Santiago, an ancient medieval pilgrims route through the Pyrenees. An account he wrote of in The Pilgrimage and was to lead to the writing of The Alchemist. But then when he undertook the pilgrimage it was a penance for having the arrogance to think he was worthy of a sword, a sword his Master J deemed he was not worthy of at the time.

But here we were, my lovely friend Sian and I, on a coach trip to Aylesford Priory in Kent organized by the Knights of Saint Columba.

We set off in the morning and a couple of uneventful hours later (the coach trip was not as bad as I had expected) we were there. This was no ordinary trip. There was to be a rally of the Knights with a parade in full regalia that afternoon.

An open air mass was held at midday in what is known as the shrine. The mass was presided over by Bishop Howard Tripp. Dotted around the shrine were the banners of the Knights.

Several small chapels lead off from the shrine. Incredible ceramics in the chapels. Behind the shrine a peace garden. Around the periphery of the garden stations of the cross.

At 2-20pm, a public ceremony presided over by the Deputy Supreme Knight where new people were proposed and elevated as knights. This was preceded by a private ceremony in one of the side chapels from which the public were excluded.

At 3-30pm Rosary Procession and Benediction where the Knights and anyone who wishes to join in walk in procession around the peace garden then back to the shrine, presided over by Bishop Howard Tripp and the Prior Father Brendon.

I was very struck by the gold cross with the flaming sun at its centre. What struck me was that this represents the Egyptian Sun God Ra. The cross, apart from being an instrument of torture and execution upon which Jesus and many of his followers were crucified, has its roots in Ancient Egypt. It looked very impressive as it caught the sun’s rays. I would have liked to have looked at it close to but it was covered with a cloth at the end of the Benediction.

It was the birthday of the bishop in two weeks time and everyone joined in wishing him a Happy Birthday. He was also due to celebrate 30 years as a bishop.

A tea-shop and bookshop plus a lovely dining room, where if we had known to book in advance we could have dined in style. The tea-shop and bookshop is housed in a restored 17th century thatched barn.

The Priory is located on the banks of the River Medway.

I have not been on a pilgrimage before. It was a novel experience. I have though many times visited the tomb of Thomas a Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral. Walked part of the Pilgrims Way, immortalized by Chaucer, though most of it is now main highway. Walked parts of the North Downs Way which parallels the Pilgrims Way.

It seemed suitably appropriate to hand to the Prior as a gift for the priory library a copy of The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho.

This was handed to Father Brendon, the Prior, and he said he had read some of Paulo Coelho, an author with whom he was familiar. I recommended that he read the recently published biography of Paulo Coelho, A Warrior’s Life by Fernando Morais.

Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, a copy of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown was left behind. I hope it will be read with an open mind. It was left in good spirit on a wall in the peace garden. I trust it will be received in the same good spirit as it was left.

It could not have been a better day. Sunny, but not too hot.

Special thanks to Sian who invited me along and the knights who took us there.

Aylesford Priory (aka The Friars) is a Carmelite Order dating back to the 13th century. It was founded in 1240 by Ralph Frisburn on his return from the Holy Land. It was the first Carmelite Order to be established in Europe. It was dissolved by Henry VIII, rebuilt during the 1670s, destroyed by fire in the 1930s. The Carmelites took it back in 1949 and began the process of restoration. Aylesford Priory is a retreat and conference centre. Part of the restoration was to build a shrine ‘to bring in pilgrims’. At 250,000 pilgrims a year, a successful marketing ploy. The relics of Saint Simon Stock, the first Superior-General, are enshrined at the Priory.

Aylesford is a village on the River Medway in Kent. The river is crossed by a medieval bridge. The name derives from ‘Ægel’s ford’, an Anglo-Saxon settlement. The Church of St Peter and St Paul is of Norman origin.

Also see

Pilgrimage to Aylesford Priory with the Knights of St Columba
Organ recital at St Michael’s Abbey
Nepotism? Not us, say Knights of St Columba

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2 Responses to “Pilgrimage to Aylesford Priory with the Knights of St Columba”

  1. keithpp Says:

    Synchronicity: A few days later I was sat in St Mary’s Church in Guildford, there to my side was an invite from St Columba! Well almost. A programme, including a week long Celtic Festival, at Saint Columba’s House, a Catholic retreat 20 minutes walk from Woking Station.

  2. keithpp Says:

    Synchronicity: On the same day as the pilgrimage, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a dramatisation of The Secret Pilgrim, the last of their The Complete Smiley series, all eight of the John le Carre George Smiley novels. I managed to catch and enjoy the repeat the following Saturday.

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