If the citizens of Verona took their association with Shakespeare and made it cheap and ugly, the English city of Saint Alban has created eternal beauty from their brush with greatness. Verona put up a statue to Juliet and covered a wall with graffiti and gum. Christian Saint Alban made one of the great quiet and reverential places in the world.
It is a story and a place begging for a film, if Hollywood made such films.
Who put the Alban in Saint Alban?
Alban was a young man who protected his priest from persecution in Roman Britain. For his courage, he was beheaded, but the Romans only succeeded in making him the first Christian martyr in England.
The Church wins when it wins and it wins when it loses, so Alban was recognized a saint. A small church was built and then a great abbey served England. People found healing and peace there until the antichrist Henry VIII pulled down the abbey for the money.
Bluff King Henry burned people to defend a faith he was happy to rob. The faith he defended was a burning faith that no desire of his should ever be checked.
But the people of Saint Alban outfoxed him and managed to make their cathedral the biggest parish church imaginable. They could not sustain the whole building so they just happened to preserve that part over the tomb of Blessed Alban.
The rest fell into decay until the Victorians, with good hearts, willing wallets, but mixed success fixed it up. One puckish addition later was a tiny stain glassed image of Henry with his pinhead looking forever toward the shrine.
I hope this penance lightens his purgation.
My mother grew up in a West Virginia town name Saint Albans, so I have always known the name. She was happy there and so the associations were pleasant in my mind. Older I learned the story of the man who should be patron of England and I named a son after him.
Visiting this town, this quiet Cathedral was just like my life experience: tied to the past with a youthful vigor. The grounds are green and immaculate. The Cathedral store staffed by volunteers eager to chat and included bargains, some locally made. The cafe has local food that is tasty and served by earnest folk.I have been treated less well as a house guest!
But it is the cathedral and shrine that melted me. For any donation I cared to give I was able to attend a service at the shrine, hear an organ concert on an epic organ, and have an avuncular volunteer tell me the highlights of the Cathedral.
This chap was so likable, well prepared, and friendly that I would have paid just to hear him. He opined and he joked and he was John Bull without bull.
And the place was gloriously full of English schoolchildren learning about the Middle Ages with hardly a “tourist” in sight . . . unless I used a mirror. It was alive, but reverent prayers from an ecumenical Baptist brought focus on the hour.
We prayed for Houston Baptist University, the Torrey chums worldwide, and our family. We lay in green grass and talked. We smelled the glorious pipe tobacco of a nearby smoker and watched mothers congregate in the green space with infants.
It is one of the happiest place I have ever been and when I left, I heard that Americans help keep it so. The cathedral, it is an Anglican cathedral again, has no reserves, but Americans going to churches named for the Saint have helped time and again.
This unheralded generosity is why attacks on the Faithful never move me. Here is a pocket of good done that I had never heard about and I find them all the time.
Go to Saint Alban on pilgrimage: go to a quiet place quietly. Listen to the guides. Listen to the organ. Listen to the voice of the Saint whispering that dying can be glorious, that the Church is eternal, and that there is always hope.
God help me, but one part of me will never leave that place.