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A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals

Selections From The Ark Number 198 - Winter 2004

The other slipper chapel, Mary's house and animals

When on pilgrimage to Walsingham, do stop off at Downham Market for a visit to amaze, delight and uplift you. For at Hermitage Hall you can meet a remarkable man, his rescued animals (including a humped Brahman ox) and visit Norfolk’s other ancient Slipper Chapel, provided by the medieval monks who lived there as a chapel of ease at which pilgrims could stop and refresh themselves on their way to Walsingham, just a few days’ walk away. Today the chapel is restored, the Blessed Sacrament  reserved and Mass celebrated weekly. The remarkable and enterprising Eric St John Foti, with his family, have also reconstructed in one of the courtyards an exact copy of the house at Ephesus to which St John took Our Lady after Pentecost, known in Turkey as ‘Meryemana’.

                That is not all. On the site are two enormous buildings housing a breath-taking number of secular exhibits, and not just small items – Armstrong Siddeley motorcars and the engine from Concorde 001 fill one room, and carriages and carts another. There is even an extensive walk-around Victorian street known as the Dickens’ Experience. Whole rooms are given over to memorabilia  belonging to such diverse characters as Horatio Nelson and Barbara Cartland. These are known as ‘Collectors World’, and admit the public for a small fee – but be prepared to want to spent several days there just taking them all in.

                Now 79 but brimming with energy and ideas, Mr St John Foti, a devout Catholic, is planning yet another project, a small residential retreat centre to be built in the grounds of the Hall. He already runs workshops on the site for people with learning disabilities and hosts day retreats for parish and other groups.

                Alongside the Slipper Chapel is a larger chapel ‘of the Nativity’ – making up in the one county of Norfolk the third special place in Mary’s life (Bethlehem, the Walsingham shrine, and the Meryemana). In Mr St John Foti’s own words, ‘By combining a visit to Walsingham with a visit here, everyone can share in her joy.’ There are many historic items of Catholic devotion on display.

                In the grounds is a Rosary Way, described as ‘A walk with Mary through the life of Jesus’, with scenes of the Mysteries sculptured by Mark Wallinger (remembered for his statue of Christ on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square some years ago). Visitors pass through this walk on their way to see the animals and birds – goats, horses, hens, owls, doves, sheep – in the small animal sanctuary beyond. Some rescued cows, including the Indian ox, graze on land between the Hall’s garden and the Great Ouse river, land which still bears signs of the Pilgrim’s Way. At one end of a lovely peacock-strutted lawn, is a simple but moving SPUC shrine where an everlasting flame burns for unborn children and their mothers. The sanctuary and the flame reinforce the message that all life is sacred – of human at whatever age, and of animal.

                When the retreat centre/ holiday accommodation building is finished, which is as yet just a set of plans, it will be possible to stay for a few quiet days. These could be passed  simply among the lifetime’s collections of this Christian gentleman who is doing so much to put Catholic Norfolk on the map.

* For further information about visits, day retreats (and, in time, residential retreats and holidays)  write to Hermitage Hall, Downham Market, Norfolk PE38 0AH, tel:  01366 383185, fax 01366 386519, or log on to

Editor’s note: I warmly recommend this project to everybody. Do give it a visit.

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