Pilgrims find hope and inspiration at reconstructed shrine: Welsh saint reputed to have healing powers becomes focus for worshippers

HUNDREDS of pilgrims have made their way over the past year to pray beside the shrine of an obscure Welsh holy woman who is the patron saint of hares. Her shrine, believed to be the oldest Romanesque reliquary in northern Europe, was reconstructed from broken fragments found in the lych gate and walls of the church.

The holy woman, Saint Melangell, has given her name to the hamlet and the church which lie hidden in an isolated valley near Llangynog, mid Wales. The saint's relics, which were reputed to have healing properties, are contained in the restored shrine in the chancel of the church.

In ancient times pilgrims prostrated themselves beneath the reliquary, sometimes all night, in the hope of cures. Today able-bodied pilgrims walk two miles from Llangynog along a narrow country lane and often take part in a service at the church before praying quietly beside the shrine. Among the supplications written by pilgrims in a book in the church are requests for help with multiple sclerosis, leukaemia, and one man has requested prayers to help him overcome anger, depression and alcoholism. After visiting the church pilgrims may be offered tea and Welsh cakes by Evelyn Davies, who assists her husband the vicar, the Rev Paul Davies, with pastoral work.

Mrs Davies, who has recovered from a cancer operation eight years ago, said: 'People who are dying find great peace here. We see a lot of young people with cancer who have not thought much about death. They become very frightened when they find for the first time that events are overtaking them.'

The church of Saint Melangell lies at the head of a small valley, at end of a road which goes nowhere else. It is built on a Bronze Age site which existed at least 1,000 years before the Christian era according to radio-carbon dating.

Ancient yew trees in the graveyard are about 2,000 years old and were probably planted to ward off evil spirits when the site was used for pagan rites.

'Pennant Melangell is a place of contemplation, beyond time, and beyond speech,' Mrs Davies said. 'People who visit this place often find it helps them to come to terms with their illness. We try to help them put aside their fears of the future and live in the present time.' Saint Melangell came to the valley in 607, fleeing from the prospect of a dynastic marriage arranged by her father who was part of the ruling family in Strathclyde. Melangell, whose latin name was Monacella, founded a nunnery in the valley and became associated with the cult of the hare.

According to legend she gave protection to a hare that was being hunted by Brochwel, Prince of Powys. When the huntsman raised his horn to urge on the hounds it stuck to his lips and the hounds were repulsed.

In pagan Britain the hare was revered as a goddess of fertility. Such beliefs remained alive long after conversion of the local population to Christianity.

The shrine of the saint was thrown out of the church in the 17th century when the Reformation challenged the validity of such healing cults. But her bones were preserved in what is believed to be her original grave, covered by a large slate stone. Now her bones have been re-interred in the shrine. 'Many local saints have been forgotten but for some reason Melangell's ministry has carried on,' Mrs Davies said. 'This is a holy place. Donald Allchin, who is professor of Celtic Spirituality at University College of North Wales, calls it a thin place - where heaven and earth are close together.'

(Photographs omitted)

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