THE Blessed Virgin Mary has been venerated since the very beginning of Christianity and is still considered by millions to be the holiest and greatest saint of all time.

Described in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, we are told that she was the Jewish wife of Joseph and, of course, the mother of Jesus, whom she conceived through the Holy Spirit while still a virgin.

She continues to be a stellar symbol of virtue and compassion and over the centuries many miracles have been performed in her name.

For all those reasons many ancient churches in this country and abroad carry her name.

Here in Maldon the now lost monastic church at Beeleigh Abbey (destroyed in 1536) was jointly dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Nicholas, and it had a Lady Chapel where the canons honoured the liturgical cult of the Virgin.

Saint Mary grew in popularity towards the end of the Middle Ages and one of Maldon’s four guilds was named after her.

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Based in St Peter’s Church (on the site of today’s Maeldune Centre and Thomas Plume’s Library) Henry Hale, John Pere and John Clere were its masters.

They maintained a tabernacle (a sacrament box) to Our Lady in the church and both the guild and the canons at Beeleigh would have possessed decorated statues to Mary to serve as a focal point for their prayers.

Similar statuary would have adorned the highly decorated parish church of St Mary the Virgin, above Maldon’s Hythe Quay.

The Dissolution and Reformation saw all of those venerated and much loved icons of Our Lady unceremoniously stripped out and burned on a new, unforgiving Protestant fire.

Despite the new order of faith, there is evidence, not least here in Maldon, that worshippers clung on to the warmth and comfort of Mary.

Some recusants suffered for that belief and ended up in the Tower of London – including local woman Elizabeth Gaywood, imprisoned there in 1561 for “attending Mass”.

Catholicism consequently went underground and didn’t really safely re-surface until the gradual modification of the law in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The current Catholic church in Victoria Road was built in 1925 and is dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady.

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Anglo-Catholicism also emerged – beliefs and practices that emphasise Catholic heritage in an Anglican church setting.

One such church was (and continues to be) Maldon St Mary’s. Although he is now largely forgotten, it was the Reverend Ernest Charles Storr that did much to reintroduce historic Anglo-Catholic approaches to both worship and the fabric of St Mary’s.

He was rector from 1926 to 1936 and one of his proudest achievements can still be seen in the building today. During an earlier restoration of 1886-87, three 14th Century niches had been uncovered in the north wall of the nave.

They were carefully preserved, even down to the retention of faint traces of their pre-Reformation colouring, but as special as they undoubtedly were, they were empty – devoid of their original statues.

Rev Storr was determined to put that right and commissioned a new statue of the Madonna.

Carved by Austrian artist Anton Dapré (1877-1981) out of pitch-pine and picked out in shades of sepia and gold, the statue stands four feet in height.

She holds a lily in her right hand - the Annunciation lily, a symbol of Mary’s immaculate purity.

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On September 8, 1929, (appropriately the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary) an evensong dedication of the statue was conducted by the then Archdeacon of Southend.

It was said that he preached an “impressive service”, but admitted that it was a difficult subject because “prejudice still existed against Our Lady”.

He concluded, however, that “if God so honoured her as to be the organ of the Incarnation, could they do no less than honour her too?”

And honoured she has been ever since.

She has survived a world war and successive “improvers” (past and present) of St Mary’s fixtures and fittings, and long may that remain the case.

She stares down in serenity on a modern congregation, a testament to Rev Storr, but also to Maldon’s Marian tradition – destroyed, re-born and a continuing symbol of love in an often harsh and unforgiving world.