In keeping with the spirit of the 21st century, the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome (CPR) owes it origins to the virtual world. It originated from a question posed on the Via Francigena Yahoo Group asking why there wasn’t a British-based Via Francigena organisation.
Hertfordshire businessman William Marques, who had set up the Via Francigena Yahoo Group in October 2004 in preparation for cycling to Rome, responded to the online challenge. He founded the CPR on his return from Rome in 2006, and together with his wife Bronwyn assembled a team of 15 enthusiasts for an inaugural meeting on 18 November that year.
Some of the ethos and structure of the newly-formed CPR mirrored the existing Confraternity of St James (not least the name), and some of the founding members, such as guidebook writer Alison Raju and former British Librarian Howard Nelson, were active Jacquards.
But the principles of the new group were quite distinct: the CPR was non-denominational, and its objective was to aid those making a pilgrimage to Rome by foot, bicycle or horse with practical help and information. ‘Pilgrim’ was intentionally used in the name to distinguish the CPR from a hiking group.
Although promoting all pilgrim ways to Rome, the CPR has in practice and over time come to focus almost exclusively on the historic Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome.
The target membership was and remains all English-speaking people, though currently some eight per cent of the membership is from non-Anglophone countries.
The CPR began informally, but within a year it had grown to 100 members and a special meeting was convened in March 2007 to establish a formal structure, and a constitution was drawn up by Howard Nelson and local government officer Ian Broderick, and a Steering Group was elected.
In its early days, the CPR concentrated on compiling and updating an accommodation list along the still largely uncharted Via Francigena. This list and the regular newsletters were available online in a section of the website for paying members only. In addition to its AGM, the CPR also held regular Practical Pilgrim Days and produced a small number of guidebooks. The website, created and managed by English language teacher Alison Milne, became a treasure trove of pilgrim information and stories.
Every new member was issued with a Pilgrim Passport. The initial membership fee was £10 for a year, or £30 for three years.
William Marques chaired the CPR until 2011 before handing over to another founding member, Yorkshireman and ex-civil servant Joe Patterson. Joe was one of the pioneers of the revived Via Francigena, having completed his journey to Rome on foot in 2001.
Joe chaired the CPR without introducing any major changes until 2015 when he handed over to journalist and author Brian Mooney who joined the group after having walked to Rome and back. Under Brian’s stewardship, the CPR revived its printed newsletter and rebuilt its website, and also began compiling a record of all completed journeys to Rome. Most importantly, the CPR was registered as a charity in 2019.
New Steering Group members included former journalist and editor Mary Kirk, who took over from Alison Raju as editor of the newsletter, and research student Julia Lewis, who injected revitalising energy into the Confraternity from her University City of Canterbury.
Treasurer Robert White, who works full time as a financial director for a major IT company, took over from founding Treasurer Alison Payne, and has since become the longest serving member of the Steering Group.
Membership of the CPR has increased steadily with the total joining since our foundation in excess of 1500, although a significant number lapse and active membership at any time is therefore considerably smaller. The different nationalities joining exceeds 25.
Brian stepped down in 2019 to hand over to Carlo Laurenzi, an experienced leader of charities and not-for-profit organisations. Carlo, himself also a veteran pilgrim walker, had taken on the task of overseeing the complex process of charity registration. Under his leadership the Steering Group was transformed into today’s Board of Trustees, and the CPR has embarked on a strategic programme to re-brand and expand.
Under Carlo’s leadership, the CPR forged a closer alliance with the EAVF (European Association of the Vie Francigene), and an agreement was also signed to collaborate with the FFVF (Fédération Française de la Via Francigena). 2019 saw the organisation of a pilgrim festival in Wye, Kent, and in 2022 Pilgrims to Rome won a much larger contract to deliver a five-day festival based in Canterbury and Dover. This latter won an international award from the EAVF in 2023. In the same period, the CPR also reached out to Danilo Parisi, the ferryman of the River Po, by raising funds from members across the world to buy a new launch to replace his boat that had been vandalised during lockdown in Italy. Brian Mooney, who had instigated the fundraising, attended a celebration for the new launch in Calendasco on behalf of the CPR.
Having guided the CPR through lockdown and Covid and on completion of five years, Carlo handed over the chair to Nick Dunne, a retired professional charity executive, in April 2023. Nick expanded the board and oversaw a major rebranding. The Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome simplified its name to Pilgrims to Rome and also unveiled a new logo based around the labyrinth, a traditional symbol of pilgrimage.