2:07 pm

Pilgrimage to Lourdes

My excursion the second week of Easter vacation was a trip to Lourdes; Lourdes is about 6 hours out of Paris via the TGV.

Now, I should say at the outset that Our Lady of Lourdes is not in fact one of my particularly favorite devotions. As far as Marian apparitions go, I’m much more of a Fatima (and rosary) girl, and I toyed with the idea of going to Portugal instead. But my “home” parish is Our Lady of Lourdes in Oakland, and it seemed silly not to take advantage of the opportunity to visit its namesake.

I arrived on Wednesday, April 18, and stayed, at the Hôtel Saint Etienne, until Sunday the 22nd. The Saint Etienne is very convenient to the sanctuaries, just a five minute walk away from the Porte of St. Michael, and the staff were all very pleasant and helpful. It’s also cheap and correspondingly shabby. Clean, mind, but it could seriously do with some fresh paint and new carpets & bedding.

The Pilgrimage

I visited the sanctuaries Wednesday evening to check out the visitor information center and just generally get the lay of the land. The grotto and the Basilicas of the Immaculate Conception and of the Rosary are easy enough to identify, of course, but there’s also the (underground) Basilica of St. Pius X, the Church of St. Bernadette, various chapels, receptions centers, meeting rooms, residences, special facilities for the sick (though no hospital per se), a Way of the Cross on the hillside and another in the prairie, and a “Water Walk” (cf the map of the sanctuaries on the second page).

I had arrived in time to see the 5 PM Blessed Sacrament Procession, which is followed by the Blessing of the Sick. Hundreds of people, most of them either in wheelchairs or even gurneys or else pushing them, following the Sacrament from the meadow alongside the river to the Basilica of St. Pius X. I didn’t join, but just watched them pass.

The Baths

During the “Pilgrim Season” (roughly April 1 through October 31), the baths are open daily from 9 to 11 AM and again from 2:30 to 4:00 PM (except on Sundays and feast days, when they’re open only in the afternoon). So, somewhat naively, I showed up at 9 AM on Thursday morning to find that they were already full up for the morning; the attendant suggested coming back at 1:00 to be sure of getting in for the afternoon.

Instead, I came back Friday morning. This time, I left my hotel at a little after 8 AM, getting to the baths at about 8:15. The “holding pen” was about half full, and was indeed completely full and late-comers were being turned away by about 8:45. (The sick at Lourdes on medical pilgrimage have their own entrance and schedules, although they’re still bound by the opening times.) I suspect that if this had been the “high” pilgrim season, even arriving at 8:15 would have been too late.

A large group of Italian women had been among the first to arrive; they passed the waiting time in praying the Rosary. This provoked some mild, good-natured disdain among the French: they had no problem with the Rosary, mind, but they disapproved of the Italians praying aloud and disturbing the others who might have preferred to pray or meditate silently. “But that’s Italians for you”, murmured the attendant.

At 9 AM, proceedings opened with a prayer, and the ambulatory medical pilgrims were admitted to the baths while a first group of women was moved to the benchs lining the outer walls of the baths and the rest of us snaked forwarded among the rows of benches. As women left the baths, the women from the benches outside the walls moved inside, and more women were moved to fill their vacated benches, and rest of us repeating the snaking bit.

When my turn came to take a seat on one of the benches outside the baths, one of the attendants struck up a conversation. She had noticed that I had picked up an English leaflet (they’re color-coded, which made it easy to spot), and asked if I were Irish or English. When I said that, no, I’m American, she wanted to know from where; from California, I said. -Where in California? -Oakland. Turns out she’s from Burlingame, spending a few weeks in Lourdes as a volunteer.

On entering the building, we found yet another row of benches lining the inside walls, facing a row of cubicles. The middle one was especially wide, and that was the one used, though not exclusively, by those in wheelchairs or gurneys. And we waited some more.

I finally made it into one of the cubicles. Stations for six, with chairs and hooks and shelves for clothing and other possessions, and six attendants were there. Another curtain separated this dressing room from the bath itself. One of the attendants took charge of me (the others being preoccupied with their own charges) and directed me to an empty station. She held a big blue cape around me while I undressed and fastened the cape for me from behind when I was done, plucked my glasses from the shelf and put them back on, and handed me my bra. The bath was empty right now, she told me, so I could go right in.

Passing through the curtain, I found three more attendants. One of the women, who seemed to be the “lead” attendant, took my bra from me and held the cape while the other two wrapped a thin, damp white towel around me and then the cape was removed. The bath itself was grey stone, set in the floor with steps leading in, and with a small statue of Our Lady at the far end. They guided me in, one attendant holding each arm. The water was icy: not just cold, but downright frigid. I had been expecting cold, but not like this, and I was startled into letting out a yelp. This was not an unusual response, but neither was it entirely acceptable, and I was gently shushed.

While I stood on the first step, trying to adjust to the water temperature, the lead attendant reminded me that I might want to pray. Oh, right: that’s why I’m standing in this ice bath. The other two attendants guided me down the next step and further into the bath; the water was a little over knee deep. Would I like to kneel or sit, the lead attendant asked, or maybe kiss Our Lady’s statue. I settled for a quick genuflection before kissing Our Lady’s statue. Once I rose, they turned me around and led me out. They were very careful about not letting go of me: they take no chances on anyone slipping and falling.

The blue cape came back out and the towel vanished, and my bra went back on and was fastened. They’re very practiced at this, and they were done before I even quite realized what they were about. (I think my brain was still frozen!) I returned to the dressing room, where my attendant once again held the cape around me while I dressed. Throughout, the attendants were very careful about protecting the modesty of the women in the baths: I don’t think the most self-conscious of women could find any cause to blush.

When I left the baths, it was 10:30.

Candlelight Procession

Scattered about the grounds of the sanctuaries are stations holding candles and paper “cages” to protect the flame; the candles sold on the grounds cost 1€. You can also find candles at the gift shops; those candles are 0.50€. The paper cages for the sanctuaries’s candles are gold, while the those from the gift shops are white, so it’s easy to distinguish between the frugal and those willing to spend the extra money to support the sanctuaries.

The procession is led by porters carrying an statue of Our Lady in an illuminated box, flanked by other porters carrying torches. While the schedule says that the procession starts at the Grotto, in practice, it appears to start from the foot of the esplanade. It goes out toward the Porte of St. Michael and loops back around to Rosary Square. Some of those in the procession are in wheelchairs; I didn’t notice any gurneys. There are also lots of canes and crutches. Some people carry two candles, presumably on behalf of someone who can’t be present or sometimes for someone who can’t manage both crutches and a candle. Once the statue gets to Rosary Square, the crowd is held back until the statue reaches the portico of the Basilica of the Rosary, and then the crowd is allowed to fill Rosary Square.

Many of the groups of pilgrims have banners; the banner bearers also take their final positions on the portico of the Basilica.

The Rosary is prayed during the procession. Each decade is announced with a brief meditation in each of the six languages of Lourdes (French, Italian, Spanish, English, German, and Dutch*). The Our Father and Gloria are prayed in Latin, while the Hail Marys are prayed in different languages (i.e., the first five Hail Marys of the first decade are in French, the next five in Italian, with the first five of the second decade in English, and the second five in German, etc.). A hymn follows each decade: mostly it’s a hymn that’s sung to the tune we use in English for Immaculate Mary, and the refrain (“Ave, ave, ave Maria; Ave, ave, Maria”) is the same. At the refrain, the procession pauses, and everyone raises their candles. This gesture in particular moved me near to tears each time. It takes until about the end of the third decade or beginning of the fourth for the statue to reach its destination. The crowd is dismissed at the end with the Kiss of Peace. I found it all immensely touching. Indeed, it was immensely more moving than the bath, which after all is a largely solitary experience. I think that Our Lady must be pleased.

*Aside: I understand the other five languages, but how did Dutch get in there? I wouldn’t have thought of the Netherlands as an origin for Marian pilgrims.

The Water

I don’t think that “fetish” is too strong a word to use to describe the attitudes of some of the visitors to the water. At the taps, I saw some people with four and six 5-liter bottles to fill with water. In my literal-minded way, my first thought was “How are they going to get all that home”? Not to mention “What are they going to do with all that water”? In some cases, I’m sure they were collecting water for family and friends, but still…

I think that those who run the sanctuaries are also concerned about the possibilities of excessive devotion to the waters themselves. The little leaflet I picked up at the baths makes the point that

You can have a wonderful pilgrimage without going to the baths. Bernadette only washed her face (the miror of the soul) and drank “a little water”.

The deep meaning of the water of Lourdes is inscribed above the place where the taps are located:


They also have a Water Walk alongside the river, opposite the Grotto. Each of the nine stations of this water walk focuses on a different scriptural passage related to water.

But yes, I did bring home some water: I bought & filled a little bottle that holds about one fluid ounce.

The Movie

They don’t show Song of Bernadette at Lourdes (at least, not on a regular basis). Rather there’s a French movie that covers much the same ground, Bernadette. There’s a little movie theater near the sancturies that shows it several times a day. It’s a little sappy, but more authentic than Song…. There’s a sequel, Passion of Bernadette, that covers her life in the convent. I would have liked to see that one, too, but it’s only shown a couple of times a week, and I managed to miss both showings. Apparently, Lourdes pilgrims lose interest in Bernadette once the apparitions are over.

Sightseeing, Etc.

Within about a 1/2 mile radius of the sanctuaries, there’s little beyond gift shops, hotels, cafes, and the usual tourist traps. Once you escape that half mile, though, Lourdes appears to be quite normal and really very charming. I took the Tourist Train to get a feel for the town, and visited the Chateau Fort with its Pyrenean Museum as well as the Pic du Jer with its funicula.

I also found a truly superb restaurant, Le Magret. I had been looking for something regional and non-touristy and this definitely fit the bill. While I was there, they were offering a foie gras menu: 7 courses (I think), all featuring foie gras de canard, even the ice cream and dessert. Yes, you can make ice cream out of foie gras, and it was amazing. The waiter was a Basque and entirely charming.


And here’s a little slideshow (this will open in a new window).

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