Lourdes, France – a major Catholic pilgrimage destination – is a one-of-a-kind kind of place. For me, that is for two good reasons:
- It is the site where the Virgin Mary appeared to young Bernadette, a country girl with no education but a lot of faith.
- My mother and sister are both named after that site, where the “Virgin of Lourdes” appeared to Bernadette.
I suspect both my mom and sister have always wondered if they would ever go to that town in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. Wouldn’t you want to go to the town where your name came from or is related to? In their case, maybe more than just for the curiosity of being namesakes with the town but also on account of what happened there in the mid 19th century.
The apparition happened multiple times and the local clergy had initially been skeptical but, over time, became convinced of the validity of what Bernadette shared. I will leave to other sources to explain the whole story but the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette on a grotto near the river. Out of these events, water sprung from the site and waters of Lourdes are, to believers, holy waters. People from all over the world come seeking healing or just a spiritual encounter. Many drink the waters from the spring, bottle some to take home, or even immerse themselves in special pools set up near the grotto (we did all three).
When we first arrived in Lourdes from San Sebastian via Biarritz and Bayonne, I was expecting the narrow streets, crowded and me driving this larger vehicle through it all. I knew I was near the hotel, the Grand Hotel Gallia & Londres, which I had picked due to its proximity to the Sanctuary of Lourdes to make all the walking to and fro easier for everyone, when all of a sudden I saw a parking sign for it, not where the GPS was indicating I needed to go. Miraculously (pardon the pun), I caught a passing glimpse of the sign before I would have hit the heart of the crowded part of town!
The hotel was in the old style of a grand hotel. It was nice enough but, unfortunately, the A/C was not working on our floor. Hard to tell with French hotels whether they are just being stingy or whether it was true. Certainly, at night the air cooled enough to be comfortable in the room but the noise from the street did not subside until the very wee hours of the morning – not the faithful partying, I am sure. So that made the hotel not perfect. But other than that, it did the job nicely enough.
We had dinner before heading in the early evening to the Sanctuary, the site with the grotto and several churches/basilicas, almost across the street from the hotel. We knew there would be a torchlight procession at 9PM where the Holy Rosary is recited but we did not quite know the ‘mechanics’ of it. So we sat on a bench to wait and what we missed was that we were supposed to walk towards the grotto and join the procession line. But we witnessed the procession which brought a statue of the Virgin to the front steps of the Rosary Basilica (the lower one; the upper one that one sees more evidently is the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, or the Upper Basilica). In the meantime, we did walk to the grotto for our first visit to the spot where the apparition took place. The line was very short and it was always moving so it did not take long before we got to visit and say our prayers and intentions…
The next day, we had found out at the information center (located by one of the entrances to the complex) that there would be a Spanish Mass at 11 AM down the Esplanade at St. Joseph’s Chapel. After attending that Mass we went into the underground Basilica of St. Pius X, a massive modern space completed in 1958 (it can hold 25,000 folk!). I am not sure it is the type of church I feel most spiritual in but I suppose there is a need for it in this site?
We finished our exploring by visiting the Rosary Basilica and the Upper Basilica. After that we went to the baths (or piscines) where one can immerse him- or herself in the holy spring waters. One waits in an outdoor area (with plenty of seats!) and then eventually one gets called in to a vestibule awaiting the assignment of to one of the pools, where one will undress and be wrapped as preparation to walking into the pool. The water was absolutely frigid so the miracle may be that I was able to walk out of the pool and that my legs regained normal body temperature! All joking aside, it was a very moving experience and we are grateful to the kind and helpful volunteers who give of themselves to help pilgrims…
Witnessing so many people wearing their faith ‘on their sleeve’ was powerful. Our trip was actually not just due to curiosity, or even strictly to see a place where an important event in our faith took place. Our trip was a real pilgrimage of thanksgiving and prayer for continued health in my family after a year-and-a-half of dealing with cancer… The grotto and the holy waters of Lourdes carry a very special meaning for us, even more now that we have been so fortunate to visit this place…
Pin to your travel board!!