Published February 15, 2007
The Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is hosting a “virtual pilgrimage” of the town of Lourdes, France, on Sunday, March 4, enabling Georgians to experience the spiritual essence of this oasis of prayer and healing that draws an estimated 6 million pilgrims annually from around the world.
Father Regis-Marie de la Teyssonniere, Lourdes chaplain of honor who oversaw for nine years roughly 8,000 international volunteers on hand yearly at Lourdes to assist pilgrims and now chaplain at the Notre Dame of Paris Cathedral, will speak at the service and describe images shown in a slide show. He is stopping in Atlanta as part of his travels worldwide on behalf of the bishop of Lourdes, from India and Africa to Chile and Costa Rica, leading up to the 150th anniversary celebration, beginning Dec. 8, of the Virgin Mary’s 18 apparitions in Lourdes in 1858 to a poor, sickly girl named Bernadette Soubirous.
Marlene Watkins is the founder and executive director of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers, a three-year-old public association of the Christian faithful affiliated with the Arch-Confraternity of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality in Lourdes. The group leads pilgrimages for volunteers to assist the thousands of pilgrims in search of physical and spiritual healing visiting the grotto of Massabielle and spring near where Mary appeared. It also sponsors virtual pilgrimages around the country.
Before leaving her Syracuse office for Lourdes to mark the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes on Feb. 11, Watkins said that the virtual event is an ideal opportunity for those who have always wanted to visit Lourdes or are unable to travel there due to illness, as well as for those interested in making a pilgrimage. The 90-minute Shrine event will include a rosary, music and a eucharistic blessing. At Lourdes from April to October a eucharistic procession with a blessing of the sick is held daily in the open-air altar along the “prairie” near the grotto leading to the Underground Basilica of St. Pius X. There, an international Mass is also celebrated for some 25,000 on Sundays, a rosary is prayed daily at the grotto and a torch-lit Marian procession is held daily at 9 p.m. Currently 30 permanent chaplains and five orders of sisters serve at Lourdes. Participants at the Atlanta service can touch and pray at pieces of stone from the grotto that were removed to make passage for wheelchairs. They can touch bowls of water from the grotto just as pilgrims in the village splash the anodyne water upon themselves or drink it from the spring, and bathe in it at the men’s and women’s bathhouses.
Recently four virtual pilgrimages were held in Miami and Boca Raton, Fla., which drew about 1,000 people each night. Watkins said many expressed a sense of being spiritually uplifted. “They said ‘I really felt like I went to Lourdes, like I was immersed in it.’ They really feel they got the spiritual essence of a visit to Lourdes. They got to experience the spiritual highlights without the travel. A lot of people were crying, saying, ‘I’m so grateful to be here.’ We’re really pleased there is such a warm response to this. People really do respect the Mother of God.”
Lourdes is a town of about 15,000, by which the Gave River flows. St. Bernadette’s family lived there and had become extremely poor after her father had a work accident; she suffered from cholera and tuberculosis and was unable to read or write. But as she reported to the church, Mary appeared to her at the grotto, speaking about the necessity of prayer and penance for the conversion of people and asking for a chapel to be built there and for a procession to be held. She said that Mary asked her to go drink and wash at the spring. But as she didn’t see any water nearby, Mary directed her to dig under a rock where she found a small spring of muddy water. The next month a woman plunged her dislocated arm into the spring water and regained movement. By the 14th visit Bernadette’s encounter with Mary drew about 3,000 people.
Mary’s request that a chapel be built at the grotto by the spring was fulfilled, with “la Basilique du ‘Immaculée Conception’” built by 1872. In 1866 Bernadette joined the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. She died by the age of 35, and her body lies at the Convent of St. Gildard at Nevers. Devotion under the title of Our Lady of Lourdes was authorized and a Feb. 11 feast day commemorating the apparitions was instituted by Pope Leo XII.
Watkins first visited Lourdes on a trip to Europe where she had a faith-deepening and spiritually healing experience that led her to return the next year with two sick women who also experienced healing there. She saw the need for more Americans to go and the next year brought 10 women, and was then asked by the president of the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality to “go bring more Americans.” Before that only about 30 American volunteers had come annually. So in 2000 she founded North American Volunteers, which facilitates the admission and training processes of volunteers as well as travel and sanctuary accommodations, with the tax deductible cost of the trip at $1,395 including airfare, ground transportation, modest rooms with shared bathrooms on each floor, and all meals. Last year the organization led a total of 675 people, with all groups accompanied by a priest. It is also renovating a large house purchased for boarding volunteers and raising money to pay off its interest-free loan.
The majority of workers are volunteers who speak the official languages of Italian, English, French, German and Spanish, and there is a great need for English speakers as more who speak English as a second language now come from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Male volunteers typically assist sick pilgrims at the train station, getting around the grounds, and at the male bathhouses. Women volunteers are largely needed to assist the sick in the female bathhouses and in hospitals and elsewhere.
Pope John Paul II journeyed there in August 2004, the last year of his life. He celebrated Mass at the Marian grotto and said that he, too, was a sick pilgrim and asked for all present to be lifted into the arms of the Blessed Mother. He said that as Mary asked St. Bernadette to recite the rosary, “this grotto has thus become a unique school of prayer where Mary teaches everyone to gaze with burning love upon the face of Christ.”
Watkins sees how many receive spiritual, emotional and physical healing there, including many women who have lost a sense of purity and have struggled, whether through physical abuse, abortion or another trauma.
“She is perfection. She is the model of purity. She’s the solution for people who’ve had issues with purity.”
Watkins has found that infirm pilgrims there, including those near death, find peace and God’s love in their suffering. There have been 67 confirmed miracles of healings, with thousands of official claims being processed for certification.
“Nobody leaves Lourdes without a grace that God gives them. Either they are cured, or they have the grace to endure what it is they are suffering from. They find God in it. Most of the sick people here are smiling and beaming and are joyful,” she reflected. “It’s not just a resignation to God’s will but an embrace of God’s will.”
And many Protestants and non-Christians visit Lourdes as well, she has witnessed, drawn to this loving Mother out of curiosity or respect.
“They might be afraid of their own life and experience of Christ on the cross and she takes them to the cross.”
Watkins reported that they have new volunteers this year from St. John’s University in New York and from U.S. military stationed in Europe and on the West Coast. They have an increased number of pilgrims this year, including on an annual trip in October for sick persons who need special assistance from health-care providers while traveling. A trip is scheduled to depart from Atlanta Sept. 7-17.
Atlantan Pete Marsala is helping to organize and host the Shrine event, having been inspired to participate in pilgrimages to Lourdes after seeing Watkins speak about it on the EWTN network. He was overwhelmed at Lourdes where he experienced God’s love profoundly within and saw the great faith of thousands of other pilgrims and caregivers. “People in this country are not exposed to that kind of goodness and devotion. The place is staffed almost completely by volunteers. It’s just a remarkable place … a very spiritual, prayerful environment.”
A retired 25-year police officer in New York and father of three, he will take one of his grandsons and other youth on a trip to Lourdes this June.
“I wanted him to see things he has not regularly been exposed to in his everyday life. God has blessed him with good health and strength and vigor. I wanted him to experience another part of life and also the universality of the church, to see that there are people from all over the world who have the same faith that he does.”
Last year he went with a group of nine from the archdiocese and said that they served six of the eight days. On most trips one day is free and another involves orientation and training. There is also personal time daily. He is pleased to see that in the last few years more Americans have volunteered alongside the Europeans and added that “last year (the Atlanta group) was mentioned on three different occasions during the international Mass, rosary procession and eucharistic procession.”
Marsala, who has a brother with a neurological disease, has learned the importance of speaking directly with love and respect to even the most gravely ill person rather than talking to a caregiver about the individual. “I learned from Father Duguay, the chaplain, that we just have to talk to them like they are people. Just one word or smile to people or a gentle touch can change their whole expression and seems to bring them to life.”
He affirmed that he has also learned as a volunteer to be more patient and obedient in doing what he’s asked to do, adding delicately that “the French have a particular way about them, and I said (to myself) maybe Lourdes is in France for a reason.”
He’s always had a special devotion to Mary and felt her comfort and intercession to God, and “every prayer I’ve ever prayed for that’s not selfish I’ve had answered. I believe it’s because of my realization that because she has a spiritual connection with God it’s possible for me to have that as well.”
His first trip to Lourdes was as a way to thank God for his many blessings. He now hopes to share with others through the Shrine virtual pilgrimage the blessings of Lourdes that led him to be involved in more service to Atlanta’s Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where he now serves on the parish council.
“I wound up receiving more than I gave, and it just makes me want to give more,” he said. “Hopefully by bringing it to other people it will bring something to their life as well because it has been a life-changing experience for me.”