“Talk away girl,” says I to her. She kind of hesitated and then in an even softer voice she said: “Could I talk to you… privately.”
It was about half ten on Sunday, June 3. I had arrived in Lourdes the previous Friday evening with around 700 others from the Diocese of Cloyne on my eleventh successive June trip to the Marian shrine near the Pyrenees.
As our plane touched down at Tarbes airport, torrential thunder and rain cascaded from the heavens. I had travelled on the flight with our 83 Assisted Pilgrims along with nurses, doctors and Brancardiers (male helpers). We were on the seven mile journey into Lourdes within an hour — our lorry load of luggage and equipment went ahead of us.
We travelled a circuitous route into Lourdes — for a while I thought we were heading for Paris but fair play to the driver, he got us to the Accueil (Hospital) in jig-time.
No matter how often I visit this special place my heart always soars when I get a glimpse of the Basilica and Grotto — little did I think when I first came here as a child in the mid- 1960s that his blessed spot would bring me back so often.
The first night is ‘settling in’ night as we make all our guests in the Hospital comfortable. Many are regular visitors while this year was a first visit for several.
With cases unpacked, kitchens stocked and most of our Assisted Pilgrims enjoying their first sleep in Lourdes, four of us headed for the Agena Hotel. In time honoured fashion we stopped and prayed at the Crowned Virgin Statue and thanked Our Lady for bringing us all back to Lourdes once more.
A 7am start on the Saturday for a full and busy day, which ended after 10 pm that night at the conclusion of the Torchlight Procession.
Our opening Mass wasn’t until 10.30am so it was a nice, relaxed ‘getting up’ time of 8am for those in the Accueil. All of us helpers were on duty for half-past.
We met for the first time our 57 young helpers drawn from secondary schools across the diocese. These teenagers are a vital, vibrant part of each pilgrimage. They come to serve and help our Assisted Pilgrims and do so with such enthusiasm and joy that it is humbling to see. We hope that in three or four years time they may return to Lourdes as young adult helpers.
After our opening Mass we had the photograph on the Basilica steps then, after lunch, a Reconciliation service followed by the Passage through the Grotto for our Assisted Pilgrims.
Before lunch I paid my first visit of 2018 to the Heart of Lourdes — the Grotto — and as always I cannot contain my mixed emotions of joy, remembrance, and sadness for those departed... but most of all peace.
I must now confess that during the last decade of the Rosary at the end of the Torchlight Procession, a huddle of us were praying and at the same time getting updated by social media concerning the fortunes of the Cork hurlers against Limerick. A draw.
On the Sunday morning, four of us were going back to the Hospital for a cuppa after attending 9am English Mass in the Church of Sts Damian and Cosmos. Most of the 700 Cloyne Pilgrims were at the International Mass in the underground Basilica so the place was very quiet.
The three lads with me were into the lift to take us up to St Patrick’s Level on the first floor of the Accueil and I was just behind them when the stranger put her hand on my shoulder. The request to talk ‘privately’ seemed strange, as it did to my three friends, but I told them to carry on. This stranger then sat on one of the blue metal chairs we use for transporting people up and down in the lifts. I sat a few feet away.
She wore glasses on her small wrinkled face with her brownish hair tossed and tousled. She was dressed in a long blue garment, like a cross between a dress and a gown.
Why did I agree to talk, or rather listen to her? I don’t know, I don’t know — of course I had thoughts like ‘this is a scam — someone looking for money’ but there was something about her sad and troubled face that told me she was genuine. She had good English but with bouts of crying and pausing I just didn’t know what to make of her. She said she needed help, any kind, somewhere to stay for tonight.
I thought ‘What can I do?’ but I soon realised she mainly wanted to tell her story and for someone to listen. She was from the Netherlands but had left in December last year — she spoke of a difficult ‘home’ situation. She had got rid of her mobile phone and destroyed her passport. She said she journeyed to Lourdes by train, arriving before the New Year.
She cried inconsolably at times — you’d want to hug her but I was so aware of the situation I was in, here sitting with a woman I had never met before and no other person around.
As I listened to her disturbing story of how she lived in a tent in the hills above Lourdes near the City of the Poor, I just wasn’t sure was this truth or lies — she could be spinning an elaborate yarn to put me off my guard and fool me. Though this thought was flitting around in my mind, I was minded to ask her about her health and how had she lived here for nearly six months.
Her story was a troubled one. Though she was well travelled — she’d been to West Cork, worked in America and Scotland — she revealed she had mental and physical health problems. In her forties, death by starvation she told me was one route she had longed for — she’d lost several stone in weight living on water and sugar and some meals in the City of the Poor where no-one is refused sustenance, regardless of financial resources.
I listened for maybe 20 minutes whilst thinking all the time ‘Sure what can I do for her?’ She asked could she get a bed here in the Hospital for tonight? I said I didn’t think it was as simple as that — we had plenty empty beds alright but I knew the pre-booking and paperwork that was associated with arranging accommodation here.
I was racking my brain for some positive suggestion, rather than saying ‘I’m really sorry but there’s nothing I can do for you’ and disappearing into the lift, closing the door and forgetting about this person.
I suggested maybe she should visit the Information Centre just inside the Grotto gates. I knew the staff there dealt with all pilgrim queries. I brought out a wheelchair to take her but she declined, saying she’d find it hard to sit in such a vehicle. She said she’d link arms with me and again alarm bells sounded in my head — me walking with a woman I’d never met before. I asked her to sit on a seat in the sunshine while I went back inside with the wheelchair — in truth, I was thinking of just leaving her there and going about my Pilgrimage Duties.
Fifteen minutes later she was still sitting there. By now our Pilgrims were coming back from Mass so I decided I’d ask one of our female helpers to walk with me and this stranger. Caroline, a friend, was the fourth person I asked and she said she’d go with us.
Slowly, with me linking one arm and Caroline the other, we crossed the bridge and the Basilica square. We asked her many questions on that slow journey. Her name was Fiona. When we reached the Information Centre we all sat down. Fiona told us her surname. I’ve often criticised modern technology but not on this day! Within a few minutes of Caroline entering Fiona’s full name on her smartphone she looked at me with a sense of bewilderment . Fiona was on the Police Missing List. What she had told me was the truth — she had disappeared without trace last December.
Police, fire brigade and civil defence had been searching an area near the Sand Dunes in the Netherlands where her phone had last emitted a signal before Christmas. Fiona burst into tears when we showed her the material concerning her, her picture, a description of what she was wearing — all over the media in her home country.
The Information Centre brought a lovely Dutch priest to speak with Fiona. An Oblate priest, Fr Mark laughed when he saw my name badge “We have a Fr Jean Arnold, a French Oblate, here in Lourdes this week, hearing Confessions!”
The Red Cross and police were contacted and Fiona agreed to have the Dutch authorities and her family informed that she was alive. ‘She once was lost and now was found’.
I stayed with Fiona outside the Information Centre when it closed for lunch. Our Bishop, William Crean, passed and I asked him to bless this troubled woman. He gladly did —Fiona was overwhelmed that a Bishop walking by would have the time and the wish to help.
That afternoon, accommodation was arranged in a nearby Lebanese Convent for Fiona for a few nights so she could try and start to get her life together, and we bid farewell.
A remarkable story in a remarkable place.
Why did she touch me on the shoulder? Why did I ask Caroline to help?
Maybe just a series of coincidences, the right people in the right place at the right time… or could it be some kind of a miracle?