Now, I’m not complaining because it isn’t for a sun tan or the likes one goes to Lourdes — especially at this time of year. Since my first venture there as a small child I have returned 19 more times. Last week was my 20th visit to the town that nestles under the Pyrenees mountains in the south of France. Of all those trips, 19 have been since 2007 when, after a ‘break’ of 40 years, I went back.
This night week I was at the Grotto for about an hour after my 7pm supper in the Spanish Convent on Rue de Bagneres. The walk from the Convent takes about 20 minutes, a bit longer on the way back as it’s mainly uphill.
A group of six Spanish priests stayed two nights in the Convent while I was there. They were on retreat and ate their meals in silence, with one of their number taking turns to read passages from The Lives Of The Saints — in Spanish of course.
On Thursday night, as I walked back to my lodgings, I was accompanied by one of the priests, a man of about 70. He had no English and I had no Spanish so as we trekked back up the dark, empty streets of Lourdes, we just walked and walked with no talk. Snowflakes began to fall softly as we crossed the main square in Lourdes.
I felt sorry for the schoolchildren the following morning. Across the street from the Convent is a primary school and last Friday morning it was snowing heavily in Lourdes. Their classes start around 7.45am so when I got up just after 7am they were arriving. They still seemed as jolly, happy and chatty as ever as they trooped in through the snow-covered yard in semi-darkness.
Classes go on until noon, then they have a break til 1.30pm and back to their studies until 5.30pm or 6pm. They come and go home from school in darkness.
I had arrived in Lourdes mid-morning on Tuesday. After checking in with the Convent staff I set off down to the Domain. Strange, isn’t it, I nearly know these streets better now than Patrick Street in Cork!
From the square it’s onto Rue de la Grotte — oh yes, just at the corner is a terrific Pattiserie, even in Lourdes temptation is present.
The first street on the right is Rue de Petits Fosses where the Cachot is — from whence Bernadette Soubirious set out on a snowy morning in February, 1858, to gather firewood.
Next on the right is Rue de Bourg, then Rue de Fort up to the castle, then on top of the hill to the left are Rue des Pyrenees and Rue de Foucald. After that it’s down the hill with the Poor Clare convent on the right, over the bridge and on down to St Joseph’s gate and into the Domain itself.
Since 2007, I must have walked these streets a hundred times. Yet there is something very special each time about going down that last slope and seeing the Crowned Virgin statue once more.
Each year on the evening of June 5, a group of us who help with the Cloyne Pilgrimage stand before that statue, hold hands and promise Our Lady that we’ll come back again if we are able to do so. So on Tuesday of last week I was thrilled to be back.
It was quiet, very quiet as I walked across the huge square, which is thronged with thousands every day from March until October. Then the Grotto comes into sight and a smile, a big ‘thank you’ and a rush of adrenalin which is hard to describe.
In that initial moment each time I visit, so many thoughts and images come tumbling down the corridors of my memory. This is a place that sees a lot of pain and suffering as people broken from disease, ill health and injury come seeking help, health and healing. Despite all that, this special place we call Lourdes is no valley of tears. It’s here humanity and Christianity come to the fore.
On Friday last I went to an English Mass in the Church of St Marie John Vianney at 9am. I’d left the Convent at 8am to trod carefully through the streets where the snow was lying. We had a congregation of about 20, including Frank from Longford who I’d met while waiting for the bus at the airport on Tuesday — Frank knew the late Dr William Arnold (a third cousin once removed) of Gowna, Co. Cavan — yes ’tis a very small world.
The reading at Mass that morning was from the Prophet Daniel, all about his dream of encountering four awful, horrendous, terrible beasts —really frightening stuff. About an hour later at the Grotto I heard the same reading when a priest leading a small English-speaking pilgrimage celebrated Mass.
That evening in the Poor Clare Church at 5pm Mass, for the third time I heard the reading — it was in French this time but still every bit as frightening!
The priest at the Grotto Mass told us that decades ago, scientists and professors from the Sorbonne in Paris took away many samples of Lourdes water to test it for ‘secret’ or ‘healing’ ingredients. He said they discovered nothing and all the ‘experts’ came to the conclusion that the secret ingredient of Lourdes water was simply faith — that indefinable, indescribable mystery. Maybe having mysteries in life isn’t a bad thing at all — mystery, awe, wonder and hope are a mighty potent mixture.
I climbed the High Stations on Wednesday. The morning was silent save for the tinkling of bells worn around the neck by four horses grazing on the slopes near the Stations. Amazingly, in 11 years coming on June Pilgrimage, I’d never done the High Stations in the summer time —we always seemed too busy with other duties.
As I began the Stations by kneeling barefoot on each of the wet marble steps, I thought of many who’d been here before. In 1996, just a few weeks before she died, Mam had trod these very steps. Tom Roche of Conna always led a group up her, usually on June 5. I thought too of Tony O’Brien, Jim Conway, Jack Foley and Pat Hickey — ah yes, in Lourdes in November there’s plenty time for thoughts and prayer too.
Despite the snowy conditions there must have been a few lads out trapping or snaring rabbits this day week around Lourdes. On my way to Mass each morning I usually spent 15 minutes just walking around the Market. Friday was the first morning that I saw ‘lapin’ — rabbit, on sale, for around €10 a kilo. They had pig’s feet, tails and ears but ne’er a half a pig’s head on offer. The French love their cooking and things like foie gras, pate, terrine and confit were on many stalls and jelly — well, they’re mad for anything jellied, from eels to quails eggs.
Friday was my last full day in Lourdes so I went on a special ‘pilgrimage’ in Lourdes. I called to the Poor Clare Convent and Sister Fatima, the door-keeper, gave me the key of the Community cemetery.
I spent about an hour in the little burial-ground amongst the snow covered graves. I went from one to another looking at the names of the 72 Sisters interred there. Just one I knew — Sister Marie Therese O’Connell from Mallow who died in June, 2015. Since the 1880s, the Poor Clare nuns have been buried here — some died very young, a few in their thirties. Sr Marie Therese lived to be 92. She’d come here before I was born in the mid-1950s and never went home. She was small in stature with darting, laughing, happy eyes. When she spoke in French, she had the tones of Paris and the grammar of Toulouse but when she spoke in English her lilting Cork accent belied the fact that she’d left the banks of her own lovely Lee so many decades previously.
The Baths were closed for renovations and while I was there last week a lot of flood prevention work was going on. You could never imagine that the Gave river could flood! It barely murmurs this time of year but when the snow melts after May it can become a raging torrent.
I left Lourdes on Saturday last but before my departure I went for a final visit to the Grotto, a last prayer, a little wave... it was so good to be there.