John Arnold: Back at Lourdes at last, and the tears rolled down my cheeks

A regular visitor to Lourdes, the pandemic had kept John Arnold away... until now
John Arnold: Back at Lourdes at last, and the tears rolled down my cheeks

REVERED: The Our Lady of Lourdes window made by Irishman Harry Clarke

I ONLY sang three songs in Lourdes last week - I mean on my own, ’cause at Mass and at the Grotto, the ‘Lourdes Ave’ was always on my lips.

Yes, just three times I sang - in a cemetery, a restaurant and a convent.

It was my first visit there in the month of October – I must be nearing 30 trips to Lourdes now since my first one, back I think, in 1971.

For the first time ever, on a non-pilgrimage journey, I was able to fly direct from Dublin to Tarbes Airport outside Lourdes, which was a very pleasant experience. In Lourdes from Monday until Saturday of last week I had a wonderful time.

Before I went, a friend asked me what would I do for five days all on my own? Praying and walking - and very little talking was my ‘master’ plan, in fairness it worked out well.

I had a few ‘wow’ moments, a few ‘chance’ encounters – I ate chicken gizzards for the first time since the last century! And, most of all, I had time to think and soak up the very special experience that is Lourdes.

The sun was still high in the sky when we landed at Tarbes at 4.30pm. Normally there’s a very good bus service into the town but last Monday week something went awry and it was a full hour before it came. About 20 of us were waiting in the queue. A man spoke to me, Irish obviously, and said he recalled meeting me here at this same bus stop in December maybe seven or eight years ago.

A native of Granard, now living in Portmarnock he had worked for An Post so on our initial meeting he recalled the closure of our Post Office -over 30 years ago. He told me they have a home here in France also - between Lourdes and Cauterez. He’s a regular visitor and said the weather had been exceptionally mild and warm all during October.

I’d a spring in my step as I walked from the bus station in Lourdes to my ‘lodgings’ in the Spanish Convent on Rue de Bagneures. Just after 6.30pm, so in plenty time for the supper at 7pm.

Most of the Sisters are Spanish natives – Sr Gloria, whom I met over ten years ago, is now in a convent in the USA. They have little or no English, but that’s usually comical rather than problematic!

A Spanish family of three girls and their parents and one other Spanish lady were all that shared the dining room with me that evening - the convent can cater for up to 75 pilgrims.

I counted the steps from the convent door to the gate of the Domain, 1,140 - nearly a mile, my ‘holy mile’ I dubbed the journey.

Two ‘views’ in Lourdes are really hard to describe, the first is the Crowned Virgin Statue just below the gate. On arrival, it’s really the first glimpse of this special place and on leaving it’s the last thing one sees. Can a statue be welcoming? Of course, and it’s like getting a big hug, a ‘cead mile failte’, and ‘delighted to see you back once more’.

It was nearly 8pm and a good few people were around, coming and going. Then that walk of anticipation across the vast square, under the arches and through the 32 trees, then round the corner to the Grotto, the second ‘view’.

As always, tears of happiness and joy and a hundred other emotions. Great to be back here again.

As I sat and prayed and gazed at the Statue in the rocky niche, the faces of departed Lourdes friends came into my mind. Some had died too young, some had long lives, others had suffered so much, and others had came here so often as helpers down the years.

As the tears rolled down my cheeks, all those friends seemed to smile at me and say ‘John, it’s great to see you here’.

I went across the river to light candles - initially, I was upset when the candle burners were moved from just alongside the actual Grotto across the Gave, but now I think it’s so fitting to light a remembrance candle and look across at Massabiele.

A few weeks back, I’d taken stones from my mother’s and grandmother’s graves and promised Our Lady and St Bernadette to bring them here in return for a special request, which was granted. Tonight, in thanksgiving I put those two stones in the river Gave near the place where Bernadette last gazed at the Grotto before leaving for Nevers.

Walking to the 9am English Mass on Tuesday, I was saddened to see the signs ‘Sortie’ (Closed) and ’a Vendre’ (For Sale) on the Barzu Salon de The. In winter visits over the last decade, this little café had become one of my favourite haunts, for maybe an expresso in the morning, a sandwich at noon, or a baguette with cheese in the evening - closed because of Covid I learned.

We had two African priests in the Chapel of St John Vianney with a song-full congregation of about 30.

After Mass I did the High Stations on the hill overlooking the town. One commences by kneeling on each of the 30 white marble steps at First Station. Often, in November or December, these same steps would be cold and wet, but they were grand and dry today.

After Mass I had a coffee at The Little Flower, where the staff know us all from Cork. The ‘full immersion’ baths are not in use because of the pandemic. Instead, one washes your hands, then face, and then drinks the water poured from a jug - different but still what Our Lady asked... ‘tell the people to go and wash there’.

Later, I went to the cachot - the disused prison from where Bernadette walked to the Grotto on February 11, 1858.

Before I attended the 5pm Mass at the Poor Clares, I walked in the Meadow across from the Grotto. The leaves were falling but ‘twas like walking on a carpet of crisps - the leaves are so dry and the ground so warm, as if someone had emptied hundreds of bags of Taytos on the ground! There’s just a small community in the poor Clare convent -maybe 15 Sisters, but they have voices like Angels - I stayed on for an hour after Mass was over, and spent Tuesday night at the Grotto.

I walked the two and a half miles out to Bartres next morning. Up hill and down dale and then the little village comes into view. Here Bernadette spent two ‘terms’ as an infant and as a young girl from the autumn of 1857 until January, 1858.

The little Church - Mass there only once a month now - is tiny and dark inside but so peaceful. It was very warm by 11am.

As usual, I went for lunch to the Bergonettes Restaurant. On my last visit in December, 2019, Mme. Bergonettes was very ill, just sitting by the bar - still welcoming patrons in her inimitable way, but relying on an oxygen bottle to breathe.

Her daughter told me she died in November - we both cried as I recalled the ‘femme tres jolie et tres bien’.

As the family and staff had their lunch, I sang a song for them to remember a special lady. After the soup and cheese courses the next up was a warm salad of eggs, lettuce, tomatoes and fried sliced chicken gizzards. I remember eating them as a child but they never tasted as good as in Bartres last Wednesday!

Back in Lourdes in the afternoon, I got the key of the Poor Clare cemetery to pay my respects to Mallow-born Sr Marie Therese O Connell, who died in June, 2015. Having spent most of her life here, she loved Lourdes but never forgot Cork, so at her graveside I sang ‘de Banks’ - she was mad about that song.

Two more of her companions have died since, Sr Marie Bernadette in 2019 and Sr Marie Bernarde in 2020.

After Rosary at the Grotto at 3pm, I visited the cemetery where Bernadette’s parents and siblings are buried. On Thursday I took the bus to Cauterez. Very quiet this year, no snow yet so the skiing hasn’t started.

In the Spanish Convent, Sr Annunciata has no English but a great sense of humour, so in the mornings she’d greet me ‘Buenos Dias senor’ and I’d reply ‘Conas ta tu fein ar maidin?’ then ‘por favour muchas gracias’ and ‘ta an la go brea’!

After I sang a farewell song on Thursday night, she looked at my GAA club face mask and said: “Hockey et futbal?” So I tried to explain about the GAA and hurling. “Oh yes,” says I, “we won the East Cork Football last Sunday.” “No comprehende,” says she, so I took the big silver soup dish and held it up over my head and I began ‘Ta an athas an corn seo a ghlacadh…’

A knowing glance came across her visage. “Ah, si Coupe du Monde, et Ronaldo,”. She thought we’d won the World Cup.

“Well, not exactly,” says I, “but young Hogan got two great goals for us!” Oh lads, Lourdes for the prayers, the joy and the fun.

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