BOYNTON BEACH | Pilgrims travel thousands of miles to Lourdes each year and bring back wonderful stories. And now that I am back from travels to the place where Our Lady dispenses her favors, I have my own personal story to share about the unexpected found around every corner there that I witnessed and will never forget.
If you need a miracle, Lourdes is the place to go. Five million pilgrims visit each year and, believe it or not, Church authorities have recognized more than 60 miraculous cures linked to the water there.
“I was graced with a beautiful and awesome opportunity to participate in a pilgrimage to Lourdes,” said Sister Maria Liber of the Little Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, who serves St. Vincent Ferrer Parish and School in Delray Beach. “Lourdes radiates a special appeal to pilgrims. It is a unique meeting place for Christian revival of faith. For the sick (it is a place) of hope for recovery or comfort. For suffering hearts (Lourdes is) a reason to hope.”
Lourdes in southwest France is known for its Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes with a grotto, where Catholics believe Mary appeared in 1858 to St. Bernadette, who is my confirmation saint. The Marian destination has been on my bucket list for years, and to walk the grounds where my role-model saint walked and to touch a first-class relic, an actual body part, of the soul now in heaven was a blessing and dream come true.
Immediately entering the sanctuary gates, one can sense something holy about the place, where Jesus’ healing miracles continue to take place now in Lourdes through the intercession of his mother. Thousands of people stroll the grounds of walkways. The people wear native clothing and tote banners and flags representing various countries of the world. Scores of priests, seminarians and religious women and men are among the crowd, as well as the sick, suffering and dying.
The air is filled with the sounds of church bells ringing out the song Ava Maria, and groups gather in rosary prayer while others attend Mass in the many churches, chapels and basilicas and near the grotto.
Anita Halligan, a member of St. Jude Parish in Tequesta, visited Lourdes in 2005 and her life changed forever. Halligan is a “cradle Catholic,” baptized and raised in the Catholic Church. But as life took twists and turns, her faith became lukewarm and then, after some hard times, she strayed. Her visit to Lourdes was a vacation for relaxing the body, much different from a pilgrimage focused on the soul.
“I wasn’t really practicing as a Christian at the time,” she said. “I saw the people praying at Lourdes. I saw the people in wheelchairs. I know they experienced healing. I was healed. I came back to the Church.”
Bernadette was 14 years old when Our Lady visited her by the Gave de Pau River in Lourdes. She was a sickly girl of poor parents. During a series of apparitions, the lady carrying rosary beads identified herself with the words: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Mary directed Bernadette to tell the local priests to build a chapel at the site.
During Mary’s ninth visit, she told Bernadette to “drink from the fountain and bath in it.” The water of the Grotto of Massabielle soon bubbled up and then began flowing. Today, countless stories about miraculous healings have been recorded and 7,000 cases investigated. In total, 69 of those have been scientifically studied and officially approved as miraculous by both the Lourdes Medical Bureau that investigates claims and cures, and the Catholic Church. Apparently numerous spiritual healings take place there and also physical healings that go unreported.
Church authorities confirmed the validity of the Lourdes apparitions in 1862, and people began flocking there. The sanctuary is administered by the Catholic Church.
The grotto is the spot where people wait in long lines to touch the sheer rock wall where the water drips. Others form line for the walk-in baths filled with the tiny spring’s water that miraculously gushes thousands of gallons of clear water daily for nearly 160 years. The grotto features taps that dispense the water for believers to take with them.
Rae DelVecchio, a member of Holy Cross Parish in Vero Beach, visited the sanctuaries in 2003. “It was wonderful,” she said. “It is an experience I will not forget. We did not go in the baths though. It was October, and we all thought we would get pneumonia. Where was our trust? Others went in the baths said they came out dry.” That is what we had heard and I was anxious to find out if it was true, because that is a miracle in itself.
Volunteers help transport the elderly, frail, sick and dying to the bath area. The water is a last hope for some. The sight of the wheelchairs parked in a line stretching as far as you can see is heart-wrenching and a touching testimony of faith, but also a witness of service. Many of the volunteers pushing the chairs are dressed in uniforms and patiently wait for hours with the person they are accompanying who faithfully waits for a chance to experience God’s healing power through the water. Obviously, the volunteers share time, but also companionship, compassion and perhaps encouragement.
Ivette LaManna, a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Lantana, visited Lourdes and was moved to reach out and help. “I think we all were there to be touched by Our Lady,” she said and explained that she is returning to Lourdes but this time strictly as a missionary. “I’ll volunteer to experience that sense of charity and humbleness.”
Father Eduardo Medina, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Boca Raton, visited Lourdes last year with pilgrims. “Lourdes is a special place,” he said apparently touched by its miraculous wonders. His parish is currently in the midst of a fundraising campaign to construct a “Lourdes Grotto and Prayer Garden,” a small replica of France’s place of prayer and miracles.
“We of course have approvals from the diocese, and we are waiting on the permits. It will take some time,” Father Medina explained about the lengthy permitting process before the future pilgrimage site for which he and parishioners are hoping and praying can become a reality.
My personal pilgrimage to Lourdes was arranged by Marian Pilgrimages, and once getting there after 10 hours in the air and two hours in a taxi, I met up with a group of pilgrims from areas of Ireland. Father Thomas Hannon, a retired priest living in County Offaly, led spiritual activities, and Adrian Lawler of County Kildare directed tours.
The small group was a good mix of men and women of various ages, including a couple of teachers and nurses and several farmers and men with sheep and cattle ranches. Two other Americans joined the group. Aida Chan, a nurse, and Elvira Martins, an accountant, are sisters and reside in San Francisco. Tom Graham, residing near Dublin, also participated. The pilgrimage was his 27th to Lourdes.
He served as a volunteer there 19 times, but now frail and in poor health, he was in a wheelchair and needed assistance, but kept up with the group. “There is something that draws me here,” he said.
Our days were filled with Masses, adoration, prayer, walks and tours of places where St. Bernadette spent time. Rosary Square was a place to gather at night for processions and the rosary. There was fellowship during meals, and sharing. Everyone connected easily at this place I had heard so much about and seen in the film, “The Song of Bernadette.”
Visiting Lourdes was an incredible spiritual experience. Before leaving, I had the chance to slip into the bath waters. I wrapped a giant cloth around me and eased into the ice-cold water. On display at one end of the bath was a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes reminding me of the statue sitting on my desk at home. It was a gift from my mother before her death 10 years ago. That precious white vase of mine was given to my mother by my father on the day I was born.
Suddenly, I said a prayer for my mother, sent up intentions, and then took the plunge, forgetting about the freezing-cold water and hoping to be covered with God’s grace. After a few minutes, I stepped out of the bath feeling cleansed, light, joyful, different, and yes, miraculously dry from head to toe.
Father Hannon gathered all the pilgrims in prayer on the last evening. “We have all been together this week,” he said. “We have shared time. We are all here for various reasons. Jesus was with us. We ask the Lord to lead us through our lives.”
There may be people of little faith who doubt the miracles at Lourdes, but as for me, I saw miracles there through the people I met and witnessed. The miracles were around every corner, and apparently people come away from Lourdes healed and with even greater hope of being united with God now and forever.
When I returned back to Florida, I scratched Lourdes off my bucket list, but then, after reflecting on my time there, I wrote it back on the list, and put it at the top.
Our Lady of Lourdes Parish is located at 22094 Lyons Road, Boca Raton. To learn more about individual and corporate opportunities to support the “Lourdes Grotto and Prayer Garden,” the first off its kind in the area, please visit the parish or call 561-483-2440.