This first chapter on Lourdes describes the main draw of the city, the Sanctuary where St. Bernadette Souribous, first as a young girl, saw the apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto along the River Gave west of the town in the 1850s. Once the apparitions were declared to be 'real' in the sense that there was no evidence to the contrary and Bernadette was firm and resolute that they happened, it was not long before the site was declared holy. The Catholic Church erected a basilica on the grounds above the Grotto, and over time it expanded and expanded some more as the numbers of pilgrims increased to the hundreds of thousands per year. The Sanctuary that we encountered in 2005 was absolutely huge, yet it was still seemingly overcrowded during the Pilgrimage that we attended.
The Basilica, shown in the first photograph, was where our tour of the Sanctuary began. Our hotel was located on a steep cobblestone road leading directly to the scene of this photograph -- a kilometer-long walk from the crucifix to the base of the Basilica. The Basilica was built on two levels. The archway below was a courtyard used to host events such as outdoor Masses and ceremonies. Leading up from the courtyard to the upper level were two semi-circular paths that were wide as roads, easily large enough for marching bands. Barely perceptible above the arch of the courtyard was a massive domed 'crown' topped with a golden cross. This was in the center of the landing, from which steps led up to the main church of the basilica.
There were a number of landmarks surrounding the Basilica, many of which were hidden by the trees in the first photo. The second photograph shows a roundabout located just before we reached the lower courtyard. Centered within it was the small near-lifesize statue of the Virgin Mary painted white with a light blue sash and wearing a gold crown. The clothing matched that which Bernadette saw the Virgin wearing during the apparitions. The roundabout was filled with red and white roses, all in full bloom during the weekend. In the photo's background were a couple of large buildings that contained chapels and temporary offices that were available for the larger organized pilgrimages occurring throughout the year.
On the opposite side was a large open field that was actually the roof of the largest church in the Sanctuary, the Underground Basilica of St. Pius X. This massive underground church, whose entrance is shown in the third photograph, could handle tens of thousands in a single Mass or could host multiple Masses simultaneously in its various side chapels. Nearby this entrance was a small lifesized statue of St. Bernadette, one of several such statues scattered around the Sanctuary.
From the main Basilica courtyard, we followed the large paved road toward the river, and soon we came upon the Grotto, shown in the fourth photograph. The term 'Grotto' refers to the cave where the people were standing, and it was near there that the apparitions occurred. At the time, the cave was part of a washed out and muddied area before the river, but now it is paved and protected from potential further erosion (not to mention the fact that the Gave River bend is leveed to ensure the Sanctuary never gets flooded). The life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary and the candelabra are permanent fixtures of the scene, as is the crucifix located inside the cave.
Just beyond the Grotto were the bathhouse and the offering huts, shown in the fifth photograph. This row of huts was used by the faithful to burn candles as prayer offerings. Some placed their candles on the candelabra in front of the Grotto, but generally only these huts had spots available to place candles. Undoubtedly Lourdes was a big help to France's candlemaking industry, because it always seemed like the several dozen or so huts were filled at all times, and many of the candles were several feet tall. In addition, as shown in Night 2 of the pilgrimage, candles by the thousands were burned as part of the beautiful Marian processions that often took place. As part of the Pilgrimage, several contingents brought special candles to be burned in these huts over the entire three-day event, meaning that these were immense candles with lots of decorations and colors.
The bathhouse could be seen in the background of the photo. This was actually a simple structure, not easily discerned even from across the river, but boy was it a crowded place. Although we did not partake in bathing the waters, we gleaned plenty about the experience from fellow pilgrims who did. Bathers were collected in groups, separating men from women. There was a lengthy ritual of prayer and preparation before entering the bathhouse. Once inside, each bather was given a turn in the pool, served by volunteers who physically assisted bathers in and out. This was a necessary service as a significant number of pilgrims were elderly, disabled, or otherwise required assistance. The volunteers were not locals -- they came from all over the world to serve for a few days to a few weeks. We understood second-hand that these volunteers worked very hard over very long days helping hundreds experience the healing waters. It sounded to us like some of them probably didn't expect it to be such hard duty.
On the opposite side of the main Basilica was a gravel path leading up the hills overlooking the sanctuary. On this path was perhaps the most extraordinary of landmarks -- a full life-sized depiction of the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. The Stations are a staple of Catholicism, the fourteen story elements of Jesus' sentencing, suffering under the weight of the cross, execution, burial, and resurrection. Each of the fourteen stations were represented by scenes like those depicted in the sixth photograph showing the second station -- Jesus taking up the cross. The realism of the scenes coupled with the steepness of the path made the pilgrims appreciate the physical hardship that Jesus was forced to undergo as he carried the cross to the top. After we reached the final station and returned down the opposite side of the hill back to the Sanctuary, we encountered a hidden chapel carved into the side of a cliff. It was protected by a wrought iron gate, but it was not clear to us if it was ordinarily closed or if it was deemed unsafe.
The final photograph shows Veronica doing what many pilgrims did -- collect Lourdes' Holy Water for transport back home. A whole ring of faucets were located at the base of the main Basilica near the Grotto. Pilgrims could purchase plastic bottles ranging in size from one thimble-full to several gallons for collecting the water. Most of the bottles looked like the ones on the rack -- white, squarish, and decorated with a light blue graphic of the apparition accompanied by the word "Lourdes." But it was not required to use purchased bottles, as demonstrated by the gentleman off camera to the right who was prepared to collect his with a soda bottle. The only limit to the amount of water taken was one's ability to carry it.
There was a lot more to the Sanctuary than even this extended travelogue covered. The Lourdes Sanctuary was especially accommodating with several churches and a second Stations of the Cross display designed especially for the sick, disabled, and elderly pilgrims. Youth hostels and other services were available within the Sanctuary grounds. Without question, the Sanctuary was very well designed to handle its load of pilgrims. This was terrific for us, as we never felt uncomfortable, crowded out, or prevented from accessing Lourdes' great religious treasures. We could not have been happier with the experience.
Trip taken 25-27 May 2004 -- Page Last Updated 04 October 2006 -- (C) 2006 Tom Galvin