Lourdes, France – Pilgrims & Carers (10.07.19)

My French grandmother, a devout Catholic, used to visit Lourdes every year. As a child I was aware that her annual pilgrimage was something to do with ‘helping the sick’, not least as her photographs focused more on her and her friends’ nurse’s uniforms, than the town’s historical or religious sites.

Only now, having recently visited the small market town at the foot of the Pyrenees, with its historical Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, have I grasped why she went, what she did and how important it was for her, as well as for the many she must have encountered along the way.

An over-riding feeling of camaraderie and bonhomie was everywhere.

From the moment we boarded our pilgrimage aircraft in the UK, with its large congregation of Christian travellers, there was a sense of a combined ‘holiday away-day for all’. The spirit of friendship, punctuated by laughter as well as tears, continued throughout the journey to the town itself.

Which left me – someone who does not lead a religious life – appreciating what a privilege it was to share in such a journey. Like Hindu celebrations and Jain pilgrimages in India, I was reminded how strongly people’s faiths shine through when attending important religious gatherings. Equally, I have experienced a feeling of collective spirituality when visiting Buddhist festivals high in the Himalayas, as well as at Islamic Middle Eastern gatherings during festivals such as Ide.

In Lourdes’ case, where so many pilgrims are hopeful of a miracle cure, high numbers are extremely reliant on their carers. All are drawn to the significant Catholic domain (Sanctuary of our Lady of Lourdes) where the 14-year old Bernadette Soubirous is said to have first encountered the Blessed Virgin Mary on 11th February 1858.

There are said to be up to 6 million visitors a year.

On a practical level this is a body of movement that takes some organising. The town of Lourdes has a population of only 15,000, with 270 hotels. Since so many visitors suffer from a disability or sickness, and are hoping to be healed by the town’s supposed miraculous waters, there is a need for an army of healthy helpers and considerate carers.

Getting around the town is a considerable challenge for most visitors. For example, Church services are held regularly across a multitude of Lourdes venues, from the small riverside Massabielle Grotto, located below the main Cathedral, to the enormous underground Bastilique Saint-Pie, able to accommodate a congregation of 25,000.

Aside from the impressive collection of Lourdes religious and tourism venues, I was impressed with the smooth running of such a huge movement of abled, as well as disabled, visitors. All conducted at an admirably gentle and calm pace throughout.

My hope is that these photos show the true spirit of assistance and friendship between pilgrims and carers. Something of which my grandmother, who passed over twenty years ago, would have been most proud.