Holy shrine of Mother Mary at Lourdes

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Destination Europe ? Part IV


[This part of our travel has special significance for all the true believers. Arguably, its either you believe or not believe, and based on that, the value of a visit to the holy shrine at Lourdes is determined. Therefore, if you do not subscribe to the general religious beliefs or those surrounding the apparitions of Holy Mother to a tiny teenager Bernadette (now a saint) at Lourdes in the Pyrenees region of South France, then this part may not attract much interest. Nevertheless, you may yet enjoy to read it fully or parts of it just to know what really happens at this place. The choice of reading or otherwise will obviously be with each individual reader – author]


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For my wife and myself, both born and brought up in our respective churches dedicated to Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, the visit to Lourdes was just an amazing, out of the world experience. Though it was never planned much in advance, the excitement of the Europe trip was largely centred around this particular sacred town, in the Pyrenees mountain range on the south of France, bordering Spain.


The peace and serenity of this place is not easy to describe in words, or even the pictures may not say too much. One has to feel it, smell it and enjoy it. Even our children became so engrossed in seeing the wonders of the place, it was hardly difficult to believe what must have happened in all the  150 long years since those memorable days of the year 1858.


To start with the logistics, our overnight train from Paris Austerlitz railway station reached Lourdes on a wet, yet pleasant Sunday morning. The weather was fantastic, cool and cloudy with rain in the air. Within 25 steps from the station we found our Sisters of Charity run hostel where a room was booked for us just for the day.  Being a Sunday, people already in the hostel from the previous night(s) were reluctant to leave early morning, so we had to leave our luggage in the waiting room, and after breakfast, we set out towards the divine premises for our first session in the morning.


Despite the tremendous importance of the place and the thousands of devotees flocking to the sanctuary, the town is very quiet and peaceful. The steady rainfall keeps the temperatures down in summer, which is normal for the Pyrenees region. Walk from the railway station to the ‘place de la grotte’ (Grotto) would take approximately 15-20 minutes.


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The walk is through a commercial area that sells souvenirs in all forms, bottles in different shapes (for filling the holy water to be taken away) and a variety of candles. The souvenir shops are no different from any other shrine anywhere in the world (whichever religion it might belong to). We ensured that we bought all the important souvenirs for all the hard core believers in Mother Mary of Lourdes.


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Serene settings of the shrine and the grotto ? on the side of the flowing river


After reaching the shrine, we visited the main chapel briefly and performed our prayers at the grotto. The grotto is the location at which Catholics world over believe in the apparitions of Mother Mary to a teenager Bernadette in the year 1858 several times over two weeks. The stark reality of this story strikes one easily when they consider the completely poor, struggling and non religious background of Bernadette and her reasonably large family. Her simple background helped the Catholic community worldwide to show utmost faith and belief in the apparitions. It?s no doubt a matter of one?s belief, but the proved non-medical healings at this place subsequently and the visit of thousands of sick and the old each day further strengthens one?s belief and helps them to get fully involved in the miracle settings of Lourdes.


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The place in this article is not enough, nor is the time sufficient, to write more about the sanctuary, so I invite readers to visit the website of the sanctuary at as well as which provides complete details of the jubilee (150 years) celebrations and religious observances starting 8 December 2007 (feast of our Lady of Immaculate Conception) ending on 8 December 2008. Millions of pilgrims are expected to converge at Lourdes during the year long festivities.


After reaching the glorious location little late (due to late arrival and hostel room not being ready in time), it took time for us to look for the location of the underground Basilica, due to which we missed the massive International Mass (multilingual) in the morning. We rather ended up offering an English mass for a smaller crowd on the other side. We would have missed the Basilica altogether due to heavy rains in the afternoon, but discovered it just in the nick of time ? when the evening prayers for the sick were just about to close.  Heavy rains in the afternoon deprived us of the opportunity to see each and every corner of the sanctuary ? especially the walk through the Stations of the Cross.
However, our friends from Bahrain, the Pais family, which visited Lourdes a week later had excellent sunshine and a longer stay that helped them enrich themselves with a longer stint at the sanctuary as well as, visit to the nearby places. Some of the pictures from their cameras (especially the Stations of the Cross and the view of the town from atop a hill) have also been attached later for the benefit of the readers.


But all in all, the very presence at the premises filled us from within, a day that the four of us cannot forget and the place where we would love to go back to, again and again, time permitting.


The Basilica is not easy to detect for a first timer, because the top of it appears as if it is a vast landscape of lawn and garden at ground level. This is what happens to you as you enter the vast premises and see the massive church building in front, some smaller buildings on the right side but the vast lawn on the left, which is actually the roof of the underground Basilica, makes one blinded about the Basilica.


The capacity of the underground Basilica, which was built 50 years ago, is 25,000 and perhaps there isn?t a day in which it is not full. Especially on the weekends, it takes almost one hour to empty it through its four gates after a service or a healing prayer! The sight of seeing the old, sick and disabled people in wheelchairs and stretchers brought in and taken out for prayers makes a great scene.


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After enjoying the heart-warming ambience of this wonderful place, having inhaled the divine air that mesmerizes the pilgrim and having fulfilled a part of our desires at Mother Mary?s feet, we walked back to the hostel for lunch. Our luggage would still be lying around, our bodies needed a wash and with the lunch hour approaching, it was right thing to do. Once we were back, we managed to complete all of this and despite the showers which had become heavier now, we started our second session. Still we had to witness the famous evening procession.


However, the rain was relentless after lunch, which meant that the formal procession outside could not take place. We used that time to be at the famous Grotto, the cave where the apparitions happened 150 years ago, for a family rosary. Normally, every evening, there are special prayers for the sick at 5 pm at the same venue, after a procession from the grotto. The prayers were duly moved to the Underground Basilica due to the incessant rain.


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Mass being offered at the Grotto (above); holy moment at the rock (below)


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While we missed out certain things due to rains, we had a chance meeting with the charitable organization, Faith And Light International, whose volunteers help the old and the sick to move around the premises at Lourdes. We met some really wonderful people working hard for bringing joy across the world. Faith And Light was born following a pilgrimage to Lourdes by Jean Vanier and Marie-Helene Mathieu in 1971 in response to the call of a couple with two children with intellectual disabilities. (visit for more details).


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With some of the volunteers and office bearers of Faith & Light International


All around the shrine, there are taps connected to the water pond near the grotto from where pilgrims fill water in their bottles to be taken away with them and to be used in times of ill health. One more belief that has stayed with all the religious in the world ? be it Hindus at the Ganges, Sikhs at Golden Temple or Christians at Lourdes or Vailankanni. The bottles are shaped like Mother Mary so that the holy water does not get misused.


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Devotees filling water from the taps connected to the ever flowing stream in the backyard of the Grotto.


One of the mysteries of the apparitions is the Miracle of the candle signifying the new Mysteries of Light. The candle offerings are in abundance, and also the size of candle varies according to the desires of the pilgrims.


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Devotion of the candle


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Comfort of the afflicted and health of the sick ? that is why all old and sick find solace at Mother Mary?s sanctuary at Lourdes


The miracles taking place at Lourdes have defied the medical world. Now there are groups that are specific to the type of ailments people may suffer from, such as, Renalis pilgrimage (for persons suffering from Renal insufficiency), Parkinson pilgrims started in 2006 etc. The hospitality members (in short, the volunteers) enjoy every moment of their sacrifice as they tend to the thousands of sick, chair-stuck and bed ridden people, finding solace at the sanctuary of Mother Mary.


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Long queues of wheel chairs with old and sick assisted by enormous number of volunteers.


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Wheel chairs with protection from rain


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Souvenir shops a plenty on the way to the shrine (here a nun from India is seen doing her shopping)


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Artistic cross adorning the altar at the underground Basilica


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Time after feeling good, time to leave ?
The hoards of wheelchairs inside the underground Basilica


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Walking, wheeling or being carried out of the Basilica?


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Outside the entrance to the bathing stream (near Grotto)?
thousands ?purify? themselves as directed by Mother Mary?s
apparition in 1858 to Bernadette.


Pictures from the lenses of Richard and Rossi Pais, our family friends, who visited Lourdes after about a week from our visit (covers what we missed due to rain) and found glorious and rare sunshine to click these pictures:


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For those desiring to be part of the great experience, there wont be perhaps another better year than 2008. The festivities will commence on 8 December 2007, the feast of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception and culminate on the same day in 2008. However, considering the crowds that will throng this small town south of France, one needs to make sufficiently advance planning and hotel bookings.


Having fulfilled our hearts desire, having filled the divine water from the streams that flow at the Grotto into our miniature preserves and having gathered all the wonderful souvenirs of the sacred land, we returned satisfied, back to our dormitory and then to catch the night train. Though satisfied for what we managed to achieve, our feet were not willing to move away from the feet of divinity for what we had not accomplished fully. With a heavy heart, we forced ourselves back, reminding ourselves that our European sojourn had just begun and we were about to move over to some other exciting places on earth ? albeit not holy!


And as the first dose of that, our night train would take us, through Toulouse, to the land of glamour, riches and the sun, the land of golden beaches and yachts ? the French Riviera, and from there to the land of the powerful Roman Empire – Italy!
 
That will be in the next episodes. Till then, au revoir, bon soir!

Author: Agnel Pereira- Bahrain


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