VOL 124 NO. 27
Lourdes in Syracuse
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
North American Lourdes Volunteers make pilgrimages an even greater experience
They come in wheelchairs, on crutches, and with other maladies not as visible. Millions of people still flock to Lourdes, France on pilgrimage to the grotto and spring where St. Bernadette first saw the Blessed Virgin in 1858. Many of the travelers come in hopes of a cure or miracle. Bernadette came from an impoverished family and suffered terribly from asthma and other ailments. She died at 35 in the convent where in 1866 she had joined the sisters of Notre Dame of Nevers.
The pilgrims most likely relate to Bernadette’s brokenness when they make the journey to Lourdes. Now, the Syracuse Diocese is home base to an organization, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers, Ltd. From the offices at the Franciscan motherhouse on Court Street in Syracuse, a handful of workers organize pilgrimages to Lourdes that offer travelers the opportunity to serve pilgrims at the shrine directly. It is a Catholic apostolate with a proclamation by Bishop James Moynihan issued declaring the organization a “Public Association of the Christian Faithful,” according to canon law.
They extend an invitation to those in North America to serve the sick and suffering at Lourdes where there is an international team of 7,000 lay volunteers who serve the millions of people who make pilgrimages there each year. Literature from the apostolate says, “To be an effective volunteer, one must have: the required physical capability; a sincere desire to serve; a ready and easy smile (this is the language of Lourdes); and a spirit of obedience, perseverance, humility, joy and simplicity.” There are various duties available to volunteers at Lourdes, ranging from housekeeping, transporting pilgrims in wheelchairs, assisting pilgrims in and out of the baths, maintaining order as the pilgrims wait in procession and other responsibilities. And inevitably, the volunteers come home with an enormous sense of peace and satisfaction from their experience in Lourdes. The Catholic Standard & Times of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia reported on a North American Lourdes Volunteers trip made by several Catholic high school students last August. All of them referred to the experience as something that changed their lives. From feeling a sense of international community to actually supporting persons with disabilities, these teenagers felt a connection during their service.
Recently Father Regis-Marie de La Teyssonniere traveled to Syracuse from Lourdes where he serves as a chaplain. He is at the end of a nine-month journey he was asked to take by the bishop at Lourdes. “I have been traveling for nine months all around the world,” Father de La Teyssonniere said. “2008 will be the 150th anniversary of the appearance of Our Lady to Bernadette. Lourdes is famous all over the world and a lot of people are linked to Lourdes. For example, there are Our Lady of Lourdes parishes and schools all around the world.”
The French priest stopped by the Syracuse office of the North American Volunteers and met with Marlene Watkins, director of the apostolate, and with Bishop Thomas Costello at the chancery. His English is excellent and he speaks several other languages as well, and also writes for Lourdes Magazine. His wish for all people is that they understand they can experience the grace of Lourdes whether they have made a pilgrimage or not.
“Those who can’t come to Lourdes to share the grace can still receive a special gift the Lord gives not only to pilgrims, but to all people who enter into St. Bernadette’s story,” Father de La Teyssonniere said. When one is a pilgrim at Lourdes, he said, they are following in St. Bernadette’s footsteps.
Father de La Teyssonniere believes that those who do spiritual reading and encounter the life of St. Bernadette will also encounter Christ in that story. “He will give to you the grace He gave to Bernadette,” he said. “To be a pilgrim in Lourdes means to be a little bit for yourself and a lot for others. The same as being baptized…a little for yourself and a lot for others.”
Father de La Teyssonniere said that he’s met people all over the world, some very poor but yet linked to Our Lady of Lourdes and to Jesus Christ as well. “Even though Lourdes is a very holy place of the Roman Catholic Church, all people are welcome,” he said. “Some are not Christians but they come and they can meet Jesus Christ. The mission of the church is to be the presence of Jesus Christ for all human beings.”
He was pleased to visit the North American Lourdes Volunteer Center in person and is grateful for the service the volunteers provide. “If we see someone help someone else in a wheelchair we see the love of God manifested,” Father de La Teyssonniere said.
His own history is intertwined with Lourdes. Father de La Teyssonniere was born in the area and his parents met at Lourdes. “I went to Lourdes many times. I go to Lourdes as a Christian and one day I met Jesus Christ and now I am a priest. I enter into the reality of Lourdes even if I am not there,” he explained.
Christians do not have to travel to Jerusalem to be in front of the cross, and they do not have to travel to France to experience the spirituality of St. Bernadette, Father de La Teyssonniere said. “They just have to take time to close their eyes even if only five minutes a day,” he said. “Each day I can close my eyes and pray entering the experience she [St. Bernadette] had, the spiritual experience.”
He said the light of the Lord is revealed through others and through the sacraments.
“If I went to Lourdes it is because someone said something to me,” Father de La Teyssonniere said. “If I buy a book about Lourdes it’s because maybe I read your story or I saw something on television.”
Lourdes North American Volunteers offers pilgrimages to Lourdes several times a year. They can also offer virtual tours for parish groups. Call (315) 476-0026 for information, or check the web site: www.LourdesVolunteers.org.
Bernadette Speaks by Rene Laurentin is a book recommended by Father de La Teyssonniere. It is available through Pauline Books and Media.