Saintly Encounter

Jan. 19-25, 2006
Saintly Encounter
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Photo’s submitted
Lourdes Spirituality Retreat brings the Spirit of St. Bernadette to the People

About 45 people gathered the first weekend in January at Christ the King Retreat Center to experience the spirituality of a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Their shoes never got dirty and they didn’t walk a long distance. They sat in comfortable surroundings and listened to the story of St. Bernadette Soubirous who was just 14 when Our Lady appeared to her in the grotto at Lourdes, France. Leading the retreat was Father Marcel-Emard Duguay, a priest of the St. John Eudes Congregation of Jesus and Mary. He has served for four years as chaplain at Lourdes ministering to pilgrims and volunteers. He was brought to Syracuse for the retreat by Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers, an organization based in Syracuse. Father Duguay, originally from New Brunswick, Canada, teaches the message of Lourdes in French, English and Italian.

Father Duguay explained that there are really two Lourdes: the location inside the gates and outside the gates. Outside of the pilgrimage area, Lourdes is very much a tourist spot, he said. “You have to go into the gates, into the sanctuary itself and there you will find people of all nations: pilgrims who smile to each other, who don’t understand each other but are there for one purpose,” he said. “Some to find God, some to renew their faith and some also come because they know Lourdes is the land of miracles.”

According to the literature provided by the North American Volunteers, there are thousands of documented cures and countless numbers of conversions and healings attributed to the waters of the spring in the grotto of Massabielle at Lourdes. One of the 18 apparitions at Lourdes in 1858 included a request to Bernadette that she uncover a spring where there was not much but damp earth. The young girl dug through the mud dutifully and water emerged, murky at first but then clear as glass. The spring is still flowing today. The role of the volunteers at Lourdes is primarily to serve the pilgrims who arrive there with many degrees of infirmities. The organization also spreads the message of Lourdes through “Message of Lourdes” presentations such as the one at Christ the King Retreat Center, virtual pilgrimage guided tours, and actual guided tours at Lourdes and Nevers, the convent where St. Bernadette lived and died after the apparitions. What the organization offers those across North America is a chance to experience Lourdes without leaving their community.

One of the aspects of the weekend retreat was a virtual tour of Lourdes led by the Volunteer’s director Marlene Watkins. Watkins served at Lourdes for a number of years before founding the apostolate in Syracuse. She said that six million people come to Lourdes every year and Watkins began by talking about the history of pilgrimage. “A tourist is not a pilgrim,” Watkins said. “A tourist goes to see things; a pilgrim goes to meet God.” Then she quoted Ps. 84: “Blessed are those who find their strength in You, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.”

With a power point presentation, the “pilgrims” at Christ the King Retreat Center were led through the baths at Lourdes, through a guided tour of the basilicas at Lourdes, through the grotto as it is today, through the crypt church, the Stations of the Cross, and even through information about the medical bureau at Lourdes where the cures and miracles are investigated. With assistance from Father Duguay, they received a Eucharistic blessing in the chapel at Christ the King Retreat Center. They also recited a decade of the rosary signifying the evening candlelit rosary procession that happens at 9 p.m. at Lourdes each day.

The weekend retreat delved into the life of St. Bernadette who was a poor girl searching for firewood for her family the day Our Lady appeared to her. Father Duguay said, “Mary came to a poor little girl with hunger in her heart to make her First Communion. She went to the grotto looking for wood to heat her house and to sell.

“The second time Mary came Bernadette was frightened and went for her [rosary] beads and started to say her prayers and Our Lady said them with her. Her [Mary’s] lips moved but there were no words and when it came to the Hail Mary, she did not pray. At the third apparition, Mary spoke and Bernadette said, ‘She spoke to me as one who would speak to a person.’”

Mary spoke to Bernadette, the oldest of six children, in her local dialect, not the French spoken at Lourdes. Bernadette could not read or write and she lived with her family in what was essentially part of the local jail. She went through intense scrutiny by church authorities and civil authorities before spending the remainder of her years at the convent in Nevers where she was under the watchful eye of the Mother Superior of the community she joined in 1866, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Nevers.The Sisters did teach Bernadette how to sew, read and write, but most information about her life describes her as a dull student.

It is St. Bernadette’s legacy of total service and kindness that inspires the pilgrims and volunteers at Lourdes, according to Father Duguay. “A sick person at Lourdes is never left alone,” he said. “There will always be somebody for them to talk to or to sit with.”

Those interested in scheduling a virtual tour of Lourdes may call the Lourdes North American Volunteers office at (315) 476-0026. The group’s website is

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