Our Lady’s legacy

150th Anniversary of the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes celebrated

By Claudia Mathis
SUN staff writer

Over six million people from all over the world visit Lourdes, France each year. They do it because the grotto at Lourdes is a special place of healing, hope and peace for those who make the spiritual journey.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes. In 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared to a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous of the town of Lourdes in the Pyrenees Mountains. There were 18 apparitions which included requests to uncover a spring of water, to pray, to build a chapel and to come in procession.

Since then there have been thousands of scientifically documented cures and countless numbers of conversions and healings attributed to the spring waters.

Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North America Volunteers are now welcoming the pilgrims to the site. The concept of welcoming pilgrims began in 1881, when a committee was formed to assist and receive the increasing number of pilgrims arriving at Lourdes.

The six volunteer groups at Lourdes include the Welcoming and Administration Acceuil, the hospices of Notre Dame and Saint Frai, the Picines (baths), the Men’s Brancardiers (stretcher-bearers) of St. Joseph and the housing and food services of St. Michel. Together, these sections provide all the services needed at the sanctuary to serve each person arriving throughout the year.

Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality Volunteers, LTD. is an apostolate that was formed in 2002 at the invitation of the Lourdes Arch-Confraternity Hospitality. Their primary goal is to extend an invitaiton to North Americans to serve the sick and suffering.

Following a four-year program of annual one-week service weeks with training, one is eligible to join the organization. Individuals must have a sincere desire to be of service at Lourdes and commit to offer one week of volunteer service every year.

Marlene Watkins, founding administrator of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers in Syracuse, and Lourdes Liaison Chaplain Regis-Marie de La Teyssonniere explained the basics of the training. The first year explains the definition of hospitality. Watkins, a volunteer at Lourdes for a number of years, said that the volunteers learn how to welcome the pilgrims and how to welcome one another. “They also hear the message of Lourdes from the priests of the sanctuary,” said Watkins. “Then they visit the Grotto, and all the holy places like the Bascillica, chapels and baths. The Sanctuary is the size of six football fields. They need to know where everthing is and the name of everything on a practical level so that they can help people find what they are looking for.”

The second year, the volunteers study St. Bernadette’s life, visiting where she was born and focusing on her spirituality.

The third year the volunteers focus on the physical and spiritual aspect of suffering.

The fourth year of training is built on the previous years of the volunteers’ formation.

Father de La Teyssonniere commented on the committment the volunteer makes to come to Lourdes once yearly for one week after the fourth year of training.

“It’s a commitment within the church because it’s a commitment to deepen their Roman Catholic faith,” said Father de La Teyssonniere.

Steve Spierdowis, at 24 years old, is completing his second year of service with the our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North  American Volunteers. After graduating from Franciscan University  of Steubenville, Ohio, Spierdowis took on the position of pilgrimage coordinator at the organization’s administrative office in Syracuse. He described his experience in Lourdes as “incredible,” stating that he had never experienced anything quite like it. “The thing that touched me the most was serving with holy men from all over the world,” said Spierdowis. “I saw God’s grace when I worked with people who spoke different languages.”

His duties at Lourdes included helping to transport sick pilgrims on stretchers at the train station and at the airport, helping to maintain crowd control during processions, helping out in the picines and helping to maintain order in the grotto. “I look at people a little differently now,” said Spierdowis. “It’s easier now for me to see people as children of God. I’ve grown in my faith because of my service.”

In honor of the 150th jubilee anniversary, by Apostolic Decree, a plenary indulgence will be granted to those who make a pilgrimage to the grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes.

Celebration of the anniversary is taking place not only in Lourdes, but in other parts of the world. For those who are unable to travel to Lourdes, the opportunity to experience it can be done through a “virtual pilgrimage.” A 90-minute pictoral tour guides one through a prayerful visit to the grotto, the experience of the water, participation in the candlelight procession and priestly blessing.

In addition, Watkins said that that the Our Lady of Lourdes volunteers are working with cable station EWTN to offer programs about the pilgrimage.

Another way they are celebrating is by their invitation of the bishop of Lourdes to visit the U.S. “That’s a huge event for us,” said Watkins. “He’ll bring the message of Lourdes to us.”

Lourdes’ celebration will last for a full 12 months. It began on Dec. 8, 2007 and will continue until Dec. 8, 2008. Lourdes has proposed twelve missions to address the needs of the church. At the pilgrimages throughout year, the following missions will be explored: the church in its misison with its volunteers in the service of others, in the call to conversion, in the mission for peace, in mission with Mary, in mission with the sick, on mission, nourished by the Eucharist, in mission with young people, in mission with people with disabilities, in mission for inter-religious dialogue, in misssion for Christian unity, in mission between nations and in mission with the marginalised.

“The anniversary provides an opportunity for us to see the relevance today of why Our Lady came,” said Watkins.

For more information about the anniversary celebration and the volunteers, call (315) 476-0026.

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