International group was founded and home-grown in Syracuse 

By Dc Tom Cuskey | Editor

There is a home on Syracuse’s Northside that most people probably would not pay much attention to if they walked or drove by. It looks like any other well-kept neighborhood home, except perhaps for the shrine to our Blessed Mother that graces the front yard. But there is a large, special family that resides there in spirit that outnumbers any other household in town.

The residence is home to offices of the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers, a group of “volunteers, laity, clergy and religious, who lovingly serve the Immaculate Conception and her pilgrims both in the Sanctuary at France and back at home through living and sharing the Gospel Message of Lourdes” as described on their website. A dedicated staff turns this ordinary house into an international center for prayer, education and service.  

Lourdes, of course, is the site of a shrine to Our Lady who appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, a simple young girl of 14 who was blessed to have seen the Blessed Mother on 18 occasions in the Grotto. This took place in 1858 in the village in the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France. The girl who would become Saint Bernadette shared the messages Mary gave her with the local church and town officials, messages that are still shared today around the world. 

  Pilgrims from all corners of the globe come to Lourdes, many seeking healing miracles. It is in this process that Lourdes Volunteers participates by arranging for ailing pilgrims to visit the shrine, accompanied by the volunteers. For them, it is not a vacation, but a time of work and service to others.

“They’re sacrificing their vacation time, they’re paying their travel expenses,” says Executive Director Erika Vincent about those who assist during pilgrimages. It’s a tax-deductible expense, but that’s not why people go. She adds with a knowing, loving and grateful laugh that “they work like dogs while they’re there,” all in the name of serving those in need.

Vincent describes the volunteers with great passion. The “holy people … that come on pilgrimages together, make friendships that last forever,” she says. “They get more involved with us through the years by eventually perhaps joining our board of directors, or helping with a special project, or speaking at their parish about Lourdes.” Vincent stresses with great pride that their volunteers live the Lourdes experience in their daily lives; their passion for the ministry doesn’t stop when they walk out the church doors or when the pilgrimage concludes. 

Kathleen McGinn, the Special Needs Pilgrimage Manager — better known as “Duckie” to the Lourdes family — breaks down the typical pilgrimage numbers, saying that about 25% of a group are the sick and family members while “the 75 (percent) would be the support.” Vincent adds that, prior to COVID, they “were doing two special needs pilgrimages a year. In June and October there would be an invitation for the sick and their family members to come with us.” The volunteer work begins with an advance team that travels to France to prepare for the pilgrims, and that stays after the pilgrims return home to “clean up” as Vincent says. 

McGinn shares that these “pilgrimages are not small. … We could get 150 to 180 people on a special needs pilgrimage.” Vincent adds that, in between the larger pilgrimages, they “have programs for universities.” Colleges such as St John’s and Franciscan “might go with a group of 25 students plus a campus minister, and they would offer a week of service” at the shrine, all under the auspices of the North American Volunteers. 

The ministry has organized 235 pilgrimages in its 20-year history, with about 6,200 pilgrims, family members and volunteers making the trips in total. Additionally, more than 300,000 people have attended a Lourdes Virtual Pilgrimage Experience in person and online, an opportunity that arose out of the pandemic. 

It all began, though, with one housewife from Syracuse. 

Marlene Watkins, the Lourdes Volunteers’ foundress, visited the shrine on Ascension Thursday 2001. The trip was a fluke; an excursion for two to France was a prize, accompanying a friend who had her business card plucked from a drawing fishbowl. Marlene spent four days waiting in line to enter and, at one point, gave up her spot to someone in need. She made it in, being pulled from the queue, volunteering to bathe the sick in the Lourdes waters that day. 

She was so profoundly moved that she made a promise to return one year later and “to bring 10 good Catholic American women” to serve at Lourdes. Twenty years later Watkins says that “in that moment, I was in awe of the grace — but had no idea beyond keeping my promise made. I could never have imagined this beautiful ministry — God’s plan was better than anything I could have tried to plan!” Marlene retired in December but is still very active as a volunteer, and reports that her fellow volunteers consistently say that “they get more than they give” in this ministry.

During the COVID pandemic the ministry and pilgrimages took shape through the virtual tour, and the boundaries have gone beyond the North American region that the office typically serves. McGinn reports that their volunteers have brought the Lourdes Virtual Pilgrimage Experience to “China, Kenya, Peru, Haiti, Uganda and all through Europe” as well as many countries in Central and South America and across the U.S. Vincent adds that they “go where Our Lady invites us. We are North American Volunteers, but we also must go to places where people don’t have these opportunities.” 

The opportunity for healing is what is always on Marlene Watkins’ mind. “The world is suffering from the pandemic and many are wounded in different ways. There is much healing needed and Lourdes is renowned for healing. We need the grace of Lourdes now more than ever!”

The grace helps bring people to Christ, through Our Lady of Lourdes. “It’s exactly that,” says McGinn, “that’s the most important piece.” 

To learn more about the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers visit them online at

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