By Katherine Long | Editor

The local woman who identifies herself as simply a “housewife” never thought she’d be called to serve the Church and its people through the message of Lourdes — nor did she think Our Sunday Visitor would commend her for her service by naming her a 2015 Catholic of the Year.

Marlene Watkins is the founder of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers (“Lourdes Volunteers”), headquartered in Syracuse. Lourdes Volunteers brings volunteers and the sick to Lourdes, France, the site of Mary’s appearances to St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. The only Lourdes Hospitality outside Europe, Lourdes Volunteers has led more than 5,600 pilgrims and volunteers to Lourdes since its establishment in 2002. More than 115,000 people have made a “virtual pilgrimage” to Lourdes through the organization. But Watkins and the Lourdes Volunteers team want to spread the message of Lourdes even further.

‘A great conversion’

Watkins “knew nothing about Lourdes” when she first traveled there with a friend in 2000. Entering the baths at the Lourdes sanctuary, however, she experienced “a profound healing and deepening of my faith,” she said. “It was a great conversion.”

She returned with two more friends, both ill, the following year. After waiting in huge lines at the baths for days, Watkins begged a volunteer to let her friends in. To her surprise, she was pulled from the line to become a volunteer herself, helping women, including her friends, bathe in the sanctuary’s waters. Kissing the floor after her shift, she spontaneously “promised Our Lady I would come back in one year with ten good, Catholic, American women.”

With plenty of determination, she did just that, again serving in the baths. She was asked to come back again with more Americans, she recalled, as at the time only about ten percent of volunteers spoke English, while about 50 percent of the pilgrims did. From there, Lourdes Volunteers was born.

Three pillars

Watkins enumerates three pillars of the organization: go volunteer at Lourdes, bring the sick to Lourdes and share the message of Lourdes.

   To accomplish its mission, Lourdes Volunteers leads 12 to 15 physical pilgrimages to Lourdes each year. Pilgrimage Director Pam Ryan explained the types of pilgrimages offered:

   • Special needs pilgrimages are for those with illnesses, disabilities or other special needs. Medical and healthcare professionals travel with the group.

   • Pilgrimage service trips bring volunteers to assist pilgrims with special needs. Volunteers arrive in advance and set up pilgrim lodging; provide companionship, service and transport during the pilgrimage; and stay behind to clean up and close out after the pilgrims head home.

   • Hospitalité service trips allow adult pilgrims in good health to volunteer with Hospitalite Notre-Dame de Lourdes, the association of volunteers at Lourdes. Male volunteers might greet pilgrims at the train station or airport, help transport pilgrims with special needs, or assist in the men’s baths. Female volunteers might work in the women’s baths or provide housekeeping services in the accueil, where pilgrims with special needs stay during their pilgrimages.

   • Youth and college service pilgrimages bring younger volunteers to serve.

Special needs pilgrimages are managed by Kathleen McGinn. She speaks to every special needs pilgrim who calls, learns their stories, prays with them, and helps them take the steps to apply for a pilgrimage. Pilgrims’ needs run the gamut, from diabetes and wheelchair assistance to end-stage cancer and oxygen, she noted. McGinn connects pilgrims with the trip’s head nurse and ensures all care and every step — literally from bed to plane — is planned. Despite medical challenges, “it’s amazing how they get that grace and strength to go on pilgrimage,” McGinn said.

While all volunteers and some pilgrims pay for their trips, some special needs pilgrims need financial assistance to travel. Andrea’s Wish is a fund established in memory of a past pilgrim who wanted to ensure everyone had the opportunity to go to Lourdes. Available funds are distributed to pilgrims in need; last year, $55,000 contributed to the fund sent some 19 pilgrims to Lourdes, according an estimate from Executive Director Erika Vincent.

While Lourdes Volunteers brings people to Lourdes, it also brings Lourdes to people. For those who can’t or likely won’t travel to Lourdes physically, Lourdes Volunteers offers a “virtual pilgrimage.” In schools, parishes and prisons in America and around the world, Lourdes comes to life through images and a guided tour. Pilgrims see the sanctuary and pray in a procession. They can touch a rock from the grotto and water from the spring.

Virtual Pilgrimage Coordinator Melissa Montrowl described the virtual experience with words from Virtual Pilgrimage Director Fran Salaun: “Virtual pilgrimage is really a visitation. Just like Mary came to Elizabeth, this is Mary coming to us and we receive her as Elizabeth did. We’re not able to go see her in the grotto, so she brings her presence, she brings the spirit of Bernadette, she brings the water, the rock to us.”

Watkins and her husband, Bill, even drive their “Lourdesmobile” RV across the country, bringing virtual pilgrimages to communities from Alabama to Wisconsin.

‘Grace’ recognized by OSV

Based on all this, national Catholic newsweekly Our Sunday Visitor named Watkins to their list of 2015 Catholics of the Year.

Along with seven others, including Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput and Catholic Relief Services CEO Dr. Carolyn Woo, Watkins was recognized as a Catholic “who made an indelible mark in 2015.”

“Through her devotion to Lourdes, ‘housewife’ extends God’s mercy to those who need it most,” the Dec. 27 feature noted. “As the Church begins this Year of Mercy, OSV is happy to select Watkins as a 2015 Catholic of the Year,” it continued.

Watkins insists on sharing the honor.

“It’s a grace,” she said. “For me, I think it’s a recognition of Lourdes Volunteers, the grace that that is, that all of us are serving the Church. I also think to be a Catholic of the Year is just to say that all of us that sit in the pew, and those of us who can’t even get to the pew, all of us Catholics — it’s a recognition of that grace that’s in us.”

To find out more about Lourdes Volunteers and its physical and virtual pilgrimages, visit, call (315) 476-0026 or email

Watkins will also appear on EWTN’s “At Home with Jim and Joy” Feb. 1 at 2 p.m. ET. The program will re-air Feb. 6 at 10:30 a.m. ET.

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