The Grotto in Lourdes is the heart of what is now one of the world's most important religious sanctuaries. The role of Lourdes as a major place of pilgrimage began in 1858 when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a young woman, Bernadette Soubirous. Since then it has developed a particular reputation as a place of physical and spiritual healing.
The pilgrimage begins well before pilgrims arrive in Lourdes with months of preparation and planning. The Carmelites help prepare for the pilgrimage in various ways, including by hosting the helpers' preparation day in June.
When August finally comes round some pilgrims travel out to France a week ahead of the Catholic Association as part of what is known as the 'Stage Group' to volunteer for the Sanctuary. Most Carmelite volunteers do their week of 'Stage' service in May; these travelled out the day before the C.A. to help set-up facilities for the pilgrimage.
Thus it was that early on the morning of Thursday 23rd August a small advance party from the British Province of Carmelites set out from the Carmelite-served parish of English Martyrs Catholic Church in the south London suburb of Walworth.
The Carmelite Prior of Walworth kindly transported the advance party
of Carmelite friars and laity across London.
At St. Pancras International Station the Carmelite advance party boarded the Eurostar train. The station was specially decorated for the Paralympic Games about to start in London.
Lay Carmelite Angela Bergström-Allen clutching the British Province banner
outside St. Pancras railway station.
Travelling from London to Lourdes by Eurostar and TGV trains is a full day's journey, but a restful one.
The Carmelite group 'advance party', shown here at Montparnasse Station in Paris,
consisted of (left-right) Fr. Antony Lester, Br. Gerard Walsh,
Angela Bergström-Allen, Shell Roca and (photographer) Johan Bergström-Allen.
On the morning of Friday 24th August the advance party members of the Carmelite group coordinated the Catholic Association's access to the Accueil Notre Dame, the specially designed 'House of Welcome' for the sick and disabled at the heart of the Lourdes Sanctuary.
The Accueil Notre Dame is home to the Catholic Association's Assisted Pilgrims throughout the week in Lourdes. The Accueil is not a hotel, nor a hospital, but a sort of respite home specially designed for use by the sick and disabled.
The Accueil's roof-top terrace has wonderful views of the Grotto and basilicas.
Members of the Carmelite group awaiting the arrival of supplies at the Accueil.
Before the main body of pilgrims arrive, there is the major task of setting-up the Accueil to be done. A van bringing provisions from Britain was unloaded, before picking up equipment that remains stored in Lourdes throughout the year.
Unloading the equipment from the van.
As well as housing some 45 'Assisted Pilgrims' of the Catholic Association who are sick and disabled, the Accueil is effectively the headquarters of the C.A. Pilgrimage, which numbers approximately 800 people in total, including about 150 Assisted Pilgrims staying in hotels across Lourdes, the 'Glanfield Group' of sick and disabled children, and over 300 volunteer helpers. To welcome all those people as best as possible, a lot of equipment is needed, everything from moving-and-handling gear and antibacterial hand gel, to tea-bags and fruit cake!
Gently does it! Because the equipment is entering a building that is a cross between a hotel, a hospital and a care-home, every box has to be disinfected first! The young pilgrimage volunteers undertake the hard work with a lot of humour.
Unfortunately a member of the Carmelite group suffered the first minor accident of the pilgrimage! Unloading a box of supplies, Brother Gerard (Ged) Walsh found that some cleaning products had leaked; fortunately Ged was fine, but his clothes took on interesting new shades of colour! Pilgrimage can be a dangerous business!
By lunchtime everything was in place to welcome the pilgrims from the UK. The first to arrive were members of Clifton Diocese who had come from Bristol on a Jumbulance, a bus specially adapted for sick people operated by The Across Trust. At about the same time some coaches from England dropped off Catholic Association young helpers who had boarded the previous day at Cambridge and London and travelled overnight. The rest of the pilgrimage arrived by air from London Stansted and Birmingham, and by rail from London and Kent via Paris.
For the earlier arrivals, Mass was celebrated in the Accueil Notre Dame by long-standing C.A. volunteer Fr. Nicholas King, S.J. He was joined at the altar by the new Chaplain to the Sick, Carmelite friar Fr. Antony Lester. As Chaplain to the Sick it was Fr. Tony's role throughout the week to serve the spiritual needs of the Assisted Pilgrims on the Catholic Association Pilgrimage, as well as their helpers.
Fr. Nicholas preaching in the chapel of the Accueil Notre Dame.
Fr. Nicholas and the congregation offering prayers of intercession.
At the end of a busy first day, Brother Ged Walsh, O.Carm., led night prayers on the prairie meadow opposite the Grotto.
The Grotto at night is a place which naturally encourages a sense of prayer.
Ged invited pilgrims to light candles and reflect on their prayer intentions for the week ahead.
Catholic Association pilgrims at Night Prayer.
Pilgrims praying together by candle light.
We have arrived safely at Our Lady's shrine, and there is much anticipation about the days ahead...
To read about the following day please click here.
Photography: Johan Bergström-Allen, T.O.C.