WASHINGTON — The damage to the town and the sanctuaries at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes did not dampen the healing message of Lourdes for Americans who recently made a pilgrimage to the shrine in southern France.
"We did all of the things that we would've done, just in a different way," said Marlene Watkins, who works with a North American organization of Lourdes volunteers. She was in Lourdes as recently as June 21 with 102 pilgrims. She spoke to Catholic News Service in a telephone interview June 24 after her return.
Many of the normal pilgrim activities were closed in the aftermath of the flooding, she said. "The baths are closed, the underground basilica is still is closed and they're still pumping water out of it, the St. Joseph chapel is still closed, the cafeteria for the volunteers was closed and it is questionable if it will even open this season," she said June 24.
Bridges were washed out, several roads were destroyed and buildings remained under water. Much of the shrine complex was under water for two days as floods swamped much of southwestern France. Work crews rushed to clear mud and remove debris June 21, so tourists could return to the popular pilgrimage site.
According to Watkins, the American volunteers spent a lot of time during their pilgrimage simply shoveling up the dense, oily mud that coated the area where normally the eucharistic and rosary processions take place nightly.
The group of Americans and some Irish pilgrims were the only ones to remain; other pilgrims and some residents were evacuated from the town during the worst of the flooding. The water taps that supply the Lourdes water have begun flowing again and the spring was not contaminated.
Since the beginning of Lourdes, where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 in the grotto, the spring water has been associated with healing; the shrine works first and foremost to accommodate ill and disabled pilgrims. Nearly 6 million pilgrims visit the grotto annually.
Msgr. Frank Pugliese, vicar general of the U.S. Archdiocese of the Military Services in Washington, went on pilgrimage there in late May with more than 500 pilgrims who had a connection to the U.S. military; of the six days he was there, "it rained every day except Sunday."
"The river was getting higher and the rain was coming down," he told CNS June 21, but he said the trip was still manageable for him and his fellow pilgrims. The focus of the pilgrimage was the wounded warriors who came along.
"One of the things that really comes out of Lourdes," said Msgr. Pugliese, is that "the sick, the handicapped -- the people that are normally put off to the side -- take the front seat. They get the special treatment and we that are healthy look on in admiration."
He even remarked that they made sure the injured or sick pilgrims were protected from the rain, while the rest of the pilgrims were not as lucky.
Watkins is with Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality-North American Volunteers, a group based out of Syracuse, N.Y., that coordinates real and virtual pilgrimages to Lourdes. She and the others in her pilgrimage group arrived "as the waters began to rise."
They were able to stay in the hospital that is usually reserved for the pilgrims with special needs. Though the group felt very safe during their stay, they did have to endure a planned power outage.
Watkins said they weren't worried: "When Our Lady and Bernadette met 18 times there was no electricity; we felt confident in Our Lady." Besides that, the personnel at Lourdes "had phenomenal reactionary response, their immediate response to this emergency was really impressive," she added.
Lourdes experienced less severe flooding in October; before that the last time Lourdes was hit by flooding was in 1937. Watkins said it is believed that heavy snow in the mountains and unseasonable warmness lead to high rates of run off from melting snow. In addition the area experienced excessive rains in April, with rain falling 27 days out of a 30-day period.
One terminally ill 24-year-old on the trip had a dream-- to kiss the grotto where Mary appeared to Bernadette. And so safety officers made the decision to let her and two other pilgrims venture out with them to venerate the site.
"It really was a holy pilgrimage," said Watkins.