‘Immaculate Mary, your praises we sing’
You can take the boy out of the neighborhood, but you can’t take the neighborhood out of the boy. After high school, I followed in the footsteps of my brother Tommy and entered the Navy, and my first assignment was on a destroyer headed to Europe. After a long cruise, the boat docked in France. My mates and I went off to enjoy our first significant liberty. We visited the impressive Grande Chartreuse deep in the mountains, then a few of us decided to visit Lourdes to see what all the fuss was about in this quaint mountain village.
Lourdes was a familiar name to me. I remember going to see The Song of Bernadette at the Pearl Theatre when I was still in grade school back at St. Columbkille. In spite of not having any cowboys or soldiers in it, I enjoyed watching the film and wondered just how such a thing could have happened, and why Mary didn’t visit more places to work her wonders on the ailing and the lame.
The ride to Lourdes was spectacular, to say the least. The bus seemed to hang in the air as it wheeled fearlessly over the seemingly too narrow road carved into the side of the mountain. We strained to look out the window but hastily turned away when we saw the nothingness down below and the spiking mountains around us.
The ride to Lourdes was spectacular.
Upon arrival, a friendly bus companion pointed out a hostel where she said we might stay. We stumbled through the milling tourists and hollering vendors to reach the door.
The innkeeper smiled at our crisp, white Navy uniforms and told us that we could sleep in the large dormitory room with the other tourists for only a dollar a night.
“Where is all this leading us?” asked Eric Bernstein, a good friend and sailor from Philadelphia. Eric was Jewish, and he had come along with Brian Turley and me to see Lourdes firsthand. We tried to explain just what it was we were looking for.
“Mary, the Mother of Jesus, appeared here a hundred years ago and made a spring come out of the rock,” Brian patiently told Eric. “Since then, sick people have come to bathe in the water and have been made well. Thousands of pilgrims come here every year.”
Mary, the Mother of Jesus, appeared here.
Eric said he understood, but I was sure he was just being polite.
We left the inn and went into town. There we decided to go to a cafe and enjoy an afternoon snack. We sat at a table along the sidewalk, drinking coffee and watching the colorful chaos of hucksters, tourists, and milling pilgrims walking along the streets of Lourdes.
Suddenly the street seemed to change. Instead of a jumble of people, we now saw a slow procession wending its way past us. Stretchers and wheelchairs were being pushed by men, women, and children whose lips moved in prayer as they said the ageless Hail Marys and Our Fathers of the rosary.
The cafe keeper hastily took our cups and cleared the table.
“C’est temps … c’est temps …,” he muttered, glancing at the moving throng. “It’s time … ”
It was time for the afternoon procession to the Grotto. We paid our bill and walked alongside the stretchers and those hobbling along on crutches toward the towering spire of the Basilica of the Rosary. As we passed through the gates marked La Domaine de la Grotte, we were overwhelmed by a constant hum of prayer. It seemed as if every one of the thousands of people there with us was murmuring the same prayer in a multitude of languages.
“Je vous salue, Marie pleine de grâces …”
“Ave Maria, gratia plena …”
“Hail Mary, full of grace …”
We viewed the Grotto from as many vantage points as possible. Stretchers, wheelchairs, and crutches were everywhere. Candles flamed out all over, and the nonstop murmuring of the rosary filled our ears. It was a dizzying experience; we seemed to be in a place where time suddenly stood still. Later, we took part in the procession of candles, singing the Lourdes hymn with the other pilgrims, each voicing the words of the song in their native language.
We seemed to be in a place where time suddenly stood still.
Back at the hostel that evening, we folded our white uniforms carefully and sat in our underwear on the small, uncomfortable cots. The room was filled with pilgrims from just about everywhere in the world, and we smiled at one another as we all prepared to turn in for the night.
Eric said that he was anxious to tell his father, a doctor back in Philadelphia, about the multitude of sick people who put their faith in the Lady of the Grotto. He had bought a little book about Lourdes which he was going to send home the next day.
“Do you think we’ll see one of the miracles?” he asked Brian and me. We said we didn’t know.
A German pilgrim noticed our Navy uniforms and told us, in halting English, that he had been in the German navy. He gave each of us a silver medal which showed the Virgin on one side and an image of the cathedral in his hometown of Ulm on the other. He said that we must “bathe in the Piscine” before we left Lourdes, and we told him that we would.
Another pilgrim, a blond kid of about 14 from Sweden, showed us some pictures of his brother, who had been crippled by an accident. The boy spoke English well. He told us that he was making the pilgrimage to pray for his brother’s recovery and said he would show us the Piscine if we wanted to get up early and go with him to Mass. We replied that we would, then went to bed.
He was making the pilgrimage to pray for his brother’s recovery.
The kid woke us before dawn. We pulled on our uniforms and followed him out into the mist of Lourdes. There were already a good number of people walking silently toward La Domaine, and we wondered if it was always this way.
We all huddled together at the Grotto. This time we were actually under the overhanging cliff that framed the site of Our Lady’s appearance, and we could look up at the statue that marked the place where the Mother of God had stood 100 years before. Several other Swedish pilgrims were there and the boy greeted them with a smile as the Mass began.
After Mass, my companions and I followed the blond kid over to the Piscine to bathe in the frigid little stone tubs of water set up for the pilgrims. I followed the Swedish kid, and, as I stood waiting while the prayers were said before we were submerged, I remembered his brother as well as my friends and family.
I was pushed gently into the water by an attendant who held my head underneath for just a second. The shock of the cold water was enough to jolt even a young sailor.
When I emerged from the bath and shook the water from my eyes, I was blinded for a moment. A light from somewhere — beyond the room, it seemed — filled my eyes, and l gasped at its brightness. Then it faded. When I told Eric and Brian about the light, they laughed softly and said that they had seen it, too.
I was blinded for a moment.
We left Lourdes and returned to the destroyer later that day. Back on the ship, Eric and I talked about our experience while we sat in the galley, drinking coffee after standing our watch.
“Well,” I said, “I guess we didn’t see any miracles.”
“You never know, Sean-o,” Eric said, suddenly looking serious.
“Did it make a Catholic out of you?” I jokingly asked my friend.
“I’m still a Jew,” Eric said with a smile, “and a good Jew, I hope!”
Then he paused and showed me a pad of paper, on which he was writing his letter to his family.
As I looked at his letter, he said softly, “That beautiful Lady was Jewish too, wasn’t she?”
I read the first lines of his letter silently and felt a tingle run along my arms and neck.
“Dear Folks,” the letter read, “This past week, on our liberty — which had been so long overdue — I witnessed a most wonderful thing. Sean, the boy from Cleveland, Brian, whom you met at Great Lakes, and I went to the Grotto of Lourdes …”