One hundred and forty years ago this year, an Oblate priest in Dublin organised the first-ever English-language pilgrimage to Lourdes, an extraordinary undertaking at the time. Gerard Bennett from Westmeath, the Chief Brancardier and President of the Oblate Pilgrimage Hospitalité, looks at the history of the pilgrimage to the small French town where Our Lady appeared to a young peasant girl in 1858.

In Ireland, the word, “Lourdes” carries huge recognition with it. So many people will associate it with their parents, perhaps grandparents, other family, or friends. Many will have been there themselves.
The connections between Ireland and Lourdes are very strong. Parishes and dioceses throughout Ireland arrange pilgrimages to Lourdes year after year. And for so many people, making that annual pilgrimage can be a huge part of their faith lives.

For that small number who either have not heard about Lourdes or know very little about it, maybe a brief overview would be helpful. Many books have been written on Lourdes; this can only give a flavour.

Lourdes is a small town in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the mountain range that geographically divides France and Spain. In 1858, Lourdes was a small town set alongside the River Gave. In Lourdes lived a very poor family, the Soubirous family and in that family, a young girl called Bernadette.

On February 11 of that year, Bernadette was sent to collect wood for the fire and was doing this by the banks of the Gave when she heard a sound and soon after, saw a lady standing in a niche above a cave where the rocks faced the river. As we now know, this ‘lady’ was Our Lady, the Mother of God.

From that date until July, Our Lady appeared to Bernadette on eighteen occasions. Despite not being believed and being ridiculed as she told the story of those early apparitions, eventually, she was believed when the Parish Priest, Fr Pyramale, told her to “ask the Lady her name.” This Bernadette duly did, and the lady answered in the local dialect spoken at that time in Lourdes, saying: “Que soy era immaculada concepciou” (“I am the Immaculate Conception”).

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own