By Joe Collins
I first visited Lourdes in May 1954. I was not a pilgrim as such but I went on what could be termed a ‘Busman’s Holiday’.
In March of that year I went to work as a Travel Clerk in the offices of Shannon Travel in Limerick. At that time I was awaiting the results of a CIE examination for Clerical Officers which I had sat three months earlier.
After two weeks at Shannon Travel the manager placed me in charge of the Killaloe Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes which was scheduled to operate in late May. This involved my recording the bookings in a large ledger as they were received, name, address, details of payments received together with hotel selected in Lourdes and the name of the pilgrim with whom one was sharing.
For an eighteen year old in his first job this was a daunting task but I felt it was an opportunity to gain experience in the real world of business. The manager assured me of his ongoing support.
The bookings came rolling in until they reached the limit of 500 set for the overland section of the pilgrimage. There was also a small number of pilgrims who travelled by air, the manager dealt with these reservations.
Two weeks before departure, the manager informed me that I was to travel to Lourdes with the pilgrims on the overland section while he was accompanying the pilgrims travelling by air.
I did not have a passport but with the Shannon Travel connections my passport application was dealt with expeditiously and arrived days before my departure.
Back then, Diocesan pilgrimages to Lourdes tended to have up to 500 pilgrims on the overland section and our itinerary was as follows;
Limerick to Dun Laoghaire Pier by special train.
Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead by mail boat.
Holyhead to Dover by special British Railways train.
Dover to Calais by mail boat.
Calais to Lourdes via Paris by special French Railways train.
I was in charge of the group from departure from Limerick to arrival in Calais, assisted by group leaders appointed by the organising committee.
On arrival in Calais we were met by a team of three Thomas Cook multi-lingual couriers who travelled with us to Lourdes, remained with us there and returned with us to Calais where we bade them Au Revoir.
The five days in Lourdes were very busy but rewarding. I was on call to deal with difficulties which arose and there were many – from tracing lost property, sorting dietary problems, sourcing medication from pharmacies for those who suffered minor ailments and reuniting lost family members – all without the convenience of a mobile phone.
Spiritual exercises were very inspiring with continuous celebration of Masses at the Grotto, Stations of the Cross on the hillside above the Grotto, total immersion in the baths, candlelight procession in the evening and the blessing of the sick.
It was wonderful to witness the faith of the invalids who had travelled from many countries as they prayed and, on many evenings, joined in hymn singing as they sat in their wheelchairs or lay on their stretchers.
They were caringly looked after by their family members or by one of the many volunteers who travel to Lourdes – some annually – to volunteer their services in support of the sick and infirm.
I found that lack of knowledge of a foreign language did not hinder camaraderie between pilgrims, their common purpose of wanting to visit the site of the apparitions of Our Lady to Bernadette Soubirous and to pray for their various intentions, was an ice-breaker.
On the homeward journey an overnight stopover in Paris afforded an opportunity to visit the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal on the Rue de Bac. It was at this site that Our Lady on three occasions in 1830 appeared to Catherine Laboure, (later to become a canonised saint) a Seminary Sister in the Daughters of Charity to offer the world a medal which we now know as the Miraculous Medal but that’s another story.
I returned to Limerick having gained wonderful experience in dealing with people which stood me in good stead throughout my entire life.