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Column A lot of people miss the point of Lourdes – it's about faith but also about fun

Long-time Lourdes helper Lloyd Murphy writes about what the pilgrimage means to him – and to the pilgrims who visit the little French town each year in search of peace, companionship, and time to forget about illness.

LOURDES – where do I start? Having read the recent article about Lourdes, on, I was surprised and somewhat bemused by some of the comments below the piece, and how people who had negative comments to say, completely missed the point of why we, the helpers, and the pilgrims go to Lourdes. It’s not just a religion or a faith issue. It’s a lot deeper than that. Yes, most pilgrims go because of their faith, but a majority go just to enjoy themselves.

First of all, a little background about the pilgrimage and what us helpers do. Female helpers are known as Handmaids, and male helpers as Brancardiers. Having gone to Lourdes for seven years as a helper, I like to think I know the place well. Each year over 600 helpers travel over, and about 170 sick pilgrims stay in the ‘Accueil Notre Dame’, the equivalent of a modern day hospital. There is something special, which is very hard to describe, that brings me and the hundreds of helpers back each year. It sounds cliché, but you can’t do Lourdes justice in just a few words, you have to experience it first hand.

My love affair with Lourdes

My own love affair with Lourdes started in my school St Michael’s, as I was told a group from my year would be chosen to make the journey over to Lourdes and volunteer in helping the sick. I chose not to apply, as I was quite sceptical and wasn’t sure what to expect of Lourdes at the time. A year later, as I was finishing my first year in college, I heard back from my friends that went to Lourdes, who couldn’t say enough about the place. The conviction and encouraging words about their ‘Lourdes experience’ really intrigued me, so the next day I applied. Weeks later I got accepted, and now seven years on I have gone back every year missing only 2009.

In Lourdes you are assigned a number of duties before you go. These range from: working in the wards, water duty, stewarding, helping down at the baths, downstairs catering, being on reception or working in the refectory (canteen). Each member of the diocese who volunteers is assigned one of these jobs. I have always worked on wards myself, which I love. The bond between helper and pilgrim no matter what the age difference never ceases to amaze me.

Each day begins with a very early start, usually rising from bed at about 7.30am or later depending on your duty. You finish up at around 10pm, again, depending on your duty. Every day is different with a number of masses, the Lourdes baths, a trip to the Grotto, shopping, parties, and a torchlight procession all on the menu.

imageImage via Lloyd Murphy

Relaxing after a long day

After a hard day’s work, most of the helpers head to Felix’s bar for a drink or two. This is part of the Lourdes experience, as helpers need to wind down after a long day!

The bar is great craic. It’s a tiny pub in the middle of Lourdes. The Dublin pilgrimage have been going there for years. A hundred plus helpers all packed in, where singing and our trio of pianists, Collie Ollie (he loves his hair), Shane ‘Shobsy’ O’Brien and Mick Langan, not forgetting our trumpet player Eoghan Cooke all providing us with their musical talents . They plays all kinds of songs, from Avicii to the Beatles, Sweet Caroline to Christmas Carols, all tastes are catered to.

It makes people happy – why knock that?

Having read some of the comments from the previous article on this site, I was taken aback by how narrow-minded and naive people are towards Lourdes. The trip to Lourdes for these sick and elderly people is not solely based on religion as many people might think.

As two users commented: “They might as well go to Lapland and try find Santa. Blind faith is a foolish thing”, or “I don’t admire their faith. I pity them. But in a nice way. Look, if it has some kind of placebo effect, fine. I just don’t respect anyone who thinks I should burn for all eternity for not behaving the way they want me to”. This completely illustrates how these people are missing the point. It is the pilgrims choice to go to Lourdes, so why knock or criticise them about their religion?

Some live on their own, or in nursing homes, so for many of them it is their only holiday of the year. They go for various reasons, the company of fellow pilgrims, the ‘craic’, the company of helpers or simply to have a good time. Just because you disagree with the validity of Lourdes’ healing powers doesn’t mean you should completely disregard the pilgrimage as nonsense.

imageImage via Lloyd Murphy

Good for pilgrims and helpers

The people who remarked on the earlier article, have no idea of the power of Lourdes. It’s not just about ‘the cure’ or having a Lourdes bath, it’s a lot more. Away from the tacky streets selling souvenirs, it is a peaceful place. It’s not about peoples beliefs, it’s that moment of calm and serenity that makes them forget their illness for a while, enjoy the weather (if it’s good), talk to the helpers, tell them stories of their past. Enlighten them with their years of wisdom.

Moreover, from a helpers perspective it can help them grow as a person. Helpers who have gone over shy have come back full of confidence, I’ve seen it first hand. For example, this year was the first time we had deaf helpers aiding deaf pilgrims on the wards. It was amazing to see how helpers in the same ward interacted with each other without being able to speak. Helpers learned enough sign language in a week to nearly become fluent. And I’m sure a few would now like to learn it completely after mastering the basics!

Helpers take their holidays from work to go, don’t get supplemented in any way, and go for the simple fact that they like going. Believers, non-believers, deaf helpers, gay, straight, we all come together as a team, for one week of the year to help these sick pilgrims. Religion or personal beliefs does not come into it.

It’s about helping people

So to those people who question Catholicism, faith, why the pilgrims go to Lourdes, or why we helpers go, ask yourselves: what was the last charitable act you part took in?

They say charity begins at home, but I say it starts every September in south of France in a little town called Lourdes.

To quote the famous Anchorman ‘Ron Burgundy’, “You stay classy Lourdes”.

Lloyd has been to Lourdes seven times as a helper with the Dublin Diocese.

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