Friday, March 20, 2020

Mary Is With Us: Our Lady of Lourdes, France

During this difficult time of Coronavirus, I will be sharing excerpts from the book, Magnificat: Mama Mary’s Pilgrim Sites, a collection of 24 testimonies by people whose lives were changed by Mama Mary. I hope that these articles remind us that Mary is with us during this difficult time. May you find solace in these personal testimonials. ~ Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, editor of Magnificat.


Our Lady of Lourdes

FRANCE – The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

In 1858 the Virgin Mary appeared to sickly 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous at a wooded grotto near the Gave River. In 1872 the neo-Golthic Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was built above the grotto, which itself is a lovely shrine. Since then, many more places of worship were built, including the Rosary Basilica and the underground Basilica of St. Pius X. Not to be missed: the sanctuary's nightly candlelight procession led by a statute of the Virgin Mary carried by white-robed priests. Holy spring water said to have healing effects flow from rows of spigots near the shrine and pilgrims come to bathe in its waters.



Brian Ascalon Roley

The Little Boy

WHEN IT became clear that my little boy could not walk unassisted, my mother began to suggest that we bring him to Lourdes for a cure.

“I don’t know,” my wife said, when I related to her the idea. “Europe’s hilly and the streets and buildings are old. It isn’t so easy to travel with a disabled child.”

“My mother and father would help. I’d carry him.”

“And you believe in that stuff?”

I went over to the table and set my hand on the chair back. I too had heard that Lourdes was gaudy and tacky, a tourist trap, full of merchants selling cheap plastic virgins to ill and disabled pilgrims, profiting off their pain. But I had also seen a giant faith healing nun in the Philippines, dressed in shimmering electric blue habit, set her hands on my comatose lola’s shoulders and cause a change in monitored heart beat that brought the nurses running into the ICU room. I had felt a jolt of energy, seen an elderly lolo discard his canes and walk.

“It couldn’t hurt,” I told my wife.

She wrapped a strand of blonde hair around her finger, as she sometimes did when nervous, then looked up and said, “But wouldn’t it make him feel like there’s something wrong with him?”

The Girl in White

One always hears about physically ill or disabled pilgrims seeking cures at Lourdes, that most famous of Marian visitation sites, but I suspect that many are drawn by the story of Bernadette, which is particularly inspiring to anybody who has been afflicted with the pain of self-doubt, loneliness, physical or spiritual infirmity, or been less than appreciated by their bosses or other authorities. And who has not at times felt alone in the company of their failures?

Bernadette Soubirous could not read or write when she wandered far from home into woods near Lourdes, France to gather firewood for her poor family in chilly winter. She was 14, the year 1858. She ended up beside a hill called Massabielle rock. According to her biographer, Abbe Francois Trochu, she said:

"I heard the sound of wind, as in a storm. I looked up and saw a cluster of branches underneath the topmost opening in the grotto tossing and swaying, though nothing else stirred all round. Within the opening, I saw a girl in white, no bigger than myself, who greeted me with a slight bow of the head."

Bernadette knelt and prayed.

She saw the girl in white sevemteen more times over the following months, always in the cliff side grotto embraced by batches of wild roses. The girl showed Bernadette a trickling spring nearby, told her to tell the local priest to build a chapel here. On the sixteenth appearance, the apparition told Bernadette, "I am the Immaculate Conception."

Nobody else saw them and church authorities were skeptical. But she gathered crowds who witnessed her when in the company of the apparition, apparently in a state of mystical and spiritual rapture not unlike those described by St. Teresa of Avila or bearers of the stigmata. Her concentration was legendary; someone even placed a pin into her shoulder to test Bernadette and she did not move. The girl in white apparently showed her a spring whose water was the source of miraculous cures, as reported by many visitors (and are still reported by pilgrims today.)

After the apparitions ended, Bernadette was stricken with a sense of loss and perhaps abandonment. She lived in a Lourdes hospice, then moved in 1866 to become a nun at the Convent of St. Gildard in Nevers, central France.

She never saw the beloved grotto again. Her post-Lourdes life was arduous, stressed by an unempathetic mother superior (who felt that the famous nun needed to be kept humble) and burdened by the expectations of people who flocked to the convent to meet her. She was ill in health, bedridden in the convent's infirmary, and full of self-doubt that she had failed her God-given gifts. She died in 1879 and was canonized fifty-four years later.

Despite the skepticism and even hostility by many church and secular authorities, the thousands of pilgrims never stopped coming. And now popes come to Lourdes and people still report miracle cures today.

Including my own Filipino relatives. Thus, as my son’s medical diagnoses got more complicated, over the years, my mother kept asking me, “Why don’t we bring him to Lourdes? It really works.” And she would then cite the example of a relation or family friend who had made the journey and reported healing of cancer, a kidney, diabetes, diseases of the heart.

I was skeptical. I did yearn to expose ancient Catholic spirituality, tied in my mind to Philippine culture, to my kids who only knew suburban churches in Ohio. But my vision of Lourdes was tainted by the reputation of tackiness I’d heard from other, more mocking sources. I had heard of the long lines and the gaudy shopkeepers selling cheap plastic trinkets to vulnerable pilgrims to profit at other people’s suffering.

I was also married to a Protestant and perhaps worried about giving a bad impression of Catholics to the mother of my sons.

Our oldest child was not baptized until his third year. It was my wife’s idea to baptize and raise our sons Catholic. But when I related to her my mother’s suggestion about taking Brandon to Lourdes, Gail would grow uncomfortable and repeat, “But what if it doesn’t work? Wouldn’t all he takes away from the trip—for a ‘cure’—be a feeling of inferiority?”

In my heart I shared her worries.

Yet my mother persisted. Over the years, we would receive little plastic Our Lady bottles filled with Lourdes spring water from my uncle’s wife and other relatives. My mother would rub it on my son’s legs at night, whenever my Protestant wife was not in earshot, and whisper to him that the water would “cure” him and make him “better.” She knew that we worried, but she could not help doing so, because she loved him and believe it would work.

It took years. But, in my son’s eighth year on this earth, I finally gave in, at the encouragement of my wife, to my mother’s plan.

From Barcelona

We flew in to Barcelona and rented a car and drove six hours to the French Midi-Pyrénées. I was expecting the worst sort of over-crowded tourist town, but the surrounding countryside is mountainous and beautiful. Finding the Hotel Moderne through the maze of winding one-way hillside streets was a nightmare that took an hour, and often required maneuvering through crowds of pilgrims—many in habits and priestly vestments, or slowed by wheelchairs and walkers. We knew we must be close when we saw the streets lined by market stalls selling plastic Virgin Mary bottles.

But once out of the car and on foot, wandering through the crowd towards dinner, we quickly felt the excitement of event — a sort of joy —I n the crowd. I was pushing my son’s wheelchair and noticed him looking at all the elderly in wheelchairs or using walkers and my heart leap a little bit.

Pilgrimage Site

After an early dinner my jet-lagged family slept, but I headed towards the pilgrimage site alone. The day was ending, growing near dark. But sunshine still hit the hilltops about the lovely mountain valley, and also the beautiful church I found, the neo-Gothic Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, built on the Massabielle rock, near the River Gave, fronted by a gold crown and cross and semi-circular stone ramps that seemed to embrace—like arms—Rosary Square.

That first night I watched the candlelight procession, from the stone rampart atop the rock. It was indeed lovely. The procession was led by monks holding up a litter with a statue of Our Lady, followed by pilgrims in wheelchairs pushed by volunteer helpers, and then a thousand people holding candles. I made a mental note to participate tomorrow with my son in front.

Afterwards, I went down to the Grotto. What were once woods were now open to the River Gave. You had to wait in a short line to see the Madonna placed at the site where Bernadette had seen the Little White Girl. But in line you could reach out to the rock’s vertical cliff-side and touch the damp surface. People would tap it on their foreheads like Holy Water and make the sign of the cross. It was a touching experience.

First Morning

The first morning we all went to visit the shrine together. My children looked around with amazement at all the travelers, and with particular interest in the many people flocking to the rock hillside where spigots had been installed and people were filling little plastic Virgin Mary bottles with water.

"Is that the actual spring water?" my wife said with amazement.

"I suppose it must be," I said. "Otherwise why would people be filling it in their bottles?”

"What’s spring water?" Brandon asked, watching from his wheelchair.

"Water from the mountain. But this water is special—that’s why people are splashing it on their faces. The little French girl who saw Mary said that Mary pointed to a trickle of this water, and told her it could heal people.”

"Is it magic?"

"No. Not magic."

"Will it fix me?"

"It’s hard to explain," I said.

"You don’t need fixing. It’s only to help us pray," said my wife. She twirled a strand of her blond hair in her finger, then clutched her elbow as she sometimes did when nervous.

Brandon looked down, but nodded.

My wife and I exchanged glances. Then we all moved on to find the shrine.


We did a few tourist things on this trip. We wanted the kids to rebond with my parents, who, unfortunately live in another state. You can take an on-off fake rubber-wheel train ride through various tourist sites around the town. It makes seven stops, but you need to be careful in picking the stops you choose because the trains run disappointingly infrequently and are sometimes full. Our kids most enjoyed the recreation of life in Bernadette’s time, a castle on a hilltop with a beautiful garden (but which is not terribly wheelchair or disabled friendly), and the funicular train ride up the side of a mountain to a scenic peak.


We drank and splashed water from spigots on our faces every time we passed one, which was often. My kids loved to do this. I worried that they would not get the significance, thinking it only a game, and that perhaps there was something sacrilegious about not taking this process seriously. But they’d seen, at home, the plastic Our Lady bottles sent to us by relatives and they saw people filling identical bottles now, so they were excited.

Their Protestant mother, the one who signed them up for CCD (or catechism) classes, stood back and did not participate.


Then we set off to the baths. I had worried because I read online that the baths get very crowded, with long lines, and you needed three days to make sure you made it inside. However, this was not a problem. There is a separate entrance for the disabled. Brandon and I got into line an hour before the baths opened, but someone came by and let us into a shaded seating area right by the doors. After another half hour, the volunteers in charge arrived; they looked at the disabled sitting on our benches, and we felt nervously observed, knew these men were trying to decide who would go in first and then in what order.

A French man went up to Brandon and touched him: we were to be first. Of the hundreds of people waiting, something about this quarter Filipino boy with red hair and radiant smile had drawn him.

Brandon giggled in his sunny way.

But I was a bit nervous, not having an example of someone else to go in before us. A team of men quickly led us inside. We felt hurried by the weight of the waiting people behind us. Our marble bath was behind a curtain—about the shape of a large coffin—and they told me to undress and took my son from me. Brandon looked at me anxiously. I wanted to tell these men I would undress him and put him in the bath, but they worked fast and seemed to know what they were doing. The air felt damp, smelled musty. He had a scared look in his eyes as they unbuttoned his clothing and took the layers off; I was naked now, and a man gave me a covering sheet.

Brandon by now down to underpants, had tears in his eyes, lip quivering, and looked at these men as if he struggled between trusting and not trusting. Naked now, he watched as they held his arms and wrists and began affixing to him a complex system of leather straps and buckles, which they would use to lower him into the water. He looked at me and kept whispering, No, I don’t want to go in. I had to step in first. It was freezing, causing a jolt in my ankles. I hesitated, imagining how cold and shocking this would be for my son, wondering if I should call this whole thing off. But the old man assisting me did not know English—none of them did—and I did not object as he gripped my arm and forcefully led me to step deeper and, ultimately, to kneel down and lay back beneath the frigid spring water.

Then he pulled me up and encouraged me to stand, shivering, facing the Virgin. Together we prayed the rosary and I prayed silently for my boy’s healing. But, though I yearned for some spiritual “feeling”—some confirmation that a healing or transformation was happening, I felt nothing but bone-gripping cold, the marble beneath my toes, anxiety for my son who was weeping behind me, and self-consciousness awareness that I should not be observing my reactions as if evidence for the spiritual veracity of this place.

The man let me dry myself with the clinging sheet. I turned. My son was naked, the complex leather straps fastened about him, as six men now maneuvered him towards the water with smiling, reassuring faces. But Brandon could only look at me, with fear there.

I joined them beside him, tried to assist with a hand on his delicate soft arm, surrendering myself to the inevitability of the process — the event — and helped my weeping boy to the water, whispering reassurances, stroking his soft red hair. He tried to be brave, tried to smile, with his anxious laugh. We stepped him into the water and his eyes widened with shock. Then the men lowered him back and I had to trust them and they dunked my boy backwards into the water.

Wet, shivering, we lifted him and faced him to Mary and prayed, as the men dried him.

Afterward, blinking in the arid Pyrenees sunlight, after giving these old men thanks and smiles, Brandon and I looked for our family. We had parted from my parents in the main line, where my father was still waiting with my mother. They saw us and immediately flocked to Brandon, mussing his hair, all eager smiles, though I could tell my mother was scrutinizing his face for signs of spiritual transformation or healing, and seemed a bit nervous that I would be disappointed.

"How are you Brandon? What happened inside?"

“I was cold.”

"He was the first one chosen to go in," I said.


"Yes—there must have been something about him."

Brandon was cheerful now, chattering away, happy I think that the parting with Dad was over. But he showed no sign of miracle.

“Have you seen Gail and Alan?” I said.

"I think they were wandering around somewhere," she said.

"Maybe we’ll go find them," I said.

My mother met my eyes and clearly knew that I was anxious about Gail’s reaction, that she would inevitably hear about the "freezing cold water" and the fact that Brandon had cried.

Brandon and I found them eating gelato among the crowd before the grotto by the River Gave. They ran up to us and flocked to Brandon, smiling as people do around the boy with sunshine smiles, and touched him as if to see if some magic had worn off. Alan appeared to study his hair, Gail his face; Brandon avoided her eyes.

"What happened?" she said.

He looked down.

"It was a bit cold," I explained with a nervous smile.

I hesitated but continued. When it came out that he had cried, Brandon blushed and looked at his lap.

We walked.

We neared the fountains before which pilgrims and sellers were filling plastic Virgin Mary bottles. A number of people were clearly merchants, filling boxes of these things to profit off people looking for a cure. “Look!" Brandon said, and reached towards the sellers from his wheelchair.

"What is it?"

"I want to go there."

I realized that I was blushing and looked over at my wife. "Go on," she said.

I wheeled Brandon over, Alan almost tripping on his wheels as he ran beside us. Alan pressed the metal spigot button and the spring water started coming out. I cupped my hands to gather some for Brandon. But before I got to it, my wife's hands reached out and cupped it. Surprised, I backed up to let her place some spring water up to Brandon’s mouth.

She did this kneeling, then stood, hesitated and looked at her hands.

To my surprise, she put them up to her lips and drank.


My son did not get up and walk out of the baths unassisted; I wheeled him out into the sunlight as before. He did not get around the hotel room without his wheelchair that night. If we were looking for instant healing, we would be disappointed. But Gail and I dared not to expect that, even if we might have each harbored secret hopes.

However, later that summer we would take him to the conductive learning center in Michigan (a branch of the Hungarian Peto Institute) and he had the best month there yet. He did his rigorous therapy and exercises with joy and independence and more progress, according to his therapist-teachers, than any session in the past. And this fall, at his public school back in Ohio, he has done well and been happy.

But we did not know this in Lourdes. Throughout the rest of our journey, Brandon’s sunny disposition seemed to make the French people and volunteers smile. We had brought him here hoping perhaps for a miracle, and I with hopes that something of the mystery of ancient Catholic spirituality would rub off on my kids who only knew modern suburban churches in Ohio. But it struck me that the infectiousness of his joy, his radiant and magnetic charm, was itself a mystery, a miracle we had brought to this place, a gift for others.

Bio of Author:

is the author of American Son: A Novel (W.W. Norton 2001; Christian Bourgois Editeur 2006). His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in many anthologies and publications, including the North American Review, Epoch, Georgia Review and the San Francisco Chronicle. His awards and honors include the 2003 Association of Asian American Studies Prose Book Award, a Los Angeles Times Best Book, a New York Times Notable Book, and a Pacific Rim Prize finalist, and his work has been featured in the California Council for the Humanities Statewide reading program. He earned an MFA from Cornell and is currently an English professor at Miami University.


Book: Magnificat: Mama Mary’s Pilgrim Sites

Collected and Edited by Cecila Manguerra Brainard

Anvil, 2012, softcover, 168 pages, ISBN 9789712727115

Contributors are: Lucy Adao McGinley, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Angelita Caluag Cruz, Maria Ciocon, Celeste, Ma. Ceres P. Doyo, Millicent Dypiangco, Ma. Milagros T. Dumdum, Penelope V. Flores, Almira Astudillo Gilles, Ma. Teresita Herrera-Tan, Fe Aida Lacsamana-Reyes, Jaime C. Laya, Guia Lim, Linda Nietes-Little, Ma. Teresa Z. Lopez, Aimee Gaboya Ortega Lucero, Lynley Salome R. Ocampo, Ma. Cristina Padilla-Sendin, Marsha C. Paras, Rev. Dr. Sebastian Periannan, Brian Ascalon Roley, Julia H. Wolski, and Linda Yamamoto.
Praise for Magnificat

“This is another outstanding book by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard. Profoundly Marian and beautifully written by the contributors as these are their personal experiences! To our fellow devotees and would-be devotees of the Blessed Virgin Mary, you will surely fall in love with Magnificat: Mama Mary’s Pilgrim Sites and love Our Blessed Mother even more.” (Bishop Leopoldo C. Jaucian, SVD, DD, Bishop of Bangued, Philippines)

“The devotion to Mama Mary is strong in the hearts of every Filipino.” (Father James B. Reuter, SJ)

“The Magnificat has always been a testament to God’s paradoxical dealings with his people. This book assembles a tableau of witnesses to how a fleeting visit with Mary can turn into a life-changing introduction to her Son. Through their stories the author offers their readers the distinct possibility of setting the stage for a personal, if vicarious, epiphany.” (Father Dionisio M. Miranda, SVD, President, University of San Carlos in Cebu)

“Running as a leitmotif in all the essays in this book is the writers’ palpable love for Mama Mary. Each writer has undergone a change in his or her life or outlook following a visit to a Marian site. Some may have experienced a “miracle,” or felt consoled and renewed; others a deepening of spirituality, or an epiphany, an insight into the divine. Although we know that Jesus is the only Way to the Father, it is our belief in the power of Mary’s intercession to her Son, borne out of the Bible’s Cana story, that makes us all turn to Her, whom Her divine Son will never refuse. Kudos to Cecilia Manguerra Brainard for putting together an engaging collection of stories that magnify the humble handmaid of the Lord.” (Erlinda E. Panlilio, Writer and Editor)

This blog is also published in Cecilia's Official website:

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