There By Invitation: Part II

There By Invitation: Part II

The nine-hour flight to Frankfurt was pleasant and the time passed quickly. I slept through about half of it. While I was awake, I watched a couple of movies and I ate. I thought the meals were pretty decent for airlines food, and the attendants came by regularly with water, coffee, and other drinks. When we arrived in Frankfurt, I passed through another passport checkpoint, which led to another security checkpoint. I got in the snaking line, relaxed and happy that the long flight was behind me. An elderly woman who was standing in front of me in line turned around, smiled pleasantly, and suggested that I move over to the speed lane, which was only for travelers in danger of missing their flights. “I’ve got plenty of time,” I assured her, as I returned her smile.

[quote]“You’re going to Toulouse,” aren’t you?” she asked. “How did you know that?” I returned. “Oh, I saw you at the passport checkpoint,” she replied.[/quote]

That seemed strange to me. I didn’t remember seeing her there, and she was in front of me in line, so I couldn’t figure how she could have heard me speaking with the agent.

We continued to chat, and the woman again suggested that I move to the speed lane. I assured her again that I was fine. “What time does your plane leave,” she asked.

“4:00,” I replied. But even as I was saying this, I looked up at the clock and saw that it read 3:30. Immediately, adrenalin surged past my chest and into my brain. “Oh, no!” I gasped. “I’m going to miss my plane!” I don’t recall thanking her or even saying goodbye. I tapped the shoulder of a traveler in the next line over and begged that he allow me to cut across in front of him. I moved in the same way through three more lines before I reached a security conveyer belt. Thankfully, my bags passed through it without additional inspection.

I was now on Concourse A, but I needed to be on Concourse B. I hurried as quickly as I could with the weight of my bags, (not to mention that I was nursing the toe I’d broken while babysitting my son’s dogs), and followed the signs to Concourse B, or at least I thought I did. But when I came to a dead end, I realized that I was right back where I’d started, at the Concourse A security checkpoint. At least I was on the right side of it, though. Again I asked other travelers for directions, and again I hurried off in the direction of Concourse B. I got to my gate just as the agent was announcing that the bus would depart in five minutes to take us to our jet. Bus? There was a bus? I would’ve had no airplane door to squeeze through, just as it was closing; I would have literally missed the bus!

Two hours later, I landed in Toulouse, France, where a fresh round of challenges greeted me. For about a year, I’d been studying the French language, just for this trip. I was hoping I’d learned enough to address the locals in their native language, but I didn’t think it was critical. I assumed everyone in the world was required to study English in school, and I just wanted to please the locals with my effort to meet them on their own terms. (How’s that for showing some good old American arrogance?) I needed to find the bus stand for the shuttle to the train station, so in French, I asked a man standing at the curb for directions. He looked confused as I spoke, and I don’t think it was because he didn’t know the location of the shuttle bus stand. I spoke with a total of three smiling gentlemen before I could explain well enough in French what I needed, and receive and understand their directions to the bus. Eventually I did find and board the shuttle, and I traveled to Montabieu Station, though not in time to catch my scheduled train. Fortunately, though, my ticket was also good for that night’s two remaining departures from Toulouse to Lourdes.

The shuttle had dropped us at the curb in front of the train station, so I followed the other passengers inside, figuring I’d imitate them. They were clearly there to take a train, so it seemed like the obvious thing to do. I followed them to a large open area with lots of kiosks. Everyone was going to them and typing rapidly, so I assumed they were printing their tickets. I went to one and tapped on the British flag at the bottom of the screen, since I’d been told that was how you let the machine know that you want instructions in English. The machine asked for my confirmation code, which I gave it. Then the machine asked for the credit card number I’d used to purchase the ticket and I entered that. But the machine would not acknowledge the number I’d given it, even after I typed it a second time, just in case I’d made a mistake the first time.

It was clear I wasn’t going to get my ticket from the kiosk, so I had to go to customer service, take a number, and wait for an agent to print it. Then once I had the ticket, I had to ask other passengers waiting in the terminal, with my minimal French, how to find the departure point for my train. Of course it would have been easier to ask the agent who printed my ticket, but I forgot to do that, and it took the help of another three patient French speakers to figure out where I needed to go. That turned out to be down two sets of stairs, down a long hallway, and then up two flights of stairs, all of this while carrying my heavy baggage.

So far, my attempts to communicate in French had been humbling, and I just hoped the situation would be different in Lourdes. After all, every website I’d visited to find out about volunteering at the Sanctuary had assured me that one needn’t be fluent in French to volunteer, that there would always be someone who would speak my language, whatever it was, and that even if no one did, a smile was the best way to communicate, anyway. I hoped that was true, but I wasn’t feeling so sure any more.

My train arrived in Lourdes at about 11:20. That gave me forty minutes to find a cab ride to the Accueil Marie Saint-Frai and then find the security guard who had my room key, before midnight, when the doors would be locked. I’d been assured, though, that if I arrived after that time, I could call the guard and he’d let me in. But what didn’t occur to me was that it might be difficult to call the guard, since I did not have a phone that worked in France! Fortunately I arrived before midnight; I found the guard’s office, got my key, carried my bags up four flights of stairs, because I don’t take elevators, and was in my room at 11:45. It had now been almost exactly 24 hours since I’d arrived at the Phoenix International Airport to begin my journey.


The English translation of the word accueil is reception. When it opened its doors in 1874, the Accueil Marie Saint-Frai was the first house of reception for the sick and disabled who travelled to Lourdes. This beautiful grey stone building now houses the administrative offices, the nuns’ residence, the chapels, the meeting rooms, and the volunteer quarters of the Accueil. A modern hospital, built in the mid-1900’s, now sits behind it and houses the malades.

When I opened the door to my room at the Accueil, the room that would be my residence for the next ten days, I smiled. It was very much as I’d pictured it. I loved it. It was just large enough to navigate around the single bed, the nightstand, and the small wooden table with the one wooden chair, which furnished the room. And I got a wonderful surprise: I had a tiny bathroom, just large enough to move around in. That was fine with me. From all I’d read about the accommodations, I’d expected to hike down the hall to attend to my business.

The walls were painted a soft green, while the ceiling was white. My room was on the top floor so the ceiling was slanted and had a dormer window, which poked out of the roof. Its double windows opened out onto the town below, and I could see the river that divided Lourdes. The windowsill was deep, about a foot and a half, which meant the walls were, too. I stood on the chair and leaned on the sill, as I looked out at the people moving around below. The town seemed quite active for midnight, but then it was Friday. I felt at peace, so high above the world I was watching, and yet I was still close enough to hear the words of many who passed on the sidewalk below.

The bed was not made. Well, the bedspread was pulled up over the pillows, but the linen was neatly folded and stacked at the foot of the bed. It was my job to make it, so I did, and then I put on my pajamas and slid under the covers. It felt so good after sleeping in the seat of an airplane the previous night.

Slumber came quickly, and I slept soundly, especially for being in an unfamiliar setting. When I woke the next morning and looked at the clock, it was already 8:30. That’s very late for me, no matter what time I go to bed. I didn’t know how long breakfast would be served, and it was the only meal of the day that came with the rooms. (Volunteers are charged ten Euros per night for a room and breakfast, which is a very good deal when compared with what the hotels charge. Lunch and dinner can be purchased at a nearby diner for a discounted price.)

I jumped back into the clothes I’d worn since leaving home, without even showering, and went down to the dining room, which was on the second floor. I walked through the double wooden doors and into a room with about twenty round, wooden tables, each adorned with a tablecloth upon which sat bowls of butter and jelly. There were also place settings, which included a plate, a bowl, a knife, and a spoon. The bowls turned out to be for the coffee, which came from a push-button selection machine in the tiny adjoining kitchen. The choices on the machine were printed in French and I was glad I could translate them. The plate and knife were for the French bread, and that was all there was to breakfast, coffee and French bread. I was free to toast the bread in the kitchen, however.

I took a slice of bread, selected a “café longe” (Americana to those familiar with Starbucks), and took a seat next to a stagiaire (first-year volunteer) who was already eating her breakfast. Fortunately, she spoke English, and she explained to me that the traditional French breakfast consists only of bread and coffee. However, we were allowed to purchase food items like yogurt, fruit, and cheese and store them in a small refrigerator reserved for volunteers.
After breakfast, I showered and dressed in fresh clothing. Then I went down to the office to settle my account and to get my work assignment. I was allowed the remainder of the day to settle in and to get acclimated with the area. My work would begin the following day, which was Sunday.


For those interested in volunteering at Lourdes, there are many forms of service from which to choose. However, most of them do not involve direct service to the pilgrims who come in search of physical and spiritual healing. The volunteers that are seen in pictures and movies, pulling the carts of ailing and handicapped pilgrims (malades), have usually come with the organization that brought the malades to Lourdes. Most of the work done by Lourdes volunteers involves behind the scene services, like housekeeping, kitchen cleanup, janitorial work, cart and buggy rental, manning of information booths, acting as a museum docent, and crowd control. Only a few positions, notably assisting in the baths, involve direct service to the sick and disabled. The volunteer’s role is humble yet essential, and its rewards are perhaps less obvious than those of pushing a malade’s cart through the Grotto. I find nothing particularly heartwarming about scrubbing dishes, but I do find joy in serving Our Lady through this work.

The time of service for stagiaires is divided between work and formation. There are many branches of service at the Sanctuary, but they all fall under one umbrella organization and it facilitates formation for everyone. When formation is scheduled, it trumps any work assignment and is actually considered to be the work assignment for that time. Formation begins on a Monday and goes until Friday of the same week. Each day is different; some are spent totally in formation and others totally in work, but most days are a mixture of both.

Often volunteers arrive mid-week and they begin their stage (course of service), before they begin their formation. But on the following Monday, they start their training with the other new stagiaires. I’d arrived on a Friday and rested on Saturday, so on Sunday, I was ready to go to work. I donned the required stagiaire apparel: a black or blue skirt, a white top, a blue cardigan sweater, and a white lab jacket. I attached my badge, which showed my name and the country of my origin, and then I walked across the breezeway from the residence hall to the Marie Saint-Frai Hospital.

On that day, I worked on the first floor of the hospital. My duties included stripping beds, delivering linen to the laundry, polishing bathroom fixtures, and cleaning bathroom mirrors. Each day’s assignment was different. Sometimes I was cleaning hospital rooms and sometimes I was working in the kitchen, cleaning and drying the dishes. Sometimes I worked following breakfast, lunch, and dinner, while on other days I only worked after one or two meals.

On my second day, I did not work in the hospital. Instead, I was assigned to formation for the entire day. For training, stagiaires were divided into groups based on one’s primary language, as long as it was French, Italian, English or German. Each group was led by a formateur who spoke its language. But before meeting in these separate groups, everyone met together. The keynote speaker would address us in his language, and then the formateur for each group would translate. We began with the Rosary, which was spoken by parts in each language. It pleased me to be able to recite with both the French and the English speakers.

After prayer we listened to words of encouragement, and then we separated into our subgroups. We were taught the message of Lourdes, and then we were taken for a tour of all Sanctuary facilities: its numerous chapels, cathedrals, and basilicas; its points of prayer, like the Grotto and the Stations of the Cross; its healing baths, museums, library, bookstore, lavatories, and assistance facilities (restrooms, information center, etc.), so that we could give directions and answer questions for pilgrims. (Since the badges we wore indicated the languages we spoke, one would know whom to ask.) We were also shown how to safely lift malades into and out of chairs, carts, and gurneys and to transport them. We spent time in prayer, time in sharing our experiences as stagiares, and time in private meetings with our formateurs, where we could discuss questions, concerns, and any problems we were having. From what I saw, the training staff works very hard to make the experience as pleasant as possible for stagiaires, and overall, their efforts appear to be very effective. There were around one hundred first-year volunteers present during my stay, but at the same time, the total number of volunteers working at the Sanctuary was about a thousand. I’d call that an excellent return rate. But then, we were told in formation, and I believe, that anyone who comes to serve at Lourdes comes at Our Lady’s invitation. I’m sure that was true for me, and I’m sure her invitation would be hard for most anyone to turn down, whether it was the first time or the tenth that she called, and regardless of what frustrations had been encountered in the past.

In addition to our training, there were other activities that were suggested but not required of fledgling volunteers. There was the nightly candlelight procession, the daily blessing of the sick and its procession, as well as the celebratory Mass for all volunteers. And there were daily Masses and Rosary recitations in every language.

Before my trip to Lourdes, I had studied long and hard to memorize the Rosary in French so that I could pray with the locals. While I was there, I attended several Masses and Rosary celebrations offered in that language, and I proudly recited the Creed, the Our Father, and the Hail Mary, right along with everyone else. I also heard Masses in German and Italian, but in those cases, I basically said only Amen.

When I wasn’t in formation, or working, or attending a devotional service, I was always on the run. I had been to Lourdes on two other occasions, but both times I’d come as part of pilgrimage tours, in which Lourdes only was one of many destinations. Each time, we had just one day there and so we were only able to visit the most prominent Sanctuary and historical cites. There were so many other places I wanted to see: the parish church that now holds Saint Bernadette’s baptismal font, the hospice where she lived for many years following the apparitions, the house where her family lived after leaving the cachot, and the lower Stations of the Cross, which were carved out of beautiful, thick slabs of Carerra marble. There were also areas I wanted to explore, just because they looked interesting, and during my travels I even discovered how I’d managed to get lost twice in one day, in two different directions, during my last pilgrimage. I was elated. I felt victorious over my own stupidity.

I packed as much sightseeing into each day as I could. At this time of year, it rains a lot in Lourdes, on average, every other day, and I didn’t know how much time I would have that was both free from work and from rain. I started with the places most important to me and worked my way down a list of priorities. I walked up and down the hilly streets of Lourdes, day after day, going from one destination to another and often eating my meals as I walked. Those meals almost always consisted of some form of bread and cheese, which I purchased in bakeries along the way. I walked two to three hours each day, and I actually lost weight instead of gaining it, as I usually do when I travel. As it turned out, there was not a drop of rain while I was in Lourdes, and I was blessed to be able to spend time each day exploring.

It was good to walk where Saint Bernadette had walked. And as I stared up at the Lourdes Hospice, I could picture her as she dropped a shoe out of one of the windows so she could run outside and pick a berry for herself and her friend. I wondered which window it was. At the Lourdes parish church, as I stood before the baptismal font in which our saint was baptized, I could picture her young godfather saying to her father that she wouldn’t be a good child, because she cried throughout her baptism. At the cachot, a room of about twelve by fourteen feet, which had been a jail cell until it was closed due to inhumane conditions, I tried to imagine Saint Bernadette eating and sleeping, along with her parents and three siblings, in that cramped space. I never could conger up that picture; it’s just very difficult to imagine. I tried to figure out where she’d have walked to go from the cachot to the Grotto. I tried to map out the route she’d have taken to sneak around the fortress and escape notice after the apparitions became widely known. I could sense her in these places more than at the Sanctuary, but maybe that’s because, with the exceptions of the Grotto and the Crypt, which is the original church, the Sanctuary was not there during her time.

One sunny afternoon, after I’d been to all of the must sees on my list, I decided to hike up a hill to the Carmelite Monastery and buy some of their famous chocolates. I needed something to take home to my parents, who were babysitting my dog. But when I got there, it being the end of the season, all of their chocolates were sold out and I was told that there would be no more. They did have small bags of almond biscuits, though, so I bought one of them for ten Euros, which is about fifteen U.S. dollars. Pretty pricey cookies!

After I came out of the monastery I was standing on a bluff, enjoying the beautiful view. I looked across the valley to the next hill and saw what looked like a stately French mansion. I’d noticed it many times before from the Sanctuary grounds, and I wondered if it was a private residence or yet another place that I could visit. I decided to hike down the hill and through the Sanctuary. From there I could hike up the hill on the other side. I was really hungry though, and I had no food with me, except for my parents’ biscuits. I contemplated breaking into their gift, and I decided it wouldn’t hurt to eat just one. I opened the taped package as inconspicuously as possible and took out one biscuit. It was very good! I took out another and another, and before I could stop myself, I’d eaten a handful. At this point, their gift had obviously been tampered with, and I’d either have to confess or to buy them something else.

The road leading to the mansion was narrow and winding, with rock walls on each side. It did not look wide enough for automobile and pedestrian traffic, but at its entrance was a road sign depicting a pedestrian, so I assumed that meant foot traffic was allowed, even though there was no sidewalk. Several times I had to lean back against those walls to avoid being hit by the cars that were racing up and down the hill. I made it safely, though, and when I got to the top of the hill, I saw a large driveway leading into the mansion grounds. There were a couple of priests walking down it and towards a parking lot, so I approached them. I asked them what the building was used for, and they said it was a house of hospitality for the clergy. They also said it was open and I could go in.

Excited, I walked around the building, looking for its main entrance, since the door in the front did not seem to be a major portal. I followed the driveway through a gate and saw a sign that said something like: Monastery of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. I walked a little further and then behind the house I saw a second beautiful building. I walked toward it, but when I was almost there, a bear-sized, shaggy, black mountain dog came bounding from the side of the house and it was running straight toward me. It bore a look of purpose rather than greeting, and I sensed that it saw me as a tasty morsel. I knew I had to think fast. The dog was coming for me and I didn’t have much time. I needed some way to distract him and to show him I was a good human. The biscuits, I thought. I’ll toss him the biscuits. I was just about to sacrifice what was left of the bag, when a woman leaned out one of the monastery windows and called him off. She looked to be a housekeeper and she asked me what I needed. “I’m fine,” I told her. “I’m just lost.” Then I turned and quickly made my way back to the front of the first building.

I walked up the steps and went in the front door. The interior was disappointing, compared to its magnificent exterior. There was nothing but a small entry, which led to a set of wooden doors. There was a tiny office to one side, and the desk clerk seated in it asked me if I needed help. I said no; I thanked him, and then I made my way back down that winding road, without being run over. The tour was a little disappointing, especially after taking my life in my hands to get there, but at least the encounter with the dog was memorable.

There By Invitation: Part III

There By Invitation: Part I


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Written by
Cynthia Todd