It seems odd from here at Lady of Lourdes I attended Mass for the first time in 25 years. I must have gotten

Lady of Lourdes

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

caught up in all the excitement of a service at Lady of  Lourdes. Or, maybe it was that I drank the delicious water from the grotto. Or maybe it was that fat Spanish kid with the stroller who wouldn’t stop whining about the simple act of walking.

“Good lord kid, there aren’t that many stairs,” I told him. His parents frowned. The kid looked at my like I was a huge jerk with a very bad accent.

I felt bad. So I went to church in the grotto.

Lady of Lourdes

The story of Saint Bernadette Soubirous (one of the incorrupt) is, perhaps, the most famous of all the Virgin Mary apparitions. A severely asthmatic 14-year old girl with a one-eyed father, living in immense poverty in a muddy valley of troglodytes and under the watch of a nightmarish citadel stumbles into a cave. She sees something odd, rolls about in the mud, gets yelled at and questioned by governmental misogynists (initially the church wanted nothing to do with this)…..and boom, hotels spring up everywhere and gigantic tourist buses import 6 million visitors a year.

That would be the abbreviated version.

lady of Lourdes

The Hands of Bernadette Inside the Basilica of Lady of Lourdes

Bernadette saw something in the cave that day along the roiling Gave de Pau. “Ou pétito damisèla”, she said, in the local Bearese dialect. She described a small, thin girl in white clothing who pointed at the ground and conjured up a productive little spring. Over the next six months the little lady returned eighteen times.

This may come as a shock but the damisela Bernadette saw may not have been the Virgin Mary.

Nope. The damisela was a fairy. Think Tinker Bell.

The demoiselles were shy forest fairies clad in white. They lived in caves and grottos and small, mossy holes in the rock. Springs appeared where they pointed a finger and flowers appeared at their feet. They hated the rich and often took violent opposition at the abuse of the poor.

When a local paper wrote that Bernadette had seen “a lady”, the girl demurred. When a painter and then a sculptor later depicted the “damisèla” as a full-grown woman draped in finery, Bernadette was furious. What she had seen was something vastly different.

Bernadette wasn’t the first to claim an apparition. The horrors wrought on the French countryside (not to mention the cities) by industrialization served as the catalyst for the avalanche of unsanctioned (by the Church anyway) canonizations throughout the land and the appearance of offerings at the nave of little chapels tucked into cracks in the rock or at the base of large, ancient stones placed by giants. That Mary is the mediatrix with more powers than any other Saint goes without question. Mary dots the countryside. To the everyday French peasant, she was more powerful than God. She was better than God in fact, because she actually offered hope. God was capricious, mean and petty.  Jesus? Who was that? Some guy. Only the Virgin mattered – and she was related to Tink. Yup. Tinker Bell.  A fairy, you know.

lady of lourdes

The Citadel of Lourdes

That she would suddenly show up so often at these dark villages at the base of the Pyrenees is another thing. That the line between so-called pagan religions and Catholicism was very blurred should come as a surprise to no one. Bernadette surely saw no distinction between a protective forest fairy and the ethereal mother of Jesus – just as long as what she saw was portrayed with honesty.

And it never was, of course. What I saw everywhere in Lourdes was a representation of The Virgin, the Lady of Lourdes, as a full-figured, mature, motherly apparition in robes of blue and white, crinolines and perhaps a corset. She was for sale, alongside every other possible Catholic trinket one could imagine, in the oddly un-offensive neon-signed trinket shops that line the streets of the old city.

I came on a warm spring morning when the sky was blue and clear and the streets surprisingly empty. I was thankful to have avoided the crowds of tens of thousands that often cram the city. That said, I have to admit a desire to one day rent one of the thousands of hotel rooms and watch the multitudes from a secure balcony with a bottle of Cap Martin in hand.

The guard at the gate to the sanctuary basilica smiled, all the nuns smiled, the pilgrims and tourists smiled, the janitors smiled and I shared coffee with an Algerian man who wanted to know why I hadn’t seen the apparition of the Virgin Mary in Clearwater, Florida.

“I just don’t know,” I told him.

“Isn’t New Mexico close to Florida?”



Mass at the Lady of Lourdes was in Latin and nearly a dozen strangers hugged me when it came time to offer peace. A gathering of tourists watched us go through the rituals. Some kids ran down the path by the river to the grassy open space reserved for large

lady of lourdes

Mass in the Grotto – Lady of Lourdes

masses. At the fountains, faithful from Thailand, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Canada, California, Japan and Boliva took turns drinking and collecting the blessed water. We exchanged cameras and all took pictures of one another. A group of boys from Mexico passed by with giant white offering candles. A woman sat on a bench crying.

Later, the citadel museum was closed so I prowled the back streets and talked to some workers fixing a road. A grinning, thin café owner, with a smoker’s voice crafted a “special” cheese and ham sandwich for me without charge.

“You’re my only customer,” she said. And that was true.



  1. Comment by Jim O'Donnell

    Jim O'Donnell Reply April 5, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    Yes. It really was the spirituality in the air.

  2. Comment by Jeff Titelius

    Jeff Titelius Reply April 18, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    What a fabulous background you provide for your experience through Lourdes–on my bucket list since my Provence article! Great writeup..i really enjoyed reading this.

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply April 19, 2012 at 12:06 am

      Thanks Jeff! I really appreciate it – especially coming from you. I was lucky enough to spend almost a month in that area. Staggeringly beautiful and fascinating to boot!

  3. Comment by Sébastien Dé

    Sébastien Dé Reply April 21, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    C'est la première fois que je lis tes trucs, très très bon, j'aime la forme et le ton, on a l'impression de marcher avec toi en lisant l'article. T'as pas d'accent, voyons donc!

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply April 25, 2012 at 11:09 pm

      Merci Sébastien! Avez-vous l’occasion d'y aller après mon depart avec les gars ou avez-vous été saisi? J'ai adoré l'endroit. C’est quelquechose très magique la bas. Il était très heureux de rencontrer toi et j'espère que nous pourrons rencontrer de nouveau!

  4. Comment by santafetraveler

    santafetraveler Reply April 27, 2012 at 5:33 am

    What a great story- love the fairy. Puts a different spin on the miracles.

  5. Comment by Marie Coté Twarogowski

    Marie Coté Twarogowski Reply April 27, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    Nice! Thanks for the visit now we don't have to go there. I was in Spain the week after Easter and had the same thoughts-comfortably crowd free but wouldn't it be fun to see the all the Holy Week action.

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply April 27, 2012 at 4:57 pm

      Ha! ha! Yes, you still have to go there Marie!!

  6. Comment by Neomi Martinez

    Neomi Martinez Reply April 27, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    Wow that was amazing Thank you for sharing that with me.

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply April 28, 2012 at 2:06 am

      Hey Neomi! Thanks for dropping by!

  7. Comment by Suzy

    Suzy Reply May 21, 2012 at 2:47 am

    Lourdes reminds me a great deal of Fatima in Portugal. I have never seen so many vendors lined up to sell Mary statues and rosaries. It’s interesting to hear to the fairy story behind the miracl.

    • Comment by Jim

      Jim Reply May 24, 2012 at 2:28 pm

      Suzy, I’ve never gotten to Fatima but its on my list! The selling of the statues and rosaries and stuff is hilarious!

  8. Comment by Audrey | That Backpacker

    Audrey | That Backpacker Reply May 21, 2012 at 2:54 am

    Interesting reading about the story behind it. And I like the sound of that conversation with the Algerian man… haha 😀

    • Comment by Jim

      Jim Reply May 22, 2012 at 9:19 pm

      He was funny. He also knew something about a tortilla with an apparition of jesus in it.,….?

      Now, why would you know that!?

  9. Comment by Lauren Croft

    Lauren Croft Reply May 21, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    Well written post! I really hated Lourdes; it's an interesting story but there was an air of exploitation which I just couldn't handle. Give me a quiet church in the middle of nowhere any day over the commercial, trinket-riddled Lourdes…

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply May 21, 2012 at 8:24 pm

      You know, I really liked it. BUT…I benefited from being there at an off time. Many of the shops were closed and there were amazingly few people in town so I got lucky. That said, I couldnt help thinking that…Jesus went after just these kind people people…the money changers and the people selling trinkets, etc. Didnt he?

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply May 21, 2012 at 8:24 pm

      You know, I really liked it. BUT…I benefited from being there at an off time. Many of the shops were closed and there were amazingly few people in town so I got lucky. That said, I couldnt help thinking that…Jesus went after just these kind people people…the money changers and the people selling trinkets, etc. Didnt he?

  10. Comment by Andi

    Andi Reply May 22, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    What a lovely post! Now I want to visit Lourdes!!!

    • Comment by Jim

      Jim Reply May 22, 2012 at 9:20 pm

      Thanks Andi! I want to go back. Not with the crowds mind you……

  11. Comment by Mary @ The World Is A Book

    Mary @ The World Is A Book Reply May 24, 2012 at 6:29 am

    This was such an interesting post especially with the fairy references. Growing up in a Catholic school made Lourdes, Fatima and the Vatican the trifecta of all pilgrimages to do (I’ve visited 1 of 3). We’ve known many relatives and friends who have visited Lourdes. We have vials of the water and rosaries as our souvenirs from them. Despite the crowd, many have always claimed feeling at peace afterwards. I would love to visit this place, minus the crowds much like you did, to fully appreciate it. The whole area just looks fascinating!

    • Comment by Jim

      Jim Reply May 24, 2012 at 2:25 pm

      Mary. Thank you for dropping by AND for the nice compliments! I grew up Catholic too, obviously, and so I understand all the trifecta! I’ve been to the Vatican so that makes two for me. I agree. There was a peace there. There was also a sense of humor about the whole place. That whole area of southern France is fabulous.I cant wait to get back.

  12. Comment by Chicky Bus

    Chicky Bus Reply May 28, 2012 at 4:42 am

    Cool post–I like the way you described the experience. Nice that you were there when it wasn't crowded!

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply May 28, 2012 at 3:54 pm

      Thanks! I really appreciate you dropping by.

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