A look back over 50 years of pilgrimage by Father Peter Sharrocks, then Parish Priest of St Werburgh's Chester, at the Diocesan History Day in September 2000

It has been said that history often repeats itself. When I came to the diocesan archives to see what there was about Lourdes and the diocesan pilgrimage, you can imagine what a pleasant surprise it was to find a letter from Bishop Murphy to the deans of the diocese written on January 2nd 1951. It reads;

Dear Dean,

I wish to form a committee to make arrangements for an annual pilgrimage to Lourdes. It is important that every part of the diocese be represented and I feel that the eight deans with the Vicar General and myself would form a suitable committee. I have made arrangements for a preliminary meeting at St Werburgh's Chester on Monday next, 8th January, at 11 00 a.m. I shall be pleased if you are able to attend.

Yours devotedly in Christ
Bishop of Shrewsbury

Much of what I have to say today is based on anecdotal evidence from pilgrims over the years, a few memories of my own - after all I wasn't born when that first meeting took place in St Werburgh's, that was to happen three days later!! I have also gathered together snippets from the minute book of the Diocesan Hospitalite which begins in April 1959.

No records exist from that first meeting in St Werburgh's but in any event a pilgrimage left the diocese on September 2nd arriving back on September 12th. In a letter of August 27th that year Bishop Murphy suggested that a Novena in honour of Our Lady of Lourdes be held in all the parishes for those unable to attend the pilgrimage and he granted permission for Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament be held each day of the Novena. He suggested that the Novena should commence on September 8th and finish with a General Communion on September 16th and that there be two intentions:

1. To invoke the protection of the Mother of God over the persecuted peoples of the world;

2. To ask that the priests and people of every parish in the diocese may grow in the love of God and his Holy Mother.

The first pilgrimage must have been a satisfactory experience because in his 'Ad Clerum' of September 26th 1951 he wrote: I would like to thank all those who helped to make the Lourdes Pilgrimage such an outstanding success. In particular, I would like to thank Father Nixon for all the good work he did in organising the pilgrimage. I look forward to being able to lead a still greater pilgrimage to Lourdes next year and I am sure that all the priests of the diocese will be ready to give all possible help to this end. He wrote virtually identical paragraphs after each pilgrimage in 1952 and 1953.

In November 1951 Bishop Murphy asked that each parish priest appoint an organiser or Lourdes Committee to gather in names for the pilgrimage and to arrange savings groups. He also devoted his Advent Pastoral Letter that year to Lourdes and the pilgrimage hoping that more and more people would join in what has now become an annual diocesan event.

Now you will be pleased to know that I am not intending to go through all 50 Diocesan pilgrimages and explain what happened. I want to try and give an overview of the last 50 years and highlight some of the events of the pilgrimage and try and put them in the context of what has been going on in the Church generally. I will use four headings; travel arrangements, care of the sick, some familiar faces and Lourdes and the Sanctuaries. Above all, I ask you to be patient because I have never done anything like this before.
Our Train


An essential part of the pilgrimage is of course getting there. I remarked last February to the people of St Werburgh's that my travelling to Lourdes in February for the feast and the directors meeting was of course a business trip. Fortunately I enjoyed my business and how fortunate that Our Lady appeared in the south of France rather than in Saltney! But whatever we think about the place, it is not that easy to get to. There is a lovely story told of a Merchant seaman coming home on leave having spent months at sea. His wife told him that she had arranged for them to go away and promptly took him back to a boat where they sailed for Bordeaux and then from there went by train to Lourdes. That was just before the war.

On Tuesday September 4th 1951 a train left Birkenhead Woodside at 12 40 p.m. with 360 pilgrims, stopping at Chester General and Crewe before arriving in Folkestone at 8 42 that evening. Tea and Dinner were served en route. The boat left Folkestone at 10 30 arriving in Boulogne at Midnight. The pilgrimage train left at 01 55 a.m. arriving in Lourdes at 6 00 p.m. with breakfast and lunch being served and making it a journey in total of some 30 hours.

The return journey left Lourdes on Tuesday September 11th at 10 13 a.m. and arrived in Boulogne at 2.20 a.m. The boat left Boulogne at 4 00 a.m. and arrived at Folkestone at 5 30 a.m. In typical British Railways fashion the timings for the return train in England had not been received when the booklet was printed. If timings for the following years are roughly the same then that first year the train would have been back in Birkenhead around about 3 00 p.m. The cost of that first pilgrimage including first class travel and the meals on the train was £25. According to the pilgrimage booklet the rate of exchange was around 980 French francs to the pound.

On Wednesday July 26th 2000 coaches left various parts of the diocese at around 8 00 p.m. carrying 640 pilgrims and went to Dover for the 3 45 a.m. crossing to Calais arriving there just after 6 00 a.m. The TGV train left Calais Ville Railway Station at 8 00 a.m., arriving Lourdes at around 4 30 p.m. - a journey time of some 21 hours, but without breakfast dinner or tea.

There is now a buffet car on the train and some pilgrims now bring quite magnificent picnic lunches. A packed meal is served on the return train journey which leaves Lourdes very early - around 7 00 a.m. and everyone gets back home late that night or in the early hours of the morning if your coach has a puncture as one did this year. The cost of this last pilgrimage started at £315 rising to £395 with supplements for first class travel and single rooms as available. The rate of exchange was just over 10 French francs to the pound. There were a number of pilgrims on our 50th pilgrimage who had been on the first one in 1951, and have lived to tell the tale.

Over the fifty pilgrimages there have been delays of one kind or another but perhaps nothing can compare with 1958 which was of course the Centenary Year of the Apparitions. That year our pilgrimage had three trains in England and there were storms in Kent. Indeed such was the intensity of the storms that one train was delayed for 8 hours whilst the track was cleared of trees. The villagers of Eynsford in Kent maintained a constant supply of sandwiches and hot drinks. They also fixed together a number of garden hoses to replenish the steam engines boilers with some 450 gallons of water. It is certainly a different version of the excuse of the wrong types of leaves on the line! Villagers said that it was a miracle that the train had come to a halt when it did otherwise there could have been disastrous consequences. The driver apparently had had to stop because of the intensity of the rain - quite simply, he couldn't see where he was going.

Another highlight of the 50 pilgrimages were the years in the 1980's when we used to take big gas fired water boilers and brew fresh tea in the luggage van. The implications for health and safety do not really bear thinking about these days but for some reason the French Railways at the time did not object. Not only was there fresh tea but also one year we made bacon butties and did a roaring trade as the smell wafted down the train.

Bordeaux station on the return journey was the place to buy chips. One year a group of helpers solemnly carried a person on a stretcher down the platform from one end of the train to another whilst some of us queued at the chippie. M. Barrerre, our French travel agent, thought I was mad when I told him that we needed to stop for a quarter of an hour at Bordeaux on the return journey for chips! I can remember the first pilgrimage with Bishop Gray when I offered him a gin and tonic with ice and lemon four hours out of Lourdes on the way home. 'Where did you get that ice?' he demanded. I said, 'You're with Shrewsbury now - not Liverpool.' The pilgrimage train was the scene of much fun and laughter. And still is. The sheer logistics of moving 500 and more people some of whom are handicapped is, of course, not without its problems. At a meeting of the Hospitality in November 1959 a minute reads,

'A lengthy discussion followed on the subject of the chaos which occurs each year over the embarkment and disembarkment, especially at Boulogne, but also at Folkestone on both journeys. It was felt that something could and should be done, from an official source in the way of giving clearer and more definite instructions to the ordinary pilgrims.'

At a meeting last week, 41 years later, mention was made of the chaos on the station platform at Calais on the return journey and how nobody seemed to know what was going on. The passage of time does not always mean progress is made.

For a number of years the pilgrimage travelled by air sometimes with a train running at the same time. Air travel was described at the Hospitalite A.G.M. in 1962 as 'alright'.

'We should however brief the hostesses to keep the walking sick to the rear end of the plane and let them off first. It was also decided that we should keep the newspapermen away from the plane as these impeded the exit of the sick from the plane. The gangway to the plane was very steep and it was felt something might be done in this line to help us.'

In 1969 Fr Carroll who had succeeded Fr Nixon as the pilgrimage director in 1964 announced that the pilgrimage dates would be from 18th -25th August and that all bookings in 1969 would have to be made through the Catholic Association. He stressed that he had no objection to splinter groups making their own way there.

In 2000 we carried around 640 pilgrims on the train and in addition there were coach groups from Macclesfield, St Ambrose College, Bromborough, Altrincham, Dukinfield as well as others who flew with Mancunia or made their own travel arrangements. The so-called 'splinter groups' are now recognised as a very important part of the pilgrimage and give a very important service to the pilgrimage.

One of the consistent areas for discussion over the years has been the cost of the pilgrimage. In the late sixties and early seventies there was talk of the pilgrimage being held in alternate years or to link with other dioceses such as Liverpool or Salford. In 1976 concern was expressed that the following year's pilgrimage might cost as much as £175. Despite all these possibilities we have retained our independence and are as strong as ever.

Over the years a number of travel agents have been used. All have given varying standards of service but for the last five years we have used M. Pierre Barrerre from Maison du Pelerin in Lourdes. This new trading arrangement, with a lot of the initial work done by a small committee of volunteers, has helped to keep the costs down. In recent years we have also been helped by the strength of sterling against the euro. At the moment our pilgrimage is amongst the lowest priced diocesan pilgrimages travelling overland.

Looking to the future we hope that in the next couple of years it may be possible to take a Eurostar train direct through the Channel Tunnel to Lourdes. Discussions are ongoing with the appropriate authorities but there is a problem taking handicapped people through the Tunnel on a train. They don't have the same problems with them going on boats and most of our handicapped pilgrims cannot swim. Hopefully the matter will be resolved and eventually, when the Government, Railtrack and the other associated companies get their act together we will perhaps be able to get on a train in Crewe and go direct to Lourdes. This would make another considerable saving on the journey time.

Care of the Sick

The regime for the sick pilgrims in 1951 was very strict. All sick pilgrims were accommodated in the Asile. This was a hostel or hospice for sick pilgrims, which was in the Domaine. Their day began with an early morning call at around 6 00 a.m. and after they were washed and dressed were taken to the Grotto where they heard Mass.

After Mass they were taken under the trees in the Rosary Square where they were served what was accused of being coffee and bread rolls. From there they were taken back to the Grotto or to the baths. At 11 30 they went back to the hospital for lunch. The food was poor. A thin soup was served and then some main course. It was not very appetising.

As the years went by the custom grew of the pilgrimage taking a lot of its own food to supplement the diet. After lunch, the sick pilgrims were taken back to the Grotto or to the baths. At around half past three they were then lined up in the Rosary Square in readiness for the Blessed Sacrament Procession which began at 4 30 p.m. and lasted about an hour. Then it was back to the hospital for supper - another unappetising meal.
The Torchlight procession took place at around 8 30 but the sick pilgrims were not allowed even to watch it and sometimes pilgrimages organised their own processions around the wards. The sick pilgrims were in bed and lights out by 10 00 p.m.

Throughout the whole week they were not allowed out of the Domaine and into the town and helpers used to go and buy any souvenirs or postcards they might wish to take home. The hospital wards were dark and primitive, with beds perhaps only a foot apart. One needed great faith to sleep next to patients who were very ill and possibly contagious. If there were any difficulties or problems then they were told to 'Offer it up.' There was a lot of offering up done.

In the 1970's a new hospital was built in addition to the Asile. The Saint Bernadette hospital was a great improvement on the Asile which was then renamed the Accueil - the French word for welcome. However in the 1990's this too was demolished to make way for the new Accueil Notre Dame de Lourdes - a modern well-equipped light hospital similar to many of our modern hospitals.

Some single rooms are available as well as twin rooms. Most of the pilgrims are housed in 4 or 6 bedded rooms with en suite facilities. The food is varied and a choice is offered to the main menu so that if we feel pilgrims may not like a dish on offer on the main menu we can choose an alternative. The food is served in attractive dining areas and all the wards have good views of the Domaine or the surrounding Pyrenean countryside. Wine or beer or soft drinks are served with the meals and a birthday is celebrated with a cake and singsong.

The whole impression is one of spaciousness and a relaxed atmosphere. The regime is less regimented and geared to helping our sick pilgrims get as much as they can from their few days in Lourdes. Helpers are only too happy to take them out into the town to see what's going on there and buy their own postcards and souvenirs or stop at one of the many cafes to enjoy a drink and the company of other people.

We are conscious that many of our sick pilgrims may live on their own or do not see many people other than their own immediate family or carers. The days of the pilgrimage are for many of them an opportunity to live life a little fuller. What a contrast to the evening Fr Tom Fee came back to the old hospital with Canon Ted Coonan, both having escaped with some of the younger priests of the diocese for a drink. They were soundly told off by the then matron Maggie Murphy and forbidden to go out again.

Another innovation in the last few years has been the number of pilgrims who register as sick pilgrims but who are accommodated in hotels with relatives or parish groups. A team of helpers are set aside each day to help them get from their hotels to the various services and functions taking place. This arrangement which was first brought about by a shortage of beds in the hospital is now a regular feature of the pilgrimage and enables us to take more sick/handicapped pilgrims to Lourdes each year.

Although it is interesting to note how when people see others being picked up in wheelchairs from hotels they suddenly become sick and need help! Equally remarkable are the way these people can undergo quick recoveries which enables them to race along the station platform at Calais to get a good seat on the coach for the return journey.

Some familiar faces

Whatever the regime in the hospital there were always many people on the pilgrimage who would show great kindness. Some of the names that appear from the past evoke happy memories. Dr Louis Walsh from Birkenhead was our first pilgrimage doctor, a very devout man, and daily Mass goer, who always treated the patients with great kindness, as did Dr Des 0'Kelly who practised in Stalybridge.

Joe Harvey was the Chief Brancardier for a number of years who by his gentle encouragement and support made the pilgrimage a special time for both sick and helpers. Joe was a wealthy businessman with interests all over the place. He stayed at the best hotel and would always give a dinner at the end of the pilgrimage for various people. Joe Crawford was a farmer from Crewe who helped. He was one who brought milk churns along filled with fresh drinking water for the journey and blocks of ice.

I remember Eddie O'Neill who worked so hard for the pilgrimage throughout the year and made it so special for the sick people. Members of his family are still associated with the pilgrimage. Eddie followed Joe Harvey as president of the Diocesan Hospitalite. Dr Brian Hawe who died earlier this year was a conscientious pilgrimage doctor for whom nothing was too much trouble and was always on hand to help and to reassure.

Don McDermott who was the pilgrimage pharmacist for many years went to his reward just before our last pilgrimage. He was a fund of experience and support which we all miss. The clergy, too, played an important part. Bishop Murphy led the first pilgrimage and encouraged it right from the planning stage. Bishop Grasar was a regular pilgrim attending all of the pilgrimages throughout his episcopacy except when his health prevented him from making the journey. Bishop Gray always took a keen interest in what was going on and is the only Bishop of Shrewsbury, so far, to have presided at the International Mass of the Sick on Sunday in Lourdes. This he did when celebrating the Golden Jubilee of his ordination to Priesthood in 1993.

On that day we made sure all our sick pilgrims were together in the great Underground Basilica by getting there early. This became known as the 'Shrewsbury solution'. As the Bishop arrived at the sanctuary all our pilgrims cheered and were mistaken for Italians because English people did not do that kind of thing. Fr Decha told them to be quiet in Italian which had no effect. Joe Gray loved every minute of it but then he loved every minute of being a bishop. Joe would always be ready with a song from Ireland during any of the parties for the sick which used to be held in the Transit lounge of the hospital.

Fr Nixon from St Paul's Hyde was the first director. What an act of faith to start organising a pilgrimage from scratch! He was a very organised man who got the whole thing off the ground. He was succeeded by Fr Carroll who despite his bluff manner had a heart of gold and was utterly devoted to Lourdes. Jack Lynch succeeded him. He always did his utmost to visit all the sick pilgrims at home before they came to reassure them and make sure that they would see a familiar face on the train or plane.

No mention can be made of the Diocesan pilgrimage without the name of Fr Jack Hoskinson who travelled on the first pilgrimage and virtually every pilgrimage until his death in December 1996. Jack for a time was 'Master of Processions'. It was his job to get a good position for the Diocesan Banner in the processions. It was always good to watch him jockeying for position and refusing to concede ground particularly to Italians. International rivalry has never been restricted to the football field.

Other priests and people also have made significant contributions over the years but since they are still alive I will spare their blushes but I must thank my immediate predecessor Canon Paddy Healey from Northwich who has just stepped down from being director after 16 years. His tenure of office has seen many changes and was rewarded with his appointment as honorary Chaplain of the Sanctuaries of Lourdes during our recent pilgrimage. We hope he continues to travel with us.

Lourdes and the Sanctuaries

I mentioned earlier the regime that the sick pilgrims had to 'offer up' in the hospital. They were taken to Mass at the Grotto each morning and operated to a separate timetable to the 'ordinary' pilgrims. The whole place was quite regimented but then so was the Church in general. The priests on pilgrimage would have to queue up in the various sacristies to say Mass at a side altar and then perhaps assist at the Pontifical High Mass celebrated by the Bishop.

The programme for Sunday September 7th 1958 proposed a Mass at the Grotto at 7 30 a.m. celebrated by Bishop Craven, one of the auxiliaries of Westminster, followed at 10 00 a.m. by a Pontifical High Mass celebrated by Bishop Murphy in the Rosary Basilica. After this, there followed by an Opening Ceremony at the Grotto at 11 00 a.m. with an address by Bishop Craven. I suspect that those who attended the Pontifical Mass may well have missed Bishop Craven's opening address. The Blessed Sacrament Procession was at 4 30 p.m. and, 'Children of Mary should assemble in cloaks and veils at 4 15 p.m. by the arches on the right hand side of the Rosary Church; the men should assemble near the Grotto.'

In those days the Children of Mary led the procession, followed by the men and then the clergy immediately preceded the Blessed Sacrament. Following behind the Blessed Sacrament were the bishops and prelates, doctors and then the religious women and then anybody else who wanted to join in. Sick pilgrims waited in the Rosary Square.

Another devotion in Lourdes was the Way of the Cross up the hillside. It was a common practise then for one of the priests to celebrate a Low Mass at the 12th station. Of course the sick did not go up the hillside.

As the Church changed and developed in the light of the second Vatican Council so did Lourdes. The whole atmosphere has become a little more relaxed. This is not always a good thing. One of the things that has been lost despite the efforts of the authorities is the notion of silence before the Grotto. But then our celebrations of Mass have become noisier events over the past 50 years. It is difficult to tell people to be quiet immediately after celebrating Mass at the Grotto but in losing the silence in that place we have lost a little of the sense of the mystery which is Lourdes. There have been attempts to restore the silence, including proposals to stop celebrating Mass at the Grotto but at the moment the low hum continues.

The Sanctuaries have of course been at the forefront of the composition of liturgical music. Fr Paul Decha was a familiar figure at the processions and International Masses leading the singing in different languages. He, along with Jean Paul Lecot, the organist of the Sanctuaries, composed a lot of new liturgical music which through translations of varying standards have spread throughout Europe and the world Decha retired a few years ago and subsequently died a couple of years after that. His death occurred during our pilgrimage and some of us attended his funeral Mass in the Rosary basilica. It was a mini-International Mass and we sang his favourite English hymn, 'Soul of my Saviour.' Lecot is still in place and he composed the music for the Vatican Jubilee hymn that has been sung during this year. If you have come to St Werburgh's Chester for a Jubilee pilgrimage you may have been invited to join in the singing of it.

Meanwhile in Lourdes, chaplains to the various language groups have been appointed and are in residence throughout the year. The notion of 'a pilgrim people of God' as an image of the Church has been emphasised. With the advent of concelebrated Masses it is the norm now for a diocese to celebrate one Mass together each day with everyone invited to take part. The sick pilgrims do not have a separate timetable; we are all pilgrims together. This has been emphasised in recent years with the sick pilgrims being allowed to take part in the processions.

There is something quite emotional at seeing a diocesan pilgrimage led by its banner and then the bishop and clergy with their people of all ages and ability and disability walking along to sing the praises of God and to pray for the Church and the World. The young people who come to Lourdes in such great numbers are well catered for with cheap accommodation and opportunities to celebrate and reflect together. Lourdes is indeed an international town.

To accommodate all this, the Sanctuaries of Lourdes have had to adapt and develop themselves. In 1958 the Underground Basilica was opened by the then Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Roncalli. A few months later he became Pope John XXIII. It is a bit like an Underground car park - in fact Roncalli rode round in a jeep to bless the walls - but comes alive when in use for what it was intended - the celebration of the liturgy. In February it is usually filled with some 20,000 people for the feast of the Apparitions.

The St Bernadette Church was opened in 1988 and holds around 5000 pilgrims when fully opened or divides into two to accommodate smaller groups. Next to it is the Chapel of Adoration where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed each and every day. The Rosary Basilica, which is at present being restored, will celebrate its Centenary next year, - which could be an opportunity for another jolly! The old Asile hospital has been demolished except for the original building which has been transformed into the Chapel of Reconciliation - where Confessions are heard every day in all sorts of languages. If you have access to the Internet then you can visit Lourdes on their website, see the Grotto on the webcam and send a petition by e-mail.

But more than just the buildings, attitudes have changed in Lourdes but then they have in the church at large. There is much less regimentation. We are all together as a people of God celebrating our salvation, our reconciliation with Christ and that we hope is what we seek to do in our pilgrimage each year.

On Tuesday March 2nd 1858, the Lady said to Bernadette, 'Go, tell the priests to come here in procession and to build a chapel here.' For the past 50 years our diocese has gone in procession with our bishop to the Grotto of Lourdes. Our first procession in 1951 started at Woodside station in Birkenhead and we have travelled a long way since then as a pilgrimage, as a diocese and indeed as a Church. May God who has begun this good work in us bring it to fulfilment.

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