“I’ve been here many times, but there’s something different happening here at this time,” said Marlene Watkins. “A religious sister said to me today it was as if the grotto were wiped clean.”
Watkins, founding president of Lourdes Volunteers in the Diocese of Syracuse, N.Y., arrived with a group of pilgrims at the popular Marian shrine in the French Pyrenees just after it was hit by devastating floods this week.
The flooding of the Gave River left a “landscape of desolation” for clean-up workers as they began to remove mud and debris from the Lourdes Shrine on Oct. 21, according to Catholic News Agency (CNA). Clean-up crews made up of local firefighters and municipal workers began the task of removing the thick mud and debris with tractors, shovels and fire hoses from the low-lying areas of the sanctuary Sunday afternoon.
The Grotto of Massabielle, where the Blessed Mother appeared 18 times to St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858, was flooded with close to four feet of water and eight inches of mud during the Oct. 20 inundation, CNA reported. The baths where the sick visit in hopes of miraculous healing were also closed.
“Flood water rushed through the grotto and slammed into the baths,” Watkins explained to the Register. “The water came over the walls, into the grotto, almost up to the level of the altar — the water was tremendously high and seeped into the St. Pius X underground basilica.” But she said that holy water coming from the springs in the grotto is safe.
“It’s the same pure water that’s always been in the grotto since 1858,” she said, adding: “If we look at the history of the apparitions, when Bernadette first dug for the spring, there was mud in the water, then it became clearer and clearer. And that is exactly what we are experiencing here.”
Together with nearly two dozen volunteers, Watkins is caring for 26 pilgrims who made the long, 12,000-mile journey from Kalaupapa, Molokai. Most of them had attended the canonization Mass in Rome for St. Marianne Cope on Sunday.
But they were determined to make the journey despite hearing about the floods, making them the only pilgrims at the shrine after other tours canceled. “We’re staying at a 950-bed hospital facility, but there’s only us,” said Watkins.
According to Sanctuaires Notre-Dame de Lourdes, the shrine authorities, as of Oct. 24, the grotto and spring are open, but the baths will remain closed until the end of this week. Candlelight Marian processions already restarted on Oct. 23, and the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, which sits on higher ground than the grotto, reopened the previous morning.
“Things are in order, and all pilgrims can return to the shrine now,” said Joel Luzenko, a communications officer for the shrine. “The only thing to note is that the baths will have to remain closed for a few more days.” This weekend, shrine officials are expecting their first large group of 5,000 pilgrims.
Luzenko said that the floods have caused an estimated $2.6 million of damage, and he appealed for donations. These can be made via the shrine’s website, under the heading “Flood Solidarity.”
An Italian pilgrimage bearing the relics of Blessed John Paul II, which was set to arrive from Rome Oct. 21 in time for his feast day Oct. 22, had to be canceled. However, efforts are being made to reschedule the pilgrimage following the completion of the shrine's clean-up process.
Some locals have called the flash flood the worst to hit the Marian shrine in 40 years. Rain and high winds throughout the Hautes-Pyrenees region in southwestern France left some 8,000 residents without power over the weekend.
Pope Benedict expressed his concern for the “serious flooding” of the shrine during his Sunday Angelus address on Oct. 21.
Watkins, whose runs the first and only Lourdes hospitality organization of the Americas, noted that the people have been “joyful, even though they were not expecting this.”
“It’s a unique and special time for Lourdes,” she said. “There’s something in the stillness that is a holiness — it’s a real blessing.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.