Rocky Mountain Grotto

Pope John Paul II's recent pilgrimage to Lourdes proved one of the most poignant and touching trips he has ever made as the Vicar of Christ.

The unforgettable images of the frail, plainly hurting Holy Father imploring the Blessed Mother's intercession may well set off a surge of pilgrimages to the small French village where Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858.

Of course, not all Americans will find it practical to travel to France. For many, consolation — and a bona fide Lourdes pilgrimage experience — can be sought and found at the Lourdes Marian Center in Denver. Many, no doubt, will come here to offer special prayers on Sept. 8, feast of the Blessed Mother's birth.

Physically, the center is a small brick bungalow. St. Bernadette would approve of its humility.

Close by is the large, stately St. Vincent de Paul Parish, spiritual home to 2,100 families and a school of nearly 500 students.

The move to open the Lourdes Marian Center was spearheaded by Father Michael A. Walsh, St. Vincent de Paul's pastor. It opened Feb. 11, 2002, feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and World Day of the Sick. Its main aims are to promote Marian devotion, distribute Lourdes water and organize pilgrimages to the actual site where Mary appeared 18 times to Bernadette, a teen-age peasant.

The official dedication was Jan. 1, 2003, when Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput blessed the site. Witnesses included Lourdes representatives, among them Tarbes-Lourdes Bishop Jacques Perrier and Father Patrick Jacquin (who was then shrine rector of Lourdes), plus many other church officials and laity.

“ Mary should be as close to the heart of every Catholic as she was to the heart of Jesus,” Archbishop Chaput said recently. “That's why Marian devotion plays such an important role in Catholic life, and why efforts like the Lourdes Center are so welcome and so important. Mary in her Immaculate Conception is the patroness of the Archdiocese of Denver. The Lourdes Center fits perfectly with who we are as a local church.”

Father Walsh, the center's spiritual director, together with Servite Father Gabriel Weber, the Marian pilgrimage coordinator, encourages people to come and experience the place “as a source of great grace and mutual support in the faith community to pray and build their devotion to our Blessed Mother.” The seasoned pastor stresses that the Lourdes water has no miraculous or curative powers in itself, but miracles that may result are due to God's mercy and one's faith in God.

As a first-time visitor in September 2003, I initially hesitated when I came to the simple blue-and-white sign on the front lawn of this tree-lined neighborhood. It seemed so modest, I wondered if I was at the right place.

I was quickly reassured upon entering the Tudor-style structure, which, I learned, is the former home of a past parish custodian. In fact, it still looks very much like someone's home, although various Marian and Lourdes-related wall hangings on the soothing blue walls give away its current purpose.

Another clue is a display near the front entrance with reading/viewing materials for all ages, including some helpful information for non-Catholics. Rosaries, scapulars, holy cards and Lourdes water are available for free, although donations are, of course, accepted. Tea and coffee are available in a cozy sitting area.

As you enter, you'll have no trouble finding a volunteer who will be happy to help you with whatever you need, including prayers. Don't be surprised to see a couple of regulars engaged in lively conversation in the old dining room as they string rosary beads.

Matt Werner, president of the Queen of the Apostles Mission Association, another St. Vincent de Paul affiliate, sometimes helps at the center. “Many people come to the Lourdes Center with great anxiety in their hearts regarding their own suffering and that of their loved ones,” he said. “We often get on our knees and lay our hands on them to bless them and ask for Jesus to heal them — heart, mind, body and soul.” Werner points out that the volunteers are gratified to see visitors “quickly and palpably relieved,” with their spirits quieter and more joyful.

H20 to Go

Continuing through the kitchen and out the back door, you'll come to a stone grotto hosting a flower-crowned Mary in her white robes with bright blue sash. A tiny insignia notes a granite piece from Lourdes. Surrounding the shrine are a bevy of plants and a Bernadette statue. Both sculptures were imported from France. An adjoining fountain enhances the setting.

Downstairs in the center basement is a special bottling plant of sorts. Here is where volunteers fill thousands of small containers, drawing Lourdes water from big barrels that were filled at the famous French spring.

The long-time chief bottler, Dick “The Dipper” Altman, oversees the operation to ensure its readiness for visitors and others requesting the healing water by mail. “Mother Mary ‘Mom’ as I like to call her,” he said, “has brought much more awareness into my life of how our hearts can be immersed in her immaculate heart and in the sacred heart of Jesus so that the Holy Spirit can make our human efforts more fruitful, happy and peaceful.”

A century-and-a-half ago, Mary first visited a poor shepherdess named Bernadette in a tiny, obscure village. Many faithful are convinced she still awaits those who trust her with the childlike faith of this French youth who became a saint on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8, 1933.

Having returned to the Denver Lourdes Marian Center several times since that summer day a year ago, I have gotten the distinct feeling that Mary, our Mother, who deliberately led an unpretentious life in a simple domicile in Nazareth, must feel right at home here, too. Her presence can be sensed in this warm, inviting place as she welcomes visitors from near and far to follow her beloved son, Jesus Christ, in a spirit of prayer, poverty and penitence — just as the Holy Father showed us last month.

Mary E. Manley writes from Littleton, Colorado.