A Journey of Faith and Healing
9/1/2013Michael Wojcik | photography by Bob Mullen
At first, the water felt cold — really cold. Like so many other pilgrims before them, Kristina Edel and her 12-year-old daughter, Julianna, had come to the baths at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France to pray for physical healing. Kneeling in the waters before a statue of Mary, Kristina cried and asked God to cure her daughter, who suffers from an aggressive form of bone cancer.
In those waters, so cold at first, Kristina felt God grant her another kind of healing: the warmth of his peace.
“I prayed that Julianna’s cancer wouldn’t return, but I know that it’s in God’s hands,” said Kristina, a parishioner of St. Patrick’s Church in Highland Mills, N.Y. “I wanted God to give me the strength, peace and grace to accept whatever was going to happen.”
Kristina and Julianna Edel were among 24 pilgrims who traveled to Lourdes June 27-July 6 with assistance from the Knights of Columbus. Nine children with severe illnesses or disabilities, along with parents or caregivers, joined the 59th annual U.S. National Rosary Pilgrimage to Lourdes thanks to Our Lady of Lourdes Council 5890 in Washingtonville, N.Y., and the Knights of Columbus Hudson Valley Chapter.
Walter Kozlowski, past grand knight of Council 5890, oversees fundraising and logistics for the trip. He said that the initiative is simply part of the Knights’ commitment to reach out to the sick and disabled: “The pilgrimage is a great experience for everyone. At Lourdes, the children get exposed to sacred ground, meet other pilgrims from around the world and get to put their own disabilities in perspective.”
Approximately 170 people participated in this year’s national pilgrimage to Lourdes, which is open to all. The group joined pilgrims from around the world at the Grotto of Massabielle, the rock alcove where the Blessed Mother appeared to a 14-year-old peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous in 1858.
The Blessed Mother revealed herself to Bernadette as “the Immaculate Conception,” led her to discover a spring and instructed her to drink from it. She also told Bernadette to instruct the priests to build a chapel there and to tell the people to come in procession. More than 150 years later, Lourdes is one of the most popular sites of Christian devotion. There are nearly 6 million annual visitors to the grotto, and the baths welcome some 350,000 pilgrims seeking healing from sicknesses or disabilities.
The Knights have sent nearly 150 children to Lourdes since 1975. This year, Council 5890 sponsored seven families selected by local parishes, while the Hudson Valley Chapter sponsored two. The K of C-sponsored pilgrims included children ages 6-18 who battle ailments such as epilepsy, cerebral palsy, scoliosis, cancer and liver disease. The pilgrimage allows them and their caregivers to experience God’s peace and strength, a deeper faith and even a few “little miracles.”
In addition to Kozlowski and the sponsored families, the K of C group included Dominican Father Joseph Allen, pastor of St. Mary Church and chaplain of Father McGivney Council 10705 in New Haven, Conn., Stephen Corry, financial secretary of Council 5890, and John Kelly, past grand knight of Monroe (N.Y.) Council 2079.
Below the majestic snow-capped Pyrenees Mountains, the group attended daily Mass at many prominent sites in and around Lourdes, participated in evening outdoor torchlight processions, and made visits to the famed grotto and the baths. Each day, the pilgrims participated in spiritual activities such as praying the rosary and eucharistic adoration, and they had the opportunity to receive the sacraments of reconciliation and anointing of the sick.
Many of them also made a trip to Nevers, the home of the convent where St. Bernadette lived from age 22 until her death 13 years later.
Although the annual pilgrimage schedule is packed with activities, organizers ensure that there is flexibility so that selfless parents and caregivers can tend to the special needs of their children. Such needs include anything from special treatments to challenges navigating a wheelchair or unforeseen medical “episodes” that might steal them away from the itinerary. Helping the parents focus on their faith and their children is a vast network of faith-filled people, from volunteers at the sanctuary and the pilgrimage’s medical staff to members of other families. All offer their assistance when needed.
“Everybody is there to help,” said Kozlowski, noting that the parents often bond while sharing stories of their children’s medical and developmental challenges.
In fact, Kozlowski added, the sanctuary volunteers give people suffering from sickness or disabilities “VIP treatment,” placing them at the front of lines at various sites.
Even the children themselves practice selflessness and act as caregivers. Under a cap that hid her bald head, an effect of chemotherapy, Julianna Edel used her wide smile and warm heart to bond with other children. For example, she would hold hands with Ellie Hapgood, a non-verbal 6-year-old girl with severe autism.
“Julianna is a caring and intuitive person,” said Kristina, her mother. “She was giving and patient with Ellie. It was touching.”
One night while the families were at dinner together, Ellie dipped her hand in a glass of water, gestured the sign of the cross and clearly said, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” Her mother, Siobhan Hapgood of Holy Trinity Parish in New York City, declared, “Everyone at our table just witnessed a little miracle.”
Reflecting on the trip, Siobhan said, “I have prayed to be on a path that would lead to healing for my daughter — a miracle that would give Ellie a voice that autism took from her. I want her body to find peace and comfort, free from the pain and turmoil that comes with severe sensory issues.”
She noted that Ellie’s speech and desire to interact have blossomed since traveling to Lourdes.
“In Lourdes, I was able to focus on Ellie and our faith. I was able to put my daily distractions aside and witness my prayers being answered every time Ellie initiated communication, said a new word or bonded and played with the other children.”
PEACE AND RESOLVE
Seventeen-year-old Ethan Besas, who has suffered from liver disease since birth, traveled to Lourdes with his father, Alfonso Gales, a member of San Lorenzo Ruiz Filam Council 14738 in Middletown, N.Y.
Besas called the pilgrimage “an amazing journey that we will hold in our hearts for the rest of our lives.” He recalled the peace and happiness he felt in the baths, as well as the excitement of participating — front and center — as part of the banner and flag team in a procession on the steps of the Rosary Basilica.
“When I walked around Lourdes, I realized that everyone is there for a reason,” Besas said. “It was great to meet all of the young and happy people. The other pilgrims helped me to realize that I wasn’t the only one with problems. They were truly inspirational and wouldn’t let any sort of disease slow them down.”
Gil Seda, 18, of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Shrub Oak, N.Y., had a similar experience. He gained greater insights to his own affliction of epilepsy, which sometimes causes seizures.
“There was huge crowd at the grotto,” he said. “I could see that I wasn’t the only person there, suffering with a disability, who would like to be healed. … I’m now at peace with my epilepsy.”
Both Besas and Seda said that in addition to the baths, one of the most powerful experiences they had was participating in the torchlight procession, as thousands of pilgrims illuminated the area around the basilica with candlelight.
“The torchlight processions seem to have a strong impact on the pilgrims — to see all those candles in the darkness,” noted Father Allen, who served as the group’s spiritual director and has helped to organize the U.S. National Rosary Pilgrimage to Lourdes since 1977. This was his 50th pilgrimage to Lourdes.
“These families, who do not know each other beforehand, really bond together,” Father Allen added. “The pilgrims come back stronger. It’s not miracles they are looking for, but they do gain a renewed ability to love with their limitations.”
The young pilgrims, who became fast friends, are currently anticipating an upcoming reunion in Washingtonville. There, far from the stunning sites of Lourdes, Kozlowski is already busy planning next year’s pilgrimage and raising funds. In order to collect nearly $50,000 to make the annual pilgrimage possible, the Knights largely depend on donations from parishioners in New York’s Orange and Rockland counties.
“Thousands of people are giving a dollar a time to make this happen,” Kozlowski said. “It’s a gift that the pilgrims never forget.”
Since their return from Lourdes, many of the pilgrims have called on the peace, faith and resolve that they experienced during the trip to get through difficult times. This is the case with Kristina and Julianna Edel, since recent medical tests have revealed that Julianna must resume cancer treatment.
Gil Seda, meanwhile, suffered a seizure that set back his aspirations of getting a driver’s license.
“He is dealing with [the disappointment] in a positive way,” said his mother, Alice, who accompanied him on the pilgrimage.
She, too, gained a renewed strength from the pilgrimage’s many spiritual events, most especially reconciliation.
“Before the trip, I was so consumed and withdrawn,” Alice said, having felt the pressures of caring for Gil and for a husband with multiple sclerosis. “I came back refreshed and with new purpose. I deal with things lighter. It’s in God’s hands. It’s going to be OK.”
MICHAEL WOJCIK is news editor of The Beacon, the newspaper of the Paterson Diocese in New Jersey.
Order Supports Military Pilgrimage to Lourdes
From May 24-26, approximately 160 active-duty and retired U.S. military personnel, injured veterans, spouses, and family members participated in the 55th International Military Pilgrimage to the Catholic shrine at Lourdes with support from the Knights of Columbus and the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA.
The Memorial Day weekend pilgrimage allowed those who had given some of the highest levels of service to their country an opportunity to rest, pray and heal around the miraculous waters of the Lourdes grotto. Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson and Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Military Archdiocese joined the pilgrims in France.
“Our pilgrimage in these days is also a time for us to deepen our faith,” said the archbishop during a May 24 homily. “We come to this wonderful shrine with many intentions. For some it will be health of mind and body. For others it might be part of a vocations search. Still others ask the Virgin for blessings on their families.”
The supreme knight took the opportunity to highlight the Order’s long tradition of bringing service members to Lourdes: “The Knights of Columbus organized its first military pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1919, and we were honored to return to this important Marian shrine supporting this pilgrimage of faith by our active duty and retired troops who have sacrificed so much for our country.”
During World War I, Knights were extremely active in serving American troops abroad. Immediately following the war, the K of C produced a Guide to Lourdes after repeated requests from American pilgrims.