Lots of young English friends out with their diocesan pilgrimages this Summer, had never heard of Hospitalite Notre Dame de Lourdes (HNDL) and I had to answer many questions about what it was and what we do. I have also had to answer a number of questions on social media, after a number of Instagram/Twitter posts. I thought that maybe writing a few of these answers down, might give others an insight into life as part of the HNDL family. You can check out my previous blog on why to do a stage with HNDL here… but this blog will focus on the practicalities and experience of a “stage.” It is by no means exhaustive but just a flavour of life with HNDL.
First things first, we are not like your diocesan hospitalite which travels out and back with their pilgrims. Our Hospitalite stays on site, ready to welcome you when you arrive and during your stay in Lourdes. We are an Archconfraternity of about 20,000 lay faithful from across the world, under the direction of the Bishop of Lourdes and Tarbes. We also count a number of priests and religious among our number too. We come to work in one of 6 services, for a week or two each year at our own expense. We have our own President, Chaplain and a Vice President for each specific service, but we all know that our real boss is Our Blessed Lady herself. She has called us to work here for her and in a strange but not strange way, she also places us exactly where she wants us. I couldn’t do your service and what is asked of you and I am sure you feel the same about my service, but that’s ok because there is room and need for all of us in this international team and family. And even within our own services we each bring something the other can’t and that difference is one that is celebrated in Lourdes. So that’s a little of who we are, but what exactly do we do?? Well…
We are the people who greet you at the airport, there to help your sick off the aircraft and down to their accommodation. We also do the same at the train station too. We are they to help you when you arrive and we are also there to help you at the end of your pilgrimage, helping you back onto plane or train and wishing you an “au revoir” with a prayer that God willing we will see you here again. And often we do!
We work in the two hospitals, specially designed to welcome and accommodate around 1400 sick piglrims: the Accueil Notre Dame inside the Sanctuary and the Accueil Marie St Frai which is situated not far from the gates of the Sanctuary. We work behind the scenes in these places so you don’t have to worry about anything except being with your sick pilgrims. You may or may not catch a glimpse of us during your stay but we pray together, we man the front desks, we loan out wheelchairs, we wash up after every meal and lay tables ready for the next meal, we get the wards spick and span after your departure and make sure they welcoming and ready for the next group of pilgrims who normally arrive hot on your heels.
We work in the baths, both men and women, enabling you to wash at the waters as Our Lady asked. You might notice the stretchers, wheelchairs, piles of blankets and other things outside the baths and inside we have cupboards full of dressings, cling film and other useful things, not to mention a special bath for babies and children…because we will do all we can to help you respond to Our Lady’s invitation to wash and drink here. Men on one side and women on the other, it is our privilege to pray with you and accompany you during this special moment of your pilgrimage. And out on the front of the baths you will see more hospitaliers, manning the doors, leading you in prayer and helping transfer the sick from the wheelchairs and into the baths.
We marshall the big ceremonies day in and day out. With two daily processions and a few International Masses, we are kept busy keeping things in order, directing pilgrims, being of assistance and encouraging a prayerful atmosphere as these celebrations unfold.
We stand at the Grotto every day, men and women, ready to welcome all who come to pray in this place and welcome you, especially the sick. We keep things ticking over, help the pilgrims walk through the grotto, perhaps they touch the rock, linger at the spring or pause for a moment under the niche. We are a prayerful presence, keeping a stillness in the place where Our Lady first greeted St Bernadette with just a smile.
We’ve got our own atelier where some of us fix and mend our large collection of unique equipment which enables sick pilgrims to make the most of their time here. Physical disability or fragility is no barrier… and if you don’t know what a brancard, trianglot or voiture is, well you will by the end of your stage. We also have our own niche set of vocab which you will pick up as your work here and only ever use on service in Lourdes: chemise, titulaire, bretlles, brancardier, engagement, sangler, chef, responsable and more….
We also have our own embroidery room mending but also making vestments for the many concelebrations we have here in the Sanctuary each day. And some of our team keep the flowers looking lovely around the Sanctuary too.
We work in the First Aid Post where some of our Hospitaliers who are nurses or doctors are there to welcome pilgrims (or in some cases nip out on their buggy) and provide them with instant medical help here on site.
We work in the Bureau, Canteens and Foyer helping our volunteers to sort and find their accommodation, eat well during their stay here and have a cheap pint with fellow hospitaliers at the end of the day.
We work forming new Hospitaliers from around the world- for we are not merely functionaries, but we are first and foremost missionaries. We are formed for our mission and service in Lourdes and also formed for our mission when we return home, for stage is not just a one week experience. As hospitaliers we are encouraged to live and share the spirituality of Lourdes from one stage to the next, in our daily lives and environments. A former chaplain once said you have two hands, one to pray and one to work and this formation team help lay the spiritual foundations for our work and mission as future hospitaliers. And the practical aspects of our service? We learn on the job, we get stuck in with the support of more experienced hospitaliers who teach us as we work.
During the day we work hard to welcome pilgrims in all these different ways, hidden and unhidden. Often you might not even see us, but that is how St Bernadette herself worked who was happy to be known as “Our Lady’s broom” and always left before she could be thanked for the work she had done. And I think this semi-hidden nature of HNDL is one of its most beautiful dimensions and one of its greatest strengths. Here we are hidden in the heart of Lourdes, there to merely facilitate an encounter between Our Lady and her many children.
The hours around our service, we snatch a few minutes here or there to pray, for we too are pilgrims in this place like you. We come to this place in need of refreshment, we too come to drink at the source of life and we bring with us our worries, troubles, hopes, dreams and in our hearts we too carry our friends and family with us. Maybe we pray the rosary as a team before our service, perhaps we head out with fellow stagiares to do the Stations of the Cross in our free time, or spend a few minutes in adoration during our lunch break, or waste a little time at the Grotto pondering on the days events or maybe we walk in the processions with our fellow hospitaliers. The shifts can be long, they can be physically demanding, perhaps our team members don’t speak our language or they do things differently, perhaps we have been troubled by the sickness we have seen but these moments of prayer contextualise all of this and give us the strength to begin again at the start of our next service.
We are an international family and like any family we have our ups and downs. “Sorry” “Pardon” “Scusi” are used many times throughout the week. Living and working as a community is never easy but it is in this environment that God desires we love like he loves and that we grow into the people he has called us to be. I realised this year (and this is a blog for another day) just how many edges are knocked off me through this time of service with HNDL. I remember sounding off about a “bad” shift to a Bishop friend of mine one evening and I concluded by simply saying “But even if you don’t agree with decisions made by your responsable, as long as it is not unsafe, you just have to smile, be obedient and do what is asked of you.” He nearly choked on his coffee “Is this even Collette Power sat in front of me??” he asked. I know I don’t like being told what to do, and I will always challenge it… but I realised in that moment, that through service in the baths, Our Lady is shaping and softening my heart. Obedience is strangely liberating! In this environment I am called to give generously of myself in a spirit of love and humility, and this humility transforms my own heart. HNDL is not just about what you do to help pilgrims, it is first and foremost about what God desires to do in your heart: for the revolution of tenderness starts with us!
And during the evenings you will find us in the Foyer having a cold drink after a long day and here we catch up with fellow Hospitaliers who we don’t see from one year to the next or we are making new friendships with people from around the world. The sense of fraternity is very real! That said if you are on at the train station or airport, you might find yourself on duty and not in the bar but whatever time you roll in at, there will be a pint waiting for you and your team when you are done!
A pilgrim asked me at the baths this year, is this your vocation? I might just have quipped a bit too quickly, that we don’t exactly come here on holiday. But on reflection, how right she was. To serve in Lourdes is to respond to a call from Our Lady. It is a call to extend the smile, love and gentleness, with which Our Lady first welcomed Bernadette, to every pilgrim who comes here. Yes it is hard work at times and it isn’t exactly a holiday, but something greater pushes us on, the love of God and a love for his blessed mother drives us…. For the difficulties aside, it is the great joys, graces, miracles and memories that has all of us saying at the end of each stage, a dear and heartfelt “A l’annee prochaine” to our HNDL family as we prepare to return home each year.