This is the first in series of posts from Kevin Dawson, Service St Joseph, on his experiences of Lourdes from 1965 to the present day. This first part covers pilgrimages with the English National Pilgrimage and Hexham and Newcastle Pilgrimage from 1965-1981.
My grandmother had travelled many times to Lourdes in the 1930s and 1950s as part of the English National Pilgrimage, making the arduous journey from Newcastle upon Tyne to London and then on the various trains and steamers with the Pilgrimage. She had a great devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes. My mother ached to go with her in the 1950s but as she had my sister to look after and my father, being an engineer in the Merchant Navy, was away a lot so she was unable to make join any of the pilgrimages in the 1950s. One particular year my mother managed to save sufficient money to allow her to accompany my grandmother on a pilgrimage, however I came on the scene which changed her plans.
In 1965, my mother’s ambition was eventually achieved, as a small group from our Parish joined the North Eastern Air Pilgrimage to Lourdes, which flew from Newcastle Airport to Lourdes Airport in late August. We flew out on a BKS Vickers Viscount and stayed at the Esplanade Hotel which was located along the Esplanade du Paradis. I do not have many other memories except that we took part in all the religious ceremonies going.
The journey was repeated in 1967, with the same group. I have memories of getting up while it was still dark, boarding a bus outside the hotel and being driven down to St Joseph’s Gate as we had Mass at the Grotto at stupid O’Clock and then returning to the hotel for breakfast, which consisted of a piece of bread, a croissant, some jam and a bowl of coffee. I also remember attending a Holy Hour and Benediction in the Upper Basilica at 11pm. At this time the Blessed Sacrament Procession began in front of The Grotto then followed the usual path. It then did a U turn and headed up the ramp, across the top of the Rosary Basilica, and down the other ramp, along the Esplanade to St Michael’s Gate and returned to the Rosary Square via the other side of the Esplanade. The other memory I have is that only men walked in front of the Blessed Sacrament, while women processed after the Blessed Sacrament.
In 1969 our parish group again flew out to Lourdes, but this time we joined the Air Section of the Hexham and Newcastle Diocesan Pilgrimage. At this point, as I had been serving on the altar for a couple of years, I was granted the privilege of serving one of the Pilgrimage Masses on the high altar of the St Pie X Basilica. I was again dragged along to all the religious ceremonies that we were expected to attend.
Since the death of my grandfather, my grandmother had taken on the role of housekeeper to our Parish Priest. In September 1969 an additional priest joined the Parish, he had been appointed to become Parish Priest of a new daughter Parish that was being formed in a new town close to to our church. This priest happened to be the Director of the Overland Section of the Diocesan Pilgrimage, and he persuaded us to join the Pilgrimage the following July. So, about 36 hours after the opening of this new church I was on a coach travelling down to Victoria Station to catch the “Boat Train” to Folkestone. On the way down, as the coaches had left from different parts of the Diocese, we stopped near Wetherby for Mass and then set off for London. We shared a chartered French Train with Salford, who provided both groups with tea in the morning and at lunchtime. While in Lourdes I was dragged to all the services that the Pilgrimage was taking part in.
In 1971 the Diocesan Pilgrimage “Youth” section set off from various points in the North East by coach, again meeting up near Wetherby for Mass before heading down to Folkestone to catch the ferry to Boulogne, where our chartered French train was waiting for us. As we were on our own train a team of people, who had previously received training from Salford, provided everyone on the train with a cup of tea in the morning and at lunchtime. After we had reached Dax the excitement began to rise with the anticipation of the first sight of the Grotto just before arriving into Lourdes Railway Station. After a quick rest we headed out to the opening Mass. The Sick Pilgrims, travelling as part of the air section, had arrived in Lourdes earlier in the day. Again I was dragged to the various services. However after a couple of days my mother approached one of the men who were in the room opposite, who she Kew were involved in helping within the sick pilgrims to ask if he would be willing to take me down to the hospital (The Sept Douleurs as the St Frai was known then) to arrange for me to become involved in helping. I was introduced to Mr Hugh (Paddy) Heaphy, who was the Chief Brancardier, and after a chat I was told to report back to the Hospital at 8:00 the following morning, when I would be given a set of bretteles. This was the beginning of my Lourdes helping career. As I was now actively involved in things I had no objections to attending the various ceremonies and even began to enjoy them.
As the years progressed I continued to serve I made many friends, meeting up with people around my own age and enjoying the long hours and the hard work. Also on the journey I was invited to be part of the team who helped with the tea run on the French and later the English trains. This I felt was another facet of providing “Service” to pilgrims travelling to Lourdes. Working as part of the “tea team” meant little sleep after we had boarded the French train as we had to be in the luggage car, where the tea was made, at silly o’clock to ensure the boilers were filled and lit, the water boiled the tea urns filled, the boilers refilled and close to boiling before distributing tea to the 1000 or so pilgrims at breakfast time. One benefit of being a member of this team was that once the tea distribution run was finished we would all be free to return to our families with a full teapot so the pilgrims in our compartment and those nearby were always provided with an additional supply. The other advantage was that after breakfast we would return to the luggage van, returning the empty tea pots, and once everything was cleaned we were able to wash in hot water, instead of the cold water available in the various washrooms at either end of the train carriages. There were occasions when we would be joined by a member of the Clergy bad we would pray together as we journey through France, before we repeated the exercise to provide a second brew at lunchtime. In order to reduce the heat in the luggage car, while we were we would put the safety bar in place and partially slide open the main doors of the carriage.
Once we had cleaned up after the second brew and tidied everything up we would have something to eat and have a chat about the forthcoming week. Then the excitement would build up as we cleared Pau Railway Station knowing that soon we would be viewing the Steeple of the Upper Basilica followed by the Grotto when the whole train would break out into singing “Ave, Ave Ave Maria.” The whole tea team would join in with the rest of the train, but, instead of looking out of compartment windows we would have the luggage car doors fully opened and we would be leaning on the safety bar to ensure we got a better view.
The fun and friendships that I experienced during this period of my life helped me grow in my love of God and helped me being happy with and enjoying my faith when many of my peers at school were giving it up, either a a conscious decision on their behalf of a lack of encouragement within their homes.
In 1978, I joined a group of people, who I had got to know over the years in a coach and camping trip to Lourdes. I was initially under the impression that we would be heading straight to Lourdes, as I had been considering working for the Hospitalité Notre Dame de Lourdes doing a Stage. This idea was thwarted when I discovered that we would take 3 days to travel to Lourdes, stopping at various places on the way. On this pilgrimage a colleague from work joined us for her first pilgrimage to Lourdes. While I was disappointed not being able to do a Stage I continued to work on the Pilgrimage and I when the coaches were due to leave I managed to negotiate staying in Lourdes, sleeping on the bedroom floor of a friends room and returning on the Pilgrimage train. So I bade a tearful farewell to the friends I had made on the coach trip.
While most of my journeys to Lourdes had been overland, in 1980 I was given the opportunity of again joining the air section flying from Castle Donnington (East Midlands Airport) out to Lourdes. After helping to load the coach that would take the sick pilgrims and be the first flight, I went across the road to the pub to kill some time until our coach was due to leave for us to catch the second flight. When we arrived at Castle Donnington, the first flight was still in the process of checking in, due to delay. I was told by the Chief Brancardier to check in for the first flight as I was required to assist loading the aircraft. When we landed at Lourdes airport we were greeted by a team from the Oxford University Stage Group, many of whom became good friends in later years, who assisted us in helping the sick pilgrims off the plane. By the time we had ensured that all the sick pilgrims were settled down for the remainder of the night in the Salle de Malade at the old airport, the second flight had landed. At this time a number of Pilgrimage flights would arrive during the night and because the Hospital was locked up and there were no facilities for late arriving sick pilgrims to be transported from the airport it was expected that they would be bedded down in the Salle de Malade, looked after by people from the pilgrimage, with assistance from the stagiaires. I was told to head off to my hotel to rest and then be at the hospital around 07:00 the following morning to receive the sick pilgrims. I met up with a friend who I had travelled to Castle Donnington with and then boarded the correct bus to head to the hotel we were staying and headed to Lourdes. On then short drive to the hotel my friend and I agreed that we would dump our bags in our rooms and head down to the Grotto to say hello and give thanks for a safe journey. With the rooms allocated, my friend found that she was sharing with a journalist from the local morning newspaper, who was Jewish. Later on in the week the journalist admitted what she had let herself in for as she was in bed when at about 01:00 a bundle of energy bounded into the room, made a quick introduction and said that she was heading down to the Grotto. My friend and I got to know the journalist quite well and gave her plenty of guidance regarding the Pilgrimage. The journalist asked me if she could interview me, which I agreed to and it happened over one lunchtime. The journalist wrote up her note and the 3 articles eventually appeared on consecutive days later in the year. My story appeared as part of the 3rd article and was described as a 21 year old gentle giant.