2. From Pilgrimage to Stage: 1981-1986

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Photo Credit: Photo Viron


This is the second in series of posts from Kevin Dawson, Service St Joseph, on his experiences of Lourdes from 1965 to the present day.  This second part covers his first few years on stage from 1981-1986

In 1981 I found that I was able to fulfil an ambition to travel out with a number of others who would be doing their first stage, as part of  the Hexham and Newcastle May Stage Group. This group travelled out the last weekend in May and were in Lourdes for the old Whit Week school holiday week. I found the week to be very interesting as I learned new facets of helping in Lourdes. For most of my week I was working with an experience member of HNDL from Wimbledon College on a Fourgonne, mainly transporting the sick from the various hospitals to the railway station. We also had to attend a series of meetings / lectures, that were all conducted in French, which turned out to be our “Formation”. The highlight of that week we were privileged to be on duty for the International Mass on the Wednesday, where the Chief Concelebrant was the recently appointed Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Basil Hume OB, a fellow Geordie. After Mass the men of the stage group met up with him and had our photograph taken with him. This was entitled “A Geordie Lad with the Geordie Lads”. What a fantastic man he was, very down to earth and humble. The two lows of the week were the accommodation, we were lodged in Notre Dame de Chien, which was located on the rue de Bourg and known as “The Hovel on the Hill”  The guardian of this building locked the door at midnight without fail, if you were late there was no charity and it was tough luck, you ended up doing an all night vigil at the Grotto. The internal staircase was very unstable and you could see light from the room below through gaps in the floorboards. This place was used by the Hospitalité for many years into the 1980’s and was rumoured to have a bit of a darkened past as it had been the town’s brothel. The other low was not being able to see our good friends on the Welsh National Pilgrimage off on the Friday afternoon as we were compelled to attend our final formation lecture in French. When I arrived home I spent a lot of time reflecting on my first stage and decided I had enjoyed myself so much that I felt compelled to repeat the process.

The following year, in order to economise a bit, I decided to do my second stage the week before the Hexham and Newcastle Pilgrimage and stay on so that I could continue my work with my own Diocesan Pilgrimage. Travelling on the overnight coach from Newcastle to Victoria, getting the train down to Gatwick and flying out to Lourdes on the weekly Dan Air flight. Due to being late in booking my accommodation I again ended up in the Notre Dame de Chien. As I was on my own I assigned to work various services, but with the railway station was my priority. During this week I worked with a group of guys from the Arundel and Brighton Diocese who were out doing their stage the week before their Pilgrimage. Again I learned new roles including covering Ceremonies and a couple of sessions in the Baths, but I much preferred the work at the railway station.

I was also getting the hang of the food in the Abri St Michel and the way that, when the bell rang you formed a bit of a rugby scrum to get through the door hand your meal ticket in and try to sit with your friends, as you were directed to what appeared to be the next available seat. If you were not careful you could be sitting at a table where everyone spoke a different language, which made communication interesting. Once the tables were full and everyone was settled, the Hospitalité President would ring a bell, then grace before meals would be sung and then we would sit down. Singing Grace sounded quite good as at this time the Abri meals were an all male affair. However a concession was made on a Thursday lunch time, where all those making their Engagement or Consecration, male and female, ate together and women were allowed to join us. The food was definitely better quality that the normal fare. The food was basic but filling, however there were some dishes, such as the Pig’s Trotters and the Le Puy Lentils, that were continuously passed along the line with few takers. Also at this time there was a bottle of red wine placed on each table and the etiquette was that whoever finished the bottle would buy a replacement. As this payment was for the princely sum of 6 French Francs, it was obviously nothing like a vintage Burgundy or Bordeaux. Lunch would be finished with a very strong chicory coffee, that when mixed with a good glug of Chateau Abri and a spoonful of sugar, made the combination at least palatable. The President would then ring the bell, which whether we had finished or not, meant that the Salve Regina would be sung and that the meal was finished, so it was time to head out of the restaurant.

A couple of years later the Hospitalité continued it’s long period of reform, they allowed women into the Abri to eat at all meals and there was a relaxation in the process of forcing you to sit where they wanted to. So if you were really unlucky you could be sat with a group of ladies or nuns who did not drink which meant that you had to experience the penance of having a whole bottle to yourself! There was still the scrum to get in, but there was some protection afforded to any ladies who were brave enough to face the challenge and adventure of entering the Abri for lunch or dinner. Prior to my time there was only one sitting in the Abri and if you were late, you may be admitted into the room and you had to approach the President’s Table, apologise profusely (grovel) for your lateness, then the President, depending on his mood and the circumstances, would decide whether to allow you to sit down and eat or to have you removed and you did not eat. This was to try to prevent people having too many enjoyable pre-meal aperitifs.

I again repeated the experience of a week of stage followed by a week working with the Hexham and Newcastle Pilgrimage. During my stage I felt that my HNDL career and my vocation was forming me towards working at the railway station as that was where I was predominantly assigned. As this time I managed to be chosen as part of the team to go up to the airport, a role that I particularly enjoyed. Again friendships were cemented with new ones continuing to be forged. The work at the airport was extremely strenuous as, unlike today, there were no air bridges or covered walkways and anyone requiring assistance had to be carried, in the open air, up or down the set of steps that were used by the able bodied passengers. It also involved remaining up at the airport overnight as flights from the UK would often be due to arrive during the night, as this was when aircraft were the cheapest to charter. While the able bodied pilgrims would be transported to their respective hotels, the sick pilgrims would be settled down in the Salle de Malade and have to wait for the fourgonnes to arrive to transfer them to Lourdes the following morning.

For my third stage I was assigned to the Piscines and my affectation was written in such a way to indicate that I was not to go to the railway station. I had some reasonable experiences and worked with a number of extremely gentle and prayerful people but I felt that I was permanently in a Church and not being able to have a laugh. But I continued with the assignment because of the obedience and humility. Once I completed my stage I then joined the Pilgrimage as normal. This particular year the Pilgrimage were blessed with having a glut of helpers and I was told that if I was doing something and one of the new helpers was standing around I had to pass on my task to them. After a day of being bored silly, and knowing that there was a a shortage of stagiaires I decided to sign on for a few extra days of stage. I then made a conscious decision that I would go out to Lourdes for a two week stage and if I had any free time I would try to assist with the Pilgrimage.

1984 was a particularly poignant year for year for me. My accommodation had been upgraded from the Notre Dame de Chien to the ground floor dormitory of the Abri. This room was removed when the Abri was refurbished and is now the ladies toilet. After a good stage I had the privilege of working up at the airport when my own Diocese arrived and was first up the stairs to greet those involved in working with the sick pilgrims as the door opened. While the able bodied pilgrims disembarked I had a long and fruitful conversation with a very good friend of mine. With the work done we met up in a café during the evening and continued the conversation, putting the world and the universe to rights. We both left the café, intending to head down to the Grotto, however my friend decided that he would go back to seek his older brother out and wait to go to the Grotto with him. During the night I felt that I spent most of the time in the toilet and was recovering gently in bed when a colleague came to advise me that there had been a triple tragedy during the night and my friend had been the subject of a hit and run just beside St Michael’s gate. After transferring him to the Hospital at Tarbes, he was then airlifted to the neurological centre of the Toulouse Hospital, where after extensive tests his family decided to switch off the life support system. I managed to pull myself together and headed down to the St Bernadette Hospital, where Hexham and Newcastle were based, to join the grief that the Pilgrimage was suffering. Everyone on the Pilgrimage went through the motions during the week until the day of the funeral. The requiem Mass was held in the Parish Church and I was extremely honoured being asked to be a pall bearer. Following burial in the Hospitalité vault in the cemetery located on the rue de Pau everyone retired to the Café Carrefour, which at the time was the Lourdes base for Hexham and Newcastle. The café had closed down during the afternoon to allow the staff to attend the funeral.

After completing the appropriate form I received notification from Lourdes that I could make my Engagement, and receive my Bronze Medal, the next time I was in Lourdes. So in the summer of 1985 I flew out to Lourdes from Gatwick with Dan Air. I headed to the Bureaux to sign in and on the way bumped into one of my friends from the Oxford University Stage Group who informed me that there was a team going up to the airport in an hour if I was interested in joining them. So after signing in I headed back to the ground floor dormitory of the Abri that was to be my accommodation for the next couple of weeks, where I met another member of the Oxford Group who repeated the invitation. When I got to the Abri I locked my valuables in the bedside locker and left my suitcase under my bed, and then headed to the car park to meet the team that were heading up to the airport. As it was a late session I went to bed thinking I would unpack the following morning. I woke up and went for my case which was not where I remembered leaving it. I searched the dormitory and all the other rooms in the Abri but could not find it. As this dormitory was readily accessible it was not unusual to find all the beds had been stood on their end or even turned upside down as a bit of a prank. I was getting very worried and stressed at this time and headed down to the Bureaux to report the “theft” of my suitcase and clothes. I was fortunate that there was an Englishman on the Accueil Stagieirs desk, who was a French teacher and I knew quite well. So I explained everything to him and he came back with me to the Abri for a second check. As we still could not find it we headed up to the Gendarmerie to report the theft. When we entered the building my friend was explaining the reason for our visit a message came over the radio, which my friend translated for me. The message indicated that a suitcase had been found abandoned near the cattle market, and my friend asked the office on the desk if it was a regular occurrence and was told no. We then proceeded to log in my problem and just as we were competing our business a small Gendarme appeared struggling with a large suitcase, which I recognised immediately as mine. Part of the zip on the case had been slit open with a knife but the case was still useable. Having a quick look at the contents, all that appeared to be missing was 6 brand new pairs of socks and some handkerchiefs. I was fortunate to have had the foresight to lock my valuables in the bedside locker before I had left to go to the airport. The remainder of the week went ahead with out any additional trauma. I had to attend a practise session and planning meeting on the Tuesday afternoon for the Hospitalite Mass the following evening. Having attended a number of these Masses I had a few ideas of the music I would like and during the planning discussions everyone was in agreement and the Mass was exactly the way I had in my mind. There were 4 of us, of various nationalities, making our Engagement and a dentist from Glasgow who was making his Consecration. I was asked to be a member of the group who would bring the Offertory gifts to the altar, so at the appropriate time I headed up to the back of St Joseph’s Chapel and nearly jumped out of my skin. At this point I forgot that the Offertory Hymn was going to be Hail Queen of Heaven, with the music being provided by a lone piper. So when the piper began the sound in St Joseph’s Chapel was incredible. The following morning, after a good celebration in the Foyer I went to the Bureaux to sign in as a Member of HNDL. I was then assigned to work with an elderly Swiss gentleman in the old Accueil Hospital as there were a number of English Pilgrimages due to arrive in the next few days. As I had never spent any time in this hospital I did not have a clue what was expected of me and where things were. When the Pilgrimages arrived I assisted in unloading the fourgonnes and then ensured that the various corridors were kept clear. I was told that I was expected to act as a security guard, patrolling the various passages and making sure that equipment belonging to HNDL was not being abused and assisting the Pilgrimages if they needed help. The bad thing about this role was that I was virtually constantly on my feet all day and at night my legs were aching, however I was virtually drowning in tea as there was always a pot of tea on the go in the kitchens used by the English Pilgrimages. After a few days of this I managed to negotiate a change of service, returning to my first love, the railway station and the airport.  The one good thing about becoming a member of HNDL and having a medal was that you were no longer required to chase after the Responsable of your service to ask him to sign the back of your Affectation as an evidence log that you did complete the required service.

I have often spent time reflecting on the reasons why I enjoy the work at the station and airport and I have come to the conclusion that I feel that these two areas of service are the most important in Lourdes. This is due to the fact that we are a pilgrim’s first impression of Lourdes as they arrive and their last as they depart, without this service Lourdes would not function.  But more of this in my next post….

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