3. From Pilgrimage to Stage: 1986-

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Photo Credit: Lourdes Sanctuary Social Media Channels

This is the third in series of posts from Kevin Dawson, Service St Joseph, on his experiences of Lourdes from 1965 to the present day.  This third part covers his stages after 1986 and includes making his Consecration, becoming a responsable at the train station and connecting with, and eventually marrying, his wife Kathleen. 


My next few stages were based at the railway station, with an occasional visit to the airport, and I continued to make new friends due to the teams I was working with. My accommodation had also evolved from the dormitory on the ground floor of the Abri to a box in the Foyer Bernadette and then onto a single en-suite room on the top floor of the Foyer Bernadette. One particular year I had booked the wrong dates so I was in Lourdes the week of the Hexham and Newcastle Pilgrimage and the following week. This meant that most of my friends from the UK had left and I ended up working with a group of Italians and Spaniards. As I had a high work ethic I was accepted as part of this group, despite not speaking either languages and we continue to meet up and work together on an annual basis. It has been a privilege to have seen boys and girls grow up into men and women and then see their children grow up and begin to work, officially, on their first stage.

In 1988, after making an application, I received notification from HNDL that I could make my Consecration the next time I was in Lourdes. I made the appropriate arrangements to travel out for my usual two weeks, and decided that I would make my Consecration on the 27th July, the anniversary of the death of my close friend 4 years previously and just happened to be the Wednesday night before the Hexham and Newcastle Pilgrimage arrived. As this was going to be a special year for me I arranged for my mother to travel out and join a small pilgrimage group from London. The Pilgrimage group could not figure out who my mother was as I kept appearing at her hotel and bringing her to to meals at the Abri and visiting the Foyer in the evening. As part of the preparation for making my Consecration, myself and a member of the Oxford Stage group were directed on a wonderful morning retreat by Fr Ignatus St Lawrence, a chaplain with the Wimbledon College Stage group, who had started coming out in the Summer a few years ago. After lunch in the restaurant in the Accueil St Bernadette, where all those making their Engagement and Consecration ate together, we were sent to make our own personal preparation for the Mass in the evening At the planning meeting I was asked to do a reading and was given the text in French. With a bit of a panic on I sought help from the Oxford University Stage group Chaplain, Fr Rod Strange, who later became Monsignor Rod Strange and Rector of the Breda College in Rome. Rod spent some time searching through his Missal and Breviary, found the reading and lent it to me so that I could practice the reading. As everyone was gathering for Mass I received a wonderful surprise. Unknown to me, my late friends parents had arrive that afternoon as they were planning on joining the Hexham and Newcastle Pilgrimage, which was arriving later that week. The whole Mass was thoroughly enjoyable where we made our commitment and received our sliver medals. Following this an unbelievable celebration took place in the Foyer. A French friend from Perpignan also made his Consecration that evening, and as his family owned vineyards in the area, he brought with him many samples of his family’s produce. At the customary celebratory lunch the following day I had arranged for my mother to sit with some of my friends and colleagues, as all those who had had made their Consecration and Engagement sat together in the centre of the restaurant of the Abri. My mother explained to one of my friend that she felt she had been out to Lourdes so many times but had not realised that the places she had been to during this visit even existed. At this time it was customary for those people receiving their medals to bring something from their own country to share with every one – it is amazing how many friends you find you have when you have a 2 litre bottle of Glenmorangie with you. Another pleasing surprise was to discover that my Italian friends had arrived late the previous evening and were able to join the celebrations as they continued to a very pleasant lunch, after which most people were feeling very little pain. The final part of the celebration was when all members of HNDL, that were able, but especially the new medalists, gathered together to walk as a group behind the Blessed Sacrament in the Blessed Sacrament Procession and we were allowed to walk down the centre of the Rosary Square. On the following day I was working at the time my mother was due to leave with the group she had been staying with, so I was unable to see her off, however she was treated a royalty, as all my friend that were available, when to the hotel to see her off. This really blew the minds of the group she was with. The rest of my stage came and went and very soon I was on my way home.

I continued to enjoy my stages and I was putting in then hard work and long hours working at both the railway station and the airport. The group of English speaking stagiaires at this time of year seemed to grow exponentially and the group that would meet up in the Hospitalité Foyer was huge. This encouraged new people to come and work on stage as there was an excitement about the place. Eventually, one evening at the Foyer, I was approached by the Italian Chef de Service at the railway station, who not only spoke excellent English but had an English sense of humour, and told that he had a surprise for me the following day. Not really trusting him I was very curious to find out what he had in store for me, I called into the Bureaux before we were due to meet at St Michel’s Gate to be taken up to the railway station. I then saw that my name was above the top line on the board listing all those who were on stage and to which service they were assigned to. This meant that I was to join the team of Resposables at the station and would be requires to wear a set of leather brettles as a sign of office. I accepted the challenge and continued to work to ensure the arrivals and departures happened at the correct time and that the équipes were briefed as to what was expected of them to enable the station to run in an efficient but caring manner, as well as acting as the conduit between the Pilgrimages and the HNDL to make sure that the ambulance cars were ready to accept the sick pilgrims as they arrived at the railway station. As the junior member of the team I was given the task of signing people’s affectation papers. At this time it was not uncommon to find University Students spending 4 or 5 weeks in Lourdes on stage. This meant that you would often be presented with a horrendous piece of papier-mâché to try to put some mark on to indicate that they had turned up and completed their duty.

In 1992 I again had the opportunity to travel out at the end of May to do an additional stage. Having observed the wonderful sight of the new TGV Atlantique shimmering as they entered Lourdes Station from Tarbes during their timetabling trials in 1990, I was determined to experience travelling on one of them one day. So my plan was to travel by train down to Newhaven, ferry to Dieppe and train to Paris, arriving in Paris around 05:00. This allowed plenty of time to cross Paris to catch the Morning TGV to Lourdes which was due to arrive around 14:00. However, due to industrial action at Dieppe my plans were thrown into the air. Having contacted the various  travel companies I was advised to head off straight away and cross the channel using the Dover to Calais route. This meant I arrived at Montparnasse around 22:30. There were a group of us sitting in the main waiting room when the night staff came to lock up the station for the night and when we explained our predicament the security manager allowed us to stay overnight in the waiting room but explained to us that we could not wander around as the station was patrolled by guard dogs. The following morning when the time came I found the appropriate platform and walked, what seemed miles, to find my seat. It was then that I realised that these trains consisted of two 10 carriage units coupled together, which would be split at Dax, with one half going down to Henday and the other heading to Tarbes. As I had decided to treat my self, I settled into my First Class seat and enjoyed a wonderful breakfast, which at the time was included in the fare. It was good to sit and watch the French Countryside whizz past the window at around 180 mph and the fact that when two trains passed there was no turbulence or rattling in a way that happens in the UK. During my stage I met and worked with a group of stagiaires from HCPT as well as my friends from Hexham and Newcastle. The week went well and as the stage group included a priest, we had the privilege of having Mass every day. This was open to any of the English speaking stagiaires, so was well attended by a large group from Waterford and Cork, in Ireland. During the week I became friends with a lady from the HCPT Group as she was mainly working in the baths but would come up to the railway station if she was free. Travelling in the fourgonnes up and down to the station was great fun as one of the Irish guys, who was a bit of a character, would lead us in community singing or would be telling jokes. At the end of the week, following a long and heavy day at the railway station I said goodbye to everyone and boarded the night train to Paris. Once I had waved goodbye to Our Lady, as the train passed the Grotto, I settled into my couchette. I forced myself to stay awake until Pau, by which time my ticket was checked, and the next thing I was aware of was being woken up about 20 minutes before arriving in Paris.

I continued to correspond with and visit the lady, from the HCPT Stage Group I had met and we eventually decided that we were right for each other, so we became engaged on Christmas Day 1992. Plans for the wedding went ahead and as we met in Lourdes and Lourdes was an important part of both our lives, my future wife had been a Group leader with HCPT for a number of years, we decided to to Lourdes for our honeymoon. The date of the wedding was set for 28th May 1993, a Friday, which would enable us to fly out to Lourdes on the British Airways flight from Gatwick to Lourdes, BA had taken over the route when Dan Air went to the wall. We stayed in the Hotel Moderne and had the biggest room I had ever seen in Lourdes, the bathroom was the size of a normal Lourdes hotel room. Once we settled in we then went down to the Grotto, where Kathleen left her bridal bouquet. We then toured the various cafes to meet up with our friends who were already in Lourdes. We eventually returned to our room in the early hours of the morning and  we went to bed. As I was due to to be on duty at 06:00 and I was determined not to be late, the alarm was set for 05:00. I surprise a lot of people as I made it to St Michael’s gate in plenty of time to catch the fourgonne. As many of our friends were travelling out to Lourdes the day we were married we had decided to have a second wedding reception on the Monday, as there was not much work on. So after a wonderful Mass in the upper chapel of the St Frai, where we were treated to excellent music by the musicians from the Hexham and Newcastle Stage Group, we all headed up to the Restaurant at the Railway Station: This may sound strange but at the time this was one of the best restaurants in Lourdes. Had Kathleen thought about it earlier she said she would have arranged for all of us to travel up to the station on the little train. So after a superb meal we were presented with a wedding cake that someone had made and brought out with them, so a cake cutting ceremony duly took place, then we followed this by a great sing song. On the Wednesday night, after the Hospitalité Mass and the customary visit to the Foyer we were told that we were expected at the Welsh National Pilgrimage’s last night party in the Terrace Café. When Kathleen and I entered we were given a round of applause and then were totally embarrassed as the Welsh Pilgrimage Director, Cannon Ed Mullins, made a speech and presented Kathleen with a Welsh Pilgrimage Badge and I was given a Welsh Pilgrimage tie.

As we had managed to avoid telling everyone where we were staying, we decided to have a bit of a do in our room on the Thursday afternoon. So the supplies were obtained and invites issued and it got to the point that the hotel porter would just direct people entering the hotel to our room. We tidied the room up a bit and left in time to take part in the Blessed Sacrament Procession. When we returned to our room I was quite surprised, as it was an older style French lock which I would double lock, to find that it was single locked. However when we opened the door we found that the room had been completely cleaned, hoovered etc, the rubbish taken away and a couple of empty boxes left so that we could carry on our party. Once we arrive home and Kathleen was showing photos to here colleagues from work, one of them said that they thought we were going to France and not to Disney Land as they saw a photo of the two of us taken one evening in a very quiet Rosary Square with the Basilicas in the background.

When we returned to Lourdes in the summer I spent a lot of time introducing my new wife to my friends. We had also opted to stay in a studio in the newly built Foyer Benoit Labre. The room was ideal for us as well as being en-suite there was a kitchen area with two ring electric cooker and a fridge. This was the start of a long relationship with this accommodation which we found ideal as there was no curfew, we could make a meal if we wanted to and we could entertain friends. We had one memorable evening one May stage, where we invited a number of people back to our room after Mass, however our neighbours, who just happened to be the Irish Councillor, the good doctor from Tramore and his wife, insisted that we joined them. So after a bit of discussion and the moving of some furniture about 25 of us were in their room for a thoroughly enjoyable evening of good conversation, music and Irish hospitality!



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