This is the fourth in series of posts from Kevin Dawson, Service St Joseph, on his experiences of Lourdes from 1965 to the present day. This fourth part covers his stages from the 90s to the present day and includes reflections on what his service in Lourdes means to him.
As the years progressed I was eventually appointed as a Responsable for the Railway Station. This was quite a challenge but enjoyable role. I would ensure that the appropriate prayers were said before the team began service for the day and that the chefs de équipes were fully briefed so that the work could be completed in the most timely and caring manner. During one May stage we were at the station for the German Rhein Mass Pilgrimage arrival. The train duly arrived on one of the far platforms, and while waiting for the carriages to be shunted onto the Gare de Malade, the Pilgrimage Responsable came up to me and greeted me as long lost friend, I had been part of the equipe that had unloaded and loaded this Pilgrimage for a number of years. He said that he was glad and relieved to see me and my team as he knew that his sick pilgrims would be unloaded in the most dignified and caring manner and that he could head straight to the hospital without having to worry about what was going on at the station. The same year the Stuttgart Kinder Pilgrimage came in and their Responsable came up to me and explained that his group consisted of children with special needs and that a relationship between the children and their careers had been developed over the period the Pilgrimage had been planned. He said that it may disturb the children if a group of strangers were to become involved in getting them off the train so asked if the Pilgrimage could unload the train themselves. He looked physically relieved when I told him that it would not be a problem and to give us a shout if, at any point, they required assistance.
I continued as a Responsable at the station for a few years but then was moved across to work at the airport, with an occasional visit to the station, as new people were drafted in. After being involved at the airport for a number of years, I was asked by the person working on the Accueil Hospitaliers desk, if I would again take on the role of Responsable at the station as the person who was due to take on that role was unable to come to Lourdes that week. With humility I explained that I would accept the role as long as I could choose my assistant, because I do not have the language skills. I was told that they knew from my record that I had the skill and experience to ensure the job was carried out and my one request was granted. I made some enquiries as to who the man at the desk was, as I had not come across him before, and was told he was a Lieutenant in the French Foreign Legion. I asked a friend of mine, who was an experienced equipe leader at the railway station and had the language skills if he would be my assistant, reluctantly he agreed. At one point during the loading of a train, I went for a walk up the platform to inform my assistant that all the sick pilgrims had arrived from the hospital and I noticed that he was in the middle of the ambulance car appearing to be getting in the way. I called him over and as we both walked up the platform I asked him “As a chef d’ equipe, what was the worst experience you could have?” He replied “An interfering responsable.” I simply replied “Think about it.” To this day he still says that this was one of the best pieces of advice he had been given. Earlier that week Lourdes had welcomed both the Metz and the Luxembourg Pilgrimages. Normally these two groups would arrive on the same train with Metz being at one end with 4 ambulance cars and Luxembourg being at the other end with 1 ambulance car. This year, however, they had arrived on separate trains with Metz train having 5 ambulance cars and the Luxembourg train having 2 ambulance cars, as normal Metz had a lot of Sick Pilgrims who required the use of stretchers. So at one point during the week I was left with 3 stretchers for use at the station, also there were only about 6 blankets remaining. My wife and I drove into the St Frai one evening and having a Land Rover Discovery I managed to repatriate sufficient blankets for use up at the station.
For the night departure of the Metz and Luxembourg Pilgrimages we were blessed with sufficient help to cover the 7 ambulance cars which équipes of between 5 and 6 people and we were honoured to have the assistance of the Legionnaire from the the Accueil Hospitaliers desk and the President of the Service St Joseph. The chap from the Bureaux asked if he could work on an equipe, so we appointed him as a chef d’ équipé and asked him to work on one of the Luxembourg ambulance cars, while our President was happy rolling the sick pilgrims from the Salle de Malade to the ambulance cars. That night I hardly ventured out onto the platforms as I spent most of my time fielding stretchers and tringlots as they were returned after being used. At the end of the onslaught, both trains left on time, I had never seen so many stretchers in the Salle de Malade, we then retired to the Foyer for well deserved refreshments.
Having moved across to mainly working as part of the Airport Equipe I have found an inner strength which means that I can exist on very little rest and still manage to welcome the Pilgrimages with a smile. You become aware that long delays affect you but you need to be aware that the the sick pilgrims and those looking after them have been equally affected by the delays. There have been many occasions when we have set off from Lourdes at 06:00 in the morning, especially on Fridays when we know know there are due to be many movements at the airport, and we have returned to Lourdes after all the cafes are close and most sensible people are tucked up in their beds. One of the downsides of pilgrimages travelling to Lourdes by air is that they can be affected by the occasional national French employment disputes. One year, on an Irish Pilgrimage changeover day, there was an ongoing French Air Traffic Controllers dispute that was due to begin at 06:00 and would end at midnight. In order to ensure that the departing Pilgrimage left and that the aircraft were available for the Pilgrimage that was due to arrive we had to leave Lourdes at 02:30. Through various contacts in hotels, arrangements were made for us to join the departing Pilgrims for breakfast at around 02:00 in one hotel and then head up to the airport. Once the sick pilgrims arrived up at the hotel we were given an ultimatum that the two aircraft had to be loaded by 05:45 or we would in in big trouble. Working under a lot of pressure, the Gods and Our Lady looked down on us as we left the airport at 05:30, having loaded the two aircraft with a total of over 100 sick pilgrims. After a well earned rest we then returned to the airport at around 22:30 so that we were ready to welcome the two arriving Pilgrimages, whose aircraft landed just before midnight.
I feel that working up at the airport is a great privilege as we welcome the arriving Pilgrims, many of whom have become friends, with a warm smile and we wish those departing a safe trip home and look forward to greeting them the following year. Many Pilgrimage Officials have said that when the aircraft doors are opened and the see me on the air bridge they breath a huge sigh of relief as they know that their charges will be dealt with in a caring and dignified way and that we will do our best to alleviate any problems that may occur.
Over the years I have experienced moments of great joy as well as moments of great sadness. One of the saddest moment that I have experienced while working was the time that we were loading the Welsh National Pilgrimage onto their TGV prior to them heading home. As I assisted one gentleman, who I had know quite well and was a fellow member of HNDL, onto the train and walked him to his seat, I remembered how he had once been a bull of a man, who had at one time played in the front row for Llanelli, and here he was affected by the ravages of dementia. I then went back to the Salle de Malade and sobbed my heart out. One of the greatest joys occurred in 2018, when we were out there in February for the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. At the end of the International Mass when Bishop Brouwet made the proclamation of the latest miracle, the cure of Sister Bernadette Moriau, which was also being made simultaneously by the Bishop in the nun’s own Diocese. The feeling of joy made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
People have often asked me if I have seen any miracles happened and seem disappointed when I say that I have not. I then go on to explain that though I have never seen anyone getting out of their bed and walking miracles, I have seen many, what I would class as minor miracles. This has happened when I have seen sick pilgrims deteriorate over the years and as you loaded them onto the train for their departure, the thought strikes you that they may be lucky to survive the journey home, then the following year you again help them off the train. When this happens there I experience an inner feeling that I am unable to explain, however my faith then tells me that this is God showing that he is with me and working with the world. If I had not had the Lourdes experience all those years ago I don’t know if I would have remained an active member of the Roman Catholic Church and maintained my faith.
Over the years I have been travelling and working in Lourdes I have met many characters and I have always felt that I have been treated as an equal. When you have your sleeves rolled up and are unloading a train that has travelled nearly 36 hours from Southern Italy, it does not matter if you are someone who works in the sewers or you are related to the British Royal Family. What is important is that you welcome all Pilgrims in a dignified and caring manner and no matter how you are personally feeling, you are able to offer a welcoming smile.