Kevin Connolly is an Irishman serving in Service St Joseph as a Responsable des Ceremonies. Here he reflects on the changes in his particular role over the years and within the Hopsitalité.
Despite growing up in Catholic Ireland, and of course learning about the apparitions in school, I knew little else about Lourdes. My perception was of a small drab town filled with people on their knees all day surrounded by sick and dying people, and for that reason it was never on my bucket list. Ironically, when I started my first job at Dublin airport, the office I worked in was housed in a wooden building that had at one time been used as a pre-departure area for sick pilgrims and was still referred to as ‘the Lourdes building’. The only time I was reminded of the existence of Lourdes was when our parish would begin an extra collection during each Sunday Mass to allow the less fortunate sick members of the diocese travel with the annual Dublin Diocesan Pilgrimage.
Fast-forward about 20 years to when I was living in the UK and sharing my life with my then partner who happened to be an old ‘Wimbledonian’ and who would regale me with tales of his experiences as a stagier in Lourdes, the grim accommodation, the food at the Abri St. Michel, the long days of physically hard labour at the station, and not forgetting of course, the occasional tummy upset. My reaction was always the same: “….and you actually pay for this? Thanks, but no thanks!” Then came the year when his family were travelling from far and wide to attend his engagement, so wracked with guilt I decided I had better make the ultimate sacrifice and join them. Due to my work schedule I was unable to attend the actual ceremony but I did make it to the post-engagement dinner that his family was hosting for the entire Wimbledon College Hospitalité in the Hotel Gallia & Londres. I was immediately struck at how welcoming the group were towards me (are you there Peter Chamberlain?) and though tired from my journey, one of the ‘elders’ insisted that I be escorted, suitcase in hand, to the Grotto before retiring for the night. And so it was that I stood there, along with just a few pilgrims, thinking, “so this is Lourdes.” I am not going to attempt to explain how I felt in that moment but each time during my short stay when I was asked if I would consider returning as a volunteer, my mind wandered back to that first night. However, knowing that I never make a promise until I am certain that I can fulfill it, I kept my decision on hold. Suffice it to say, as the following August approached, I was duly convinced that perhaps it would not be such a bad idea after all, and the rest is 35 years of history.
My earlier years as a Stagier and later as a Hospitalier, were made easy by the fact that everything was organised by the Wimbledon College Hospitalité, of which I was now an honorary member, and all I had to do was turn up on the given date, sign on and follow the group. For this reason, I do so admire those people who are willing to travel long distances to present themselves for service for the first time in a foreign country and perhaps not even speaking French (moi!).
Knowing, as I do, many of the current team of English speaking formateurs, I truly regret that they were not around during my formative years when my fellow nouveaus and I were subjected to longwinded lectures in French, (je ne comprends pas!) to the point of feeling quite insulted the day one of the French formateurs merely turned on a tape recorder and left the room. Anyway, I managed to survive and went on to spend the next few years of my apprenticeship working in all areas of St. Joseph’s service as part of an équipe. As Kevin Dawson has already mentioned in his recollections, the days of the tyrannical Chefs were still in full swing and many times I was reprimanded for placing a voiture bleu or wheelchair a fraction of a centimetre out of line. Considering I was already in my 40s and holding down a job where I was responsible for the lives of several hundred people I found this part especially difficult to contend with. However, following my engagement, I soon settled into the yearly routine of working at the station with the occasional visit out to the airport.
Eventually the ravages of age caught up with me and I had to accept the fact that my glass back was not up to the rigours of the lifting and carrying required whilst working at the station, so I requested to be reassigned to ‘Cérémonies’. This was a great period of learning for me as I worked with supportive responsables (Giovanni Belini and Michel Sutti) who, over time mentored me until I was in a position to assist them when they were the lone Chefs. Then came the day during our daily briefing in preparation for the Blessed Sacrament procession when Michel informed me that the responsable who was due to take over from him that afternoon had to cancel his stage due to yet another French train strike and consequently I was duly promoted in the field. I must say, in all modesty, that I took to it like a duck to water, helped by the fact that the Cérémonier at that time was a very laid back and understanding priest. These were very happy days for me as we HNDL members had full reign as far as organising the processions was concerned and at a time when there were many more pilgrims than today.
Then came the day when I was informed that the Sanctuary staff would in future be taking a bigger role in the ceremonies than heretofore, and since I was provided with only scant details, I turned up for my next stage more or less unaware of what was in store. I soon discovered that the new Cérémonier was someone I had previous experience with and whose interpersonal skills I already knew left a lot to be desired. On my first evening I turned up with a depleted team for the torchlight procession assuming that our help, no matter how small, would be appreciated, but it immediately became patently obvious that we were not welcome.
The following evening I decided to stand on the side ramp at the Rosary square to observe how the new team from the Sanctuary was performing. Basically, the Cérémonier, along with his erstwhile sidekick, were attempting to organize the procession between them. I was horrified to see these two figures; both dressed in black, running around in the dark, arms flailing, while shouting at pilgrims to stay in line. The one thought that kept going through my mind was, “well those pilgrims won’t be returning in a hurry!” One colleague confided in me that he had persuaded an Anglican priest to travel with him and to say he was unimpressed with what is supposed to be the highlight of each day in Lourdes, is an understatement. Even while working on the Blessed Sacrament procession (where our work had also diminished) and the International Mass, proved to be a great test of my sense of humility, since the Cérémonier had a habit of ‘working on the hoof’ and we never knew from one day to the next what new system he was testing.
During my years of service in Lourdes there have been times, when having been shouted at and generally verbally abused by pilgrims, I have thought “what am I doing here!” but this was surely the darkest period ever. The generally poor atmosphere among the various teams I worked with was also palpable and perhaps the only thing that kept our spirits up was our sense of humour, something which I have always believed to be an asset when working within the HNDL.
For reasons I am not aware of, though I suspect that it eventually became clear to the Sanctuary personnel that the HNDL should after all be an integral and necessary part of the ceremonies, the situation eventually improved, to the point that although we have not returned completely to the ‘good old days’, and I still have some small reservations about the current cérémoniers, I do, once again look forward greatly to my annual two-week stage, not least because 24 years ago I met someone with whom I share the same values and who, a couple of years later, was only too willing to join me on on stage. It meant a lot to us when 5 years ago, many of our fellow HNDL friends graced us with their presence at our wedding.
Having been elevated to the position of responsable, my first decision was to never forget those probably well-meaning chefs of days gone by, and by way of contrast to continually strive to prioritise substance over form, thereby ensuring that not only do I myself have a fun and fulfilling experience but that every person I have the privilege of working with leaves Lourdes with a positive memory of their stage that in turn will ensure their return for years to come. More importantly however is my expectation that the general atmosphere we create as a team transfers on to the pilgrims, leaving them with a positive and lasting image of their time in Lourdes.