The COVID-19 pandemic emptied out our churches and shuttered the Vatican during Holy Week. It has also forced the cancellation of the Order of Malta’s 62nd International Lourdes pilgrimage.
It is the first time in more than 60 years that this remarkable pilgrimage will not take place. As a mother who brought her daughter to Lourdes in a desperate bid for a miracle 33 years ago, and as a longtime volunteer at the Lourdes baths who has wept and prayed with women and girls as their bodies are washed in the holy water, the news left me and many other Catholics bound for the shrine heartbroken.
Each year thousands of Catholics — parents nursing a terminally ill child, patients with chronic medical conditions, and those with life-altering disabilities — visit the sacred grotto where Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette.
Knights and dames of the Order of Malta, who have accompanied our beloved malades (the French word for people who are sick) on this annual seven-day pilgrimage and look forward every year to this special time, are also greatly saddened by this unexpected development.
My family’s Lourdes miracle dates back to 1987, when my young daughter, Katie, a leukemia patient, relapsed in seventh grade.
My husband, George, and I feared that she was losing ground, and some of her physicians said she could not survive without a bone-marrow transplant.
I was in Katie’s hospital room when the principal of her Catholic school dropped in to urge that we apply to join the Order of Malta’s next pilgrimage to Lourdes.
The principal helped us obtain the necessary documents from Katie’s physicians and our pastor, and we were thrilled when our daughter’s application was approved.
When we left for Lourdes a few months later, Katie couldn’t eat, drink or swallow, due to the side effects of chemotherapy.
Soon after we arrived, she went into the bath while I waited outside. And within three days, she was sitting on a curb eating a hot dog.
On the last night of the pilgrimage, she told her story to the other pilgrims and promised to come back as a volunteer. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place, as her prognosis was poor.
After we returned home, however, Katie’s doctors could not explain why her medical problems had disappeared. Her leukemia never did return, a rarity for a patient who relapsed and did not have a bone-marrow transplant.
Later, Katie pressed us to join the following year’s pilgrimage, and when my husband demurred, she told him, “Daddy, you promised me we would all go again.”
From 1988, we attended every Lourdes pilgrimage, and all three of us eventually joined the order.
Over time, I began to work at the baths for two weeks in the spring, before the pilgrimage, and then again in the summer. From the beginning, working there was like going home.
The baths at Lourdes are a sacred place, where each pilgrim makes a total surrender of self to Our Lady, asking for her protection and praying for personal intentions.
Each day there begins with the volunteers on their knees praying the Rosary, followed by other prayers. Then we kiss the floor and stand up to face the statue of Our Lady. The doors are opened, and we sing the Salve Regina or Regina Coeli.
Each of us is assigned to a specific cubicle, with a team of six female volunteers, and a bath that is 3 feet by 6 feet.
We help each person to disrobe, covering them in a sheet before we guide them into the bath and out again.
Some have told me, “The water is so warm; my heart is on fire.” Others say, “The water is cold, cold, cold.”
For me, it was easier in my youth to go into the bath, and now it is more difficult and has become a greater act of faith. And my experience points to another truth I have learned in the baths: It can be hard to tell the difference between a malade and a volunteer.
Going into the bath is a total surrender to Our Lady, giving one’s self and asking for her protection, praying for all of one’s intentions. Each of us has our own story and our own baggage that we give to Our Lady.
I have witnessed so many miracles in the baths, though we volunteers can only guess at the full meaning of the physical and spiritual healings that leave a person transfixed with joy.
I remember a teenage girl, who was brought to us on a stretcher and appeared lifeless. I got her ready and put a small statue of Mary into her hand. Six of us carried her into the bath, and as we brought her into the water, there was a squeal, almost a scream. The girl’s mother started to sob. After the girl was returned to the stretcher, the mother hugged her, crying hysterically. With that, the daughter hugged her mother and kissed her cheek.
I remember a beautiful African woman who arrived with crutches, wearing a pair of large boots.
I knelt down to take off her tightly laced shoes, and as I pulled them off, I saw that she had no feet. She was from Sierra Leone and told me that her feet had been cut off by rebels during civil violence.
She shared the whole story, and we hugged and cried together.
This is the most humbling work: You are stripped naked before God. It is a gift to walk with the malades. You bond with them.
There was a young American woman in a wheelchair pushed by her sister. She asked me for help because some volunteers had said it wasn’t safe for her to go into the bath.
We started to undress her, and I saw that she had wrapped her body in saran wrap as a precautionary measure. Her body was covered with incisions from multiple cancer surgeries. With her sister’s help, we walked her to the bath. Then we all prayed for her, sat her down in the water, and then brought her out.
After we got her dressed, she looked at me and said, “I had my miracle. I went to Lourdes and went to the baths.”
You never see these people again, but you know they experienced Our Lady because you were there.
I think of the young woman from my daughter’s Catholic high school who had metastatic cancer and joined the pilgrimage one year. While we were together in Lourdes, we spoke about Katie’s miracle. And some time after we returned to California, I got a message to call her in her hospital room.
“Oh, Mrs. Kiesel,” she told me excitedly, “I had my miracle.” Then she had to get off the phone. “I can’t talk now,” she added, “because the doctors are in my room. I’ll call you later.” She died that night. To this day, I have no idea what her miracle was. What matters is that she was able to join the pilgrimage and be with Our Lady in Lourdes.
This year, I will sorely miss the privilege of sharing that sacred time with malades and fellow volunteers, all of us pilgrims on this earthly journey.
I have also asked myself, “What is Our Lady asking of us?” I don’t have an answer. Fortunately, malades and their families, along with knights and dames, can still turn to livestreamed Mass and recitation of the Rosary at the Lourdes grotto and join in the prayers for all the malades who could not be there this year.
I hope and pray to be back at the baths as soon as possible.
It is Our Lady’s backyard — and one of the closest places to heaven on earth.
Charlotte Kiesel is a
dame of Malta who lives in Burlingame, California.
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