Today, I know the time I spent participating in Mass at Lourdes had an immeasurable influence on me, because –if for no other reason– it was those school-day morning services where I learned what “Mass” really was. Although my mother is a Catholic, our family infrequently went to Mass over the weekend in that we were, instead, usually attending my father’s Disciples of Christ church on Sunday mornings. On Tuesday mornings during the school-year, however, the unique ritual that is Roman Catholic Mass became a more and more integral element of my religious practice, culminating with me being Confirmed as a Catholic when I was fourteen. My Confirmation, in fact, took place in Our Lady of Lourdes’s sanctuary, and Lourdes’s pastor at the time –Father Nick Rice– was the celebrant who anointed me and my fellow Confirmants with holy oil that night.
That said, the influence of my time at Our Lady of Lourdes has stayed with me another way, too, by way of an ongoing fascination with the original story of St. Mary’s appearance in Lourdes, France. The town of Lourdes, which rests in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains in southwestern France, is –like Louisville– oriented to the river on which it sits, the Gave de Pau. It was that river to which fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous, her younger sister, and a neighbor made their way on February 11th, 1858 to collect firewood. Bernadette and the two other girls, however, separated when Bernadette chose not to follow the others across a stream. Thus, St. Bernadette –as she is known within the Church today– was left standing alone by the river in front of the grotto of Massabielle, an alcove within a sizeable rock formation along the water’s edge. What happened next would not only transform Bernadette’s life and make Lourdes the sacred pilgrimage site it is today – it would also add a new chapter to the story of St. Mary.
As Bernadette would later share with her friends and family, she heard a sudden rush of wind and then saw –standing in a recess in the stone above the grotto– a young woman dressed in a white robe and veil, wrapped in a blue sash and holding a rosary. Bernadette would later discover that the woman-in-white was, in fact, Mary, the mother of Christ. Over the next five months, Mary appeared to St. Bernadette seventeen more times, and, at times, spoke directly to the teenaged girl. Fittingly, the eighteenth and final time Mary appeared to Bernadette occurred on July 16th – The Feast Day of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, a commemoration of St. Mary with a history dating back to the 1100s.
While I have never been to the town of Lourdes and Mary’s appearance there occurred over 150 years ago, I often think of Bernadette’s spiritual experience in that I am often passing one of Louisville’s many tableaus commemorating the event. In Our Lady of Lourdes’s church on Breckenridge Lane, for example, one can see a two-stories-tall portrayal of the grotto scene depicted in stained-glass. St. Louis Bertrand Catholic Church on South Sixth Street, on the other hand, is home to The Lourdes Rosary Shrine, which –according to catholicshrines.net– is “one of the earliest grotto shrines in the United States.” On the front of Lourdes Hall at the corner of Bradley Avenue and Eastern Parkway stands a particularly large memorial – a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes that graces the top three floors of the building.
Just behind Lourdes Hall, though, is possibly Louisville’s most unique tribute to St. Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes – a full-sized re-creation of Lourdes’s Massabielle grotto, with life-sized statues of Bernadette and Mary within it. The grotto –which sits at the corner of James Pirtle Court and Presidents Boulevard (on the south side of University Park Apartments)– is, in fact, a historic site unto itself – the shrine dates back to 1927 when it was built for the patients of Louisville’s former St. Joseph Infirmary. Although the infirmary (except for the aforementioned Lourdes Hall) was razed in 1980, the grotto and its accompanying garden were left standing, and in 2001 the site was named a state landmark by Kentucky’s Heritage Council.
A fountain in front of the old infirmary’s Lourdes-like grotto suggests that water once flowed through the garden of the historic landmark, undoubtedly an allusion to the healing spring that is said to flow from the grotto in France. While the fountain is no longer in operation, I like the fact that Beargrass Creek flows by just east of Louisville’s grotto at that point where it passes under Eastern Parkway. In my mind, the creek echoes the healing stream Bernadette is said to have unearthed. I don't mean to suggest that the waters of Beargrass Creek have supernatural powers, but thinking of its perpetual flow not far the grotto re-creation here, reminds me of the perpetual flow of water at the grotto in Lourdes.
Setting appearance and physical surroundings aside, however, I find myself considering what spiritual crossover Louisville’s grotto may share with that of Lourdes. It goes without saying, but I know the painted statue of Mary on the old infirmary grounds cannot be compared to the spiritual vision of Mary that Bernadette experienced. As a Catholic, though, I am still moved by a visit to Louisville’s variation on the grotto of Massabielle. Seeing the statue of Mary prompts me to ask myself, What can I learn from Mary’s example? Seeing the statue of Bernadette prompts me to tell myself, As Bernadette responded to Mary’s example, so can you. To that end, Louisville’s grotto is far more than just a historic site – it is a source of sacred inspiration.▪
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