“Glory to God ~ Honour to Mary ~ Peace to us!”
A pilgrim encounters the SSMI in Lourdes
by Cathy Rakchaev
This motto of the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate is so clearly manifested in Lourdes. On a dream of a lifetime trip to Europe this spring I was most privileged to see this mission in action. After 35 years, I was happily reunited with the two Sisters Servants who were former colleagues of mine in health care in Canada and who now serve this mission.
From the time one steps off the train, there is an envelope of peace that enfolds each pilgrim. This was not only my experience but the experience spoken of by everyone I have met who has ever visited Lourdes. Under the kind direction of the Sisters, I was able to visit the grotto several times a day. The Sisters live adjacent to the ONLY Ukrainian Catholic Church in Lourdes — a gift from Our Lady to us. Its Byzantine architecture proudly stands out against the mountain which looks over the grotto and is within a 10 minute walk (downhill, that is … takes more time going back up.) Needless to say, it is frequently visited by many pilgrims to Lourdes and especially by Ukrainians.
This little church is a tribute to our beautiful Ukrainian Catholic Tradition and to the kind sponsors who send funds for its maintenance and upkeep. The iconography in this church is very unique and inspires one to ponder the mystical meanings they represent.
So, who does this mission serve? The Sisters are busy with tourists almost daily. There are 7 million Ukrainians who are itinerant workers (known as the “diaspora” in European countries.) Many of them, as well as tourists from Ukraine, have grouped together and come to visit Lourdes to honour Our Lady. While I was there, it was also the annual military week in Lourdes. A group of Ukrainian soldiers, along with a bishop and two priests, booked a Divine Liturgy at the church. While in the church, many went to confession and received Communion. It was edifying to see some with a rosary tucked in their epaulettes.
Hot on their heels, and on the same day, a group of “diaspora” women from Spain also had booked a Divine Liturgy with the priest who serves this church. The Sisters informed me that, last year alone, they had prepared over 4,000 hosts for the various groups who visit this church. Also, on a single day have SUNG the responses to as many as three Liturgies. Associated with this is accommodation of the visiting priests with the tours i.e. care of vestments, candles, cleaning the church and washing and ironing altar linens.
What else do the Sisters do? They have prepared pilgrims from Ukraine to receive the sacraments – some had not been to confession or to communion either since childhood, or ever. Also, to my surprise, rather than giving directions and a map to the grotto, the Sisters insist on accompanying visitors from their accommodation at local hotels, or from church after services. Thus they make several trips to the grotto each day. Why? In order to pray with pilgrims, some never having prayed a rosary or the Stations of the Cross. As a veteran of the Way of the Cross, myself, I have to say that praying them with Sister Veronica made it all the more meaningful.
At the grotto, there are many spiritual activities all day and evening from confession, Mass, Rosary, and in response to Our Lady’s request, Processions. In the evening, Sister Stephanie and Sister Jacinta accompanied me to the grotto. Praying the rosary in the evening with thousands of pilgrims in a candle light procession is an experience I am unable to adequately describe. While the Hail Mary’s are recited in many different languages, we all united in one language between each decade and raised our lanterns to sing together: “Ave, Ave, Ave Maria, Ave, Ave, Ave Maria ...”
Finally, being at the grotto was like stepping into a bubble of maternal comfort. In the hush of the grotto, there is an atmosphere of total peace and prayer. Pilgrims purchase 2 ft. long tapers and carry them to the candle stations around the grotto. A prayer is left with each candle and I certainly remembered my loved ones there. One is able to kneel on the spot where Bernadette knelt during the apparitions or sit on benches around the grotto. Lining up at the fountains to drink and to get the Lourdes pure spring water was also a meaningful experience.
In the alcove is the traditional statue form of Our Lady of Lourdes. Not even a bird lands in the alcove, knowing it is a sacred space in our world. One is able to walk beneath the alcove and to touch the rocks and bless oneself with the water which slowly trickles down the cool surface. The grotto is a place of healing. The sick take precedence in the line-up to pass under the alcove. There are volunteers who take them around in wheelchairs and even on stretchers. As a nurse, I have often felt concern for all those who go with a prayer for healing and come away still bearing their physical sufferings. However, I hear and truly believe that Mother Mary sends no one away empty as we were all spiritually touched in some special and permanent way.
Thank you Mother Mary, and Sisters Veronica, Jacinta and Stephanie. I strongly encourage a visit to this sacred place and to our Ukrainian Catholic Church.
Cathy Rakchaev was born in Toronto, where her family were members of St. Josaphat’s Cathedral. She graduated from Mount Mary Immaculate Academy in Ancaster, and St. Mary’s Hospital School of Nursing in Kitchener, ON. She is currently a member of Sts. Peter & Paul Ukrainian Catholic Parish and UCWLC in Mundare, AB.
Little Gallery (click image to enlarge)