1,000 turn out for Lourdes experience

STAMFORD—They came in humility to pray to Our Lady. They came in hope, looking for a healing for themselves, a family member or friend. They came because of a lifelong dream to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes, one of the most revered Marian shrines in the world.

More than 1,000 faithful filled St. Mary Church on Saturday to take part in the Lourdes Virtual Pilgrimage, which brought the experience of Lourdes to the Diocese of Bridgeport.

Bishop Frank Caggiano, who led the rosary and offered a Eucharistic blessing said, “This was an absolutely extraordinary spiritual experience for me and helped me come to a greater love of Our Lady.”

Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers coordinated the program, which featured a slide show and narration about the shrine, a candlelight rosary, holy water from Lourdes and rocks from the grotto at Massabielle, where the Blessed Virgin appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old peasant girl, in 1858.

The event recreated a pilgrimage to Lourdes. “This experience draws pilgrims nearer to God in the company of Our Lady as they are guided through a prayerful visit to the Grotto, the experience of water, prayer in a rosary procession and a Eucharistic blessing,” organizers said.

Every year, 6 million pilgrims travel to Lourdes to pray to Our Lady. Many go in the hope they will receive a healing at the spring the Blessed Virgin revealed to St. Bernadette. In the 160 years since the apparitions, thousands of people have been healed in the waters, and 70 have been recognized as miraculous cures by the Church.

The event was organized by David D’Andrea of St. Roch Church in Byram, who attributes several miracles in his life to Lourdes. “I wanted to give everyone a chance to experience Lourdes who may never get to go there,” he said.

“This is truly a tribute to Our Blessed Mother that so many of you have come out this afternoon to honor her,” said Fran Salaun, the director of Lourdes volunteers, North America, who narrated the slide presentation.”We are here this afternoon to share the pilgrimage together to a very holy place called Lourdes, France. All you need is an open mind and open heart to listen to the message Our Lady gave to St. Bernadette.”

The Blessed Virgin appeared 18 times to Bernadette, “who by all measures was an unlikely saint,” Salaun said. She was a sickly child who did poorly in her studies and still had not made her First Communion as she approached 14 because she had trouble with her catechism. She was told that she was “too stupid” to learn.

And yet on that chilly, damp afternoon on February 11, 1858, the Mother of God chose to appear to her with a message of penance and prayer for the entire world. The grotto where the 18 apparitions occurred was like the village dump, a place where stolen goods were exchanged and the pigs ate.

“How could such a terrible place became such a holy place today?” Salaun asked. “Because the Mother of God came there.”

During the presentation, the faithful came forward to touch rocks from the grotto, and Bishop Caggiano blessed the assembly with holy water from Lourdes, followed by a candlelight rosary before the Blessed Sacrament, with each decade said in a different language—Spanish, English, Filipino, French and Italian, which was led by the bishop.

In his closing remarks, D’Andrea, who encouraged everyone to embrace the message of Lourdes and “open your arms and open your hearts and open the doors to the churches and walk through and follow our leader, Bishop Caggiano,” whom he described as the “best bishop in America.”

“I was awestruck by the number of people who were moved by the event,” he said later. Many of the responses he received by email and phone, one after the other, told him about their suffering and pain and faith in Our Lady.

A lifelong Greenwich resident, D’Andrea approached Bishop Caggiano with the idea of bringing the Virtual Pilgrimage to Stamford and received his support. Father Gustavo Falla, pastor of St. Mary’s, agreed to host the event at his church.

The bishop thanked D’Andrea for his “hard work, persevering, and your love for Our Lady and Our Lord and for sharing with everyone you meet.”

D’Andrea said he was cured of polio as a child and overcame the trauma of clerical sex abuse. He also survived stage 3 cancer, which was diagnosed in 2014.

He credits his recovery to Our Lady of Lourdes through the efforts of his cousin, Monsignor Joseph Giandurco, pastor of St. Patrick’s in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., who celebrated a healing Mass for him and brought holy water from Lourdes to bless him when he began his treatment for cancer.

D’Andrea still has that bottle of holy water and continues to share it with others who are suffering or ill. And while he has never gone on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, he knows Our Lady was instrumental in his recovery.

The volunteers of the Lourdes Hospitality association bring seriously ill and disabled people to the shrine and also share the message of Lourdes by conducting the Virtual Pilgrimage for those who cannot travel to France. Their mission is “To extend the invitation of the Immaculate Conception as given to Bernadette in the Grotto at Lourdes, to serve the sick and suffering at Lourdes and at home, following the loving example of St. Bernadette in simplicity, humility and obedience.” More than 3,000 members of the North American Volunteers have served at Lourdes.

The Virtual Pilgrimage Experience, which lasts about two hours, is held at parishes, schools, prisons, nursing homes, universities and convents. Since it began in 2004, more than 165,000 people have taken part in 44 states and 19 countries. The Virtual Pilgrimage began in Kansas, when three pilgrims brought it to Holy Spirit Church in Overland Park. Those who participate will receive a plenary indulgence granted by papal decree of Benedict XVI.