Every night before he goes to bed, Chad Chlebowski, 10, says his prayers. He prays for his mother and father, he prays for his twin brother and his sister, he prays for his grandparents and great-grandparents … and he asks the Blessed Mother for a very special intention. That someday he will walk.
Chad was born with a rare genetic disorder called Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease, which affects the central nervous system, coordination and motor abilities. While it is a rare disease, Chad has an even rarer form, his mother Angela says, and the doctors don’t know how it will progress. He uses a wheelchair and has weakness in his muscles, and even a common cold can be so debilitating it sends him to the Emergency Room.
In January, Angela was contacted by Father Samuel Kachuba, pastor of St. Pius X Church in Fairfield, about a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus Council 5890 at St. Mary Church in Washingtonville, NY.
Chad was invited to be one of six children to visit one of the most revered Marian shrines in the world—the place where the Blessed Mother appeared in 1858 to a peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous in a grotto at Massabielle in the foothills of the French Pyrenees.
Every year, 5 million pilgrims travel to Lourdes to pray and praise Our Lady. Many go in the hope they will receive a spiritual or physical 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.
Over the past 44 years, the Knights from Council 5890 have taken 175 children with their guardians to Lourdes, according to Walter Kozlowski, chairman of the program and past Grand Knight. Walter, who has been involved with the initiative for 20 years, has made 16 pilgrimages to Lourdes and says, “It has always been a moving experience.”
Angela, who is Interim Director of Nursing and Allied Health Programs at Norwalk Community College, said, “I have a strong faith and I’m a very active Catholic, but I didn’t have this specific devotion to Our Lady, and when we were asked to go, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But my faith has changed, and now I have a different connection to Our Lady that I didn’t have before. Lourdes is such a powerful place that it’s hard to put words to what I felt while I was there.”
Angela, her mother Mary Ann, and Chad, who is a fifth-grader at Osborn Hill Elementary School, arrived in Lourdes for the 11-day pilgrimage the beginning of July.
“All I did was walk through the gates, and I broke into tears, just feeling the presence of Our Lady” Angela recalled. “That happened several times throughout the trip. I would be crying because I felt her overwhelming presence and so close to her.”
“Chad has a lot of faith,” Angela says. “He has stronger faith than any person I know. He loves church and when we’re at Mass, he is very attentive. He prays every night for people, and every night he prays he is going to walk one day.”
Even though they had taken him to healing Masses, they never thought of visiting Lourdes.
“I was very careful about this trip because I didn’t want him to be upset or sad,” she said. “I had faith he was going to be blessed by Our Lady, and I told him special things were going to happen and he accepted that.”
While they were on the pilgrimage, they saw the incorrupt body of St. Bernadette and went to Mass every day at a different chapel. They both received the Anointing of the Sick and went into the baths from the healing spring. Chad went in four times, and Angela would kneel near his side and pray while the attendant brought him into the water.
“It was a very moving moment for me,” she said.
Chad said the water was cold but he was happy to get candy with the other boys and girls who went into the baths for children. He also attended a Eucharistic healing service in the underground basilica and was part of a candle-lit procession with 30,000 people, singing Ave Maria.
“You learn so much about people, about their faith, about what’s going on in their lives and what they’re battling,” Angela said. “A lot of people go there in hopes of a miracle and they will be cured, but just being around people who want to be closer to Our Lady is so moving.”
On the fifth night, Chad said, “Mom, I have to tell you something—Mary is real.”
Angela said, “But you knew that before.” And he responded, “But now I REALLY know it.”
The next day Walter Kozlowski took Chad to the crypt chapel to light a candle and pray. Chad asked if he should say his prayer to himself or out loud and Walter said whichever he preferred. “Please, Mary, I need you to help me to walk,” he prayed.
On their last night, Angela said, Chad started to cry and she asked him why. He responded, “Mary didn’t come to me, Mom.” Angela said, “Of course she came to you.” But he said, “No, she didn’t. I still can’t walk.”
“Mary did bless you. She did come to you. We don’t know what that blessing is just yet, but in time we will find out,” she told him.
The Chlebowskis don’t know whether Chad’s disease will progress, but Angela and Chad continue to pray every night to the Blessed Mother and bless his body with holy water from Lourdes.
“He was sad at first, but after his first time at the baths, he told me his legs felt different and he has said that every single night since then,” Angela said.
Her faith has grown twofold after the pilgrimage, and she plans to return with her other children so they can have the same experience. “It’s very hard to put into words,” she says. “It is such an overwhelming flood of feeling with Our Lady so close to you.”
Two years ago, when Chad was in a New York hospital for the entire summer, Father Sam would visit him. They talked and they prayed. Chad counts Father as one of his best friends, so it was natural they would talk about Lourdes and his expectations.
“I know he went wanting one thing, but he had a great experience that was very special for him,” Father said. “I tried to tell him that even though prayer isn’t answered exactly as we expect, there are a lot of things God is doing for us that we can’t see. Chad prayed for a lot of other people while he was there. And because of his faith, he was a witness to others—what a tremendous gift for other people to see his faith.”
(For more information about the Lourdes Program, go to lourdes5890.org. Walter Kozlowski says they want to expand the program into Connecticut and interested councils should contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org)