Unlike my father, grandparents and daughter, I’ve never been to Lourdes. Given the proliferation of places of worship that have sprung up around the Pyrenean town since the visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to a humble girl gathering sticks in the 1850s, I’m a bit baffled by the way it’s all put together. A Haynes manual or an Eagle comic cutaway drawing would be handy. Having vivisected the Dart Herald and numerous prototypes of the world’s first vertical take-off airliners, you’d think Dan Dare’s bosses might have had a pop at overdeveloped places of pilgrimage.
The Puffin is a resourceful bird, able amongst other things to sail round the world in a yacht, compile a weekly crossword, grow their own vegetables and complete SAS missions. The first-ever G-P cutaway, not quite an illustrated Da Vinci anatomical dissection but useful all the same, is available below. If readers can think of any more gaps in the cutaway drawing market, feel free to make a request in the unread comments below this unread article. Having said that, keep in mind they’re not as easy to do as you might think, even with the new technology.
1 The Crypt
The first chapel to be built at Lourdes was the crypt. Puffins who are bad on their feet will be pleased to hear that there isn’t a load of steps down to the underground chapel, rather I had to invent a slope for reasons of clarity. Likewise, the perspective doesn’t narrow from all directions like something out of Lewis Carol. SketchUp has its funny little ways that one has to work around. For illustrative purposes, I’ve painted the underground rooms a suitably Marian blue, but I’m not very good with colours so that might be wrong as well.
2 Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception
Also known as the Upper Basilica, this sits on top of the crypt and was the second chapel to be built within the ‘domain’. Constricted between 1862 and 1871, it sits atop of the original Massabielle grotto and is itself topped by a 230ft tall tower and spire. Above the entrance to the aisle sits a mural of Pope Pius IXth who defined the church dogma of the Immaculate Conception as recently as 1854.
The entrance to the crypt can be seen below the arched entrance to the Upper Basilica. Architect Hippolyte Durand also designed Alexandre Dumas’s Chateau de Monte-Cristo, paid for from the proceeds of Dumas’s book of the same name and his other famous tome The Three Musketeers. Hippolyte was also the architect of old friends of Nastalgia Album Napoleon III and Princess Eugenie’s summer palace in Biarritz. M. Durand was (rightly) awarded the Legion of Honor in 1875.
3 The Rosary Basilica
Also known as the Basilica of Notre Dame of the Rosary, the Rosary Basilica was the third of the churches to be built after the crypt and the Upper Basilica. It sits below the upper church and outside of the rocky outcrop containing the grotto and crypt. Leopold Hardy was the architect of the Byzantine structure which was completed in 1899. A dome allows for 16 stained glass windows above 15 side chapels each of which signifies one of the 15 decades of the Rosary. In the photograph below, Miss AWS has captured the outside of the dome from the roof of the basilica roof which provides a walkway to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.
The Rosary Basilica enjoys a semi-circular white marble entry facade. White marble side doors are engraved with a message of gratitude to Marcial Pétain, the leader of Vichy France during the war. Why so? The Catholic Standard of 10th January 1941 explains;
“The Grotto and Shrine of Our lady of Lourdes has, it is reported, been handed back to the Bishop of Lourdes by the new town council that has been formed at Lourdes since Marshal Petain became Head of the French state. The vote of the town council was said to be unanimous. The French law which expropriated all Church property at the beginning of the present century, removed the Grotto and Shrine from the jurisdiction of the Church and handed them over to the local authorities. It was only by their toleration that the ecclesiastical authorities were permitted to use them.”
The relevant French law alluded to was the Law on the Separation of the Churches and State. Passed in 1905 by the left-wing government of Le Bloc des Gauches, this statute established state secularism and decided that much church property, including Lourdes, was in fact state property lent to the church and that it must be returned. Part of the reason why the French didn’t try very hard when invaded by Germany in 1940 was because of the malaise caused by a leftie anti-French anti-church Third Republic in Paris. Remember, my family’s visit was only seven years after the end of the war while the French were still (as they are now) suffering a collective amnesia regarding their own role in the conflict.
What are the Rosary and the Immaculate Conception?
The Rosary is a set of prayers said in rote while being counted off on a circle of beads attached to a crucifix. The Immaculate Conception is the idea that the Virgin Mary, as the mother of Jesus, must have herself have been born free of sin. Unlike the rest of us who are flawed by the very nature of our material (besides spiritual) existence.
Is this a load of bollocks? Good point. Speaking very personally, although by no means lonely as a child I was often alone and abroad. Not to worry, chat away to God. Likewise, during a previous life more interesting smattered with derring-do, although never feeling the full fire of battle, one certainly occasionally felt an uncomfortably warm wind of peril. Never mind, God’s about. Therefore, my religious faith would be closer to a personal conversation, rather than an understanding of dogma or an obligation to perform individual or social ritual.
It is within the confines of this individualistic faith, based upon personal experience, that I am guided to Heaven – or to Hell. Time will tell. As we’ve seen with the endless palaver following the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the ascension to the crown of King Charles III, there is a human need for bells, smells, rituals and dogma that many feel the benefit of. If others approach God, or the monarchy, in their own way, with good intention, and in good faith, who am I or the rest of us to judge? Sermon over.
4 The Basilica of Pope Pius X
Back to our cutaway, but off the screen, to the left lies the underground Basilica of Pope Pius X. Opened in 1958 to commemorate the centenary of the first Marian apparitions and to cope with the expected influx of pilgrims, it will have been a building site when my father and grandparents visited. It is 627 ft long, 200 ft wide and somewhat brutalist in style. A low ceiling, only 33ft in height, is held in place by 58 concrete pillars meeting 29 concrete beams. At 130,000 sq ft, it is capable of accommodating 25,000 worshippers. It was opened by Papal Nuncio Cardinal Angelo Roncalli who was later to become the reforming pope John XXIII. When nicely lit and with some accessories depicting interesting stories of the faithful, it doesn’t look too bad.
The high altar casket relics include those of St Peter Chanel, a Marist missionary and martyr whose artefacts were recovered from a cooking pot in French Polynesia. In 1837, the reluctant converts of Fortuna Island clubbed St Peter Chanel to death after the tribal chief’s son expressed an interest in converting to Catholicism. Lying about halfway between Fiji and Samoa, the Fortuna islanders are still not keen on strangers. The Google Street View car has yet to find its way there. The only flights from a beachside airfield are to Wallis Island which if anything is even further away from civilisation. On Trip Advisor there is only one photograph. The hardy traveller, a braver man than me, captions his work with a ‘cannibal oven from not that long ago’.
5 Grotto of Massabielle
Somewhat neglected in the modern scheme of things, the actual grotto where Saint Bernadette Soubirous witnessed the visions of the Virgin Mary sits below the basilicas and crypt and next to the River Gave. In the 1952 photograph, the actual grotto sits behind railings. The alcove to the right where the Virgin appeared contains a statue, and an alcove to the left contains the crutches left behind by those cured by the grotto’s holy waters. Ladies cover their heads, gentlemen dress in suits. A stone building with arched windows sits to the left. This has since been demolished. Miss AWS reports the whole area is now more open, with an altar in the grotto and pews fanning out towards the river allowing for religious services to be conducted.
The Long Way Home
The final photograph in this section of our Nostalgia Album is captioned ‘The Long Way Home’ suggesting the purpose of the trip wasn’t just to visit Aunty Lil in Gibraltar but also to take in Lourdes for the benefit of my sickly grandmother. Mission accomplished, the intrepid Ford 8 is pointed in la diréctiôn Carlisle for the run back to Blighty. Fortunately, the 3,000-mile family outing came back via a different route, allowing for some more interesting 1950s views of the near Continent. Find out more next time on Nostalgia Album!
© Always Worth Saying 2022