Lourdes: Yesterday, To-day and To-morrow


THE French town that bears a name famous now in every corner of the earth -- Lourdes -- was one of the most obscure and lowly of the towns of France. Dominated by its old fortress, it is placed in the very gateway of the mountains and built along the banks of the Gave, between the Turoun deras Justissias, and the Gers, between the Béout and the Lapaca.

The traveller stopping for the first time in this valley feels a touch of disappointment. Nothing precisely charming meets his eyes. The landscape is something he has "seen before." The mountain peaks in sight are the least lofty of the whole enormous chain. There are no forest trees, there are no waterfalls, there are not even any good country houses. But huts and hovels are there, houses huddled together, narrow and darkened streets leading to the face of an ancient church. The town is but a step from the plain, and yet it is, in a sense, within the inner heart of the mountains. In winter every height bears its load of snow; certain sombre and thinly growing grasses change the colours of the steep slopes under the great suns of summer.

The stream alone -- the Gave -- has a conspicuous beauty, a majestic line as it turns by the foot of the heights and hurries by the town, rolling its stones in the foam of a shallow mountain river. At night its voice is almost that of a sea, and the air of the place is always conscious of its waves in motion. Such is Lourdes. And, so far, it is the Lourdes of fifty years ago.

But if the traveller keeps upon the road that has led him out of the station, and so gains the bridge, his scene changes, and he is in the presence of something altogether distinctive and decorative. First, a bronze statue of St. Michael the Archangel; next, the cross of the Breton pilgrimages; and at the far end of a long Place, the Church of the Rosary, the Crypt, the Basilica; and, as the background of all, the Pyrenees fading on the horizon into tints of light and distance. For some long moments the stately composition takes the eye. It is the place sacred to the lovely Lady who appeared to Bernadette and was clothed in white and in overwhelming light -- the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception.

Twenty years ago there was nothing of what is owed to the hands of men. The Pyrenees were there alone. And the tourist, somewhat discomfited, hurried as quickly as he might through a gorge that was at once wild and uninteresting, and went in search of charming villages and picturesque corners of the foot hills. To-day nature has yielded to the work of men; the mountain side is opened, the Gave has been turned from its bed, there has been a very blossoming of white statuary and sculpture. All nations of the earth have come, at the word of a child, and have knelt upon the holy soil of the Grotto, and from Lourdes has sprung up a light that has soared higher than the Pyrenean peaks, and has shed upon the world something of the mystical brightness of the Apparitions. A thousand thoughts meet the changed aspect of Lourdes. But it is of the mystical secret of the place that the traveller's eyes are in search, through the piles of building, the display of sculpture, the arched approaches of the Church of the Rosary. And, standing central to it all, he finds the white Virgin, blue-eyed, crowned with gold, clad in her long white garment, with roses on her feet; and he hears again in fancy the words she spoke: "I want great numbers of people to come to this place." The hand that has signed the picture before him is a Divine hand, and the pilgrim has but to kneel and to say, as others say, Ave Maria, for he is upon sacred ground.

And this whole great work, how shall it be recorded? How shall all be told of the splendours of this Basilica? Built upon the Massabielle rocks, its sanctuary stands immediately above the Grotto; the church rises with a spring into the air. The spire, of exquisitely delicate lines, carries a little crown of gold, and from its belfry take flight the notes of a carillon sounding at every quarter the first phrase of the Pare, Domine, in answer to the words of the Virgin: "Penance! Penance!"

Above the doorway is the portrait of Pius IX., who proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, before the date of the Apparitions. The immortal Pontiff wears the red and the ermine, and on his face, with its Italian fineness, is the smile that attracted so many to his side. The portrait is a medallion, one of the most successful mosaics executed in the Mosaic School of the modern Vatican. The bells, from a Paris foundry, were the offering of M. Gaston de Béarn, and had the blessing of Cardinal Donnet, Archbishop of Bordeaux.

The Basilica is fifty-one metres in length and twenty-one in breadth. It is built of Lourdes and Angouléme stone. On the Grotto side is a passage usually kept closed. The church was built by M. Hippolyte Durand under the Episcopate of Monseigneur Laurence. After a pause to admire the statue of the Blessed Virgin, standing at the entrance, the pilgrim passes within.

Bernadette Soubirous Assuredly, compared with the national cathedrals of France, the Basilica of Lourdes is little more than a chapel. Its principal character lies in the riches it contains. All that the grateful piety of nations has been able to fashion and to invent is there, heaped together, almost hidden, almost buried away. The stone of the nave and of the side chapels is hardly visible, so over-covered is it with ex-votos of every imaginable kind. From the vaults of the roof hang banners whereon the names of nations may be read in embroideries of gold -- Belgium, England, Roumania, the United States, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Austria, Ireland, Spain, Portugal. It is the same with the cities of France. And when the great winds of the Pyrenees find their way into the Basilica and set these banners and these oriflammes swelling and floating together, the silk, velvet, and gold sound the notes of a hymn of their own, a hymn of the victory of faith over unbelief, at this end of the nineteenth century. They number some eight hundred, and every day adds one or two. In a little while there will be no room for more. The High Altar is of Carrara marble -- the architect M. Bresson, the sculptor M. Bonnet: both of Lyons. Above it stands the white marble statue of the Blessed Virgin of the Apparition, by M. Cabuchet, of Paris. This statue it is that was crowned by the Nuncio representing Pius IX. in France. The crown of brilliants set in gold darts rays, under the lights, from the beautiful diamonds, and in value it is one of the principal treasures of the Basilica. At the rose-bearing feet of the statue lies the offering of Pius IX. -- a golden palm set with enamel, a gift to him, and inscribed "From pious souls in Majorca to Pius IX., Martyr and Confessor." The floor, on great days, is covered by a deep carpet, bearing in the centre the arms of Pius IX. and of the Royal House of France. Among the clusters of perpetually shining lamps here is the beautiful gift of the people of Ireland.

The sanctuary is separated from the side chapels by a high grille of gilded wrought iron of beautiful design and execution. There is a way of passage round the altar so that the ex-votos, hanging with their separate little histories thick upon the walls, can be seen in detail. If those little histories were all known, they would prove significant enough monuments of the life of human kind. Many sufferings, many tears, many bitter pains, many baffled desires, many agonies of anxiety, have brought them to Mary's feet as signs of granted prayers. The crosses of all the chivalric orders of the nations, sabres and swords, epaulets, models of ships, jewels of every value, bridal wreaths, are mingled together, and from them all goes up honour to her who smiles upon mourners and gives life to the dying. Not only the wonders of architecture and art are in this Basilica, but also many memories, many records. Over much of all this is gathering the tarnish of time, but they stand for the freshest and purest passion of gratitude.

Round the church, along the two small aisles, stand a number of chapels. The Altar of the Sacred Heart is placed immediately behind the High Altar, and on either side follow the chapels dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, Our Lady of La Salette, Our Lady of Victories, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and so forth; fifteen in all, each with a confessional. The stained glass illustrates the history of the Apparitions, and of the religious events of Lourdes. To the pilgrim, moreover, on his mere request, are shown the sacristies, the organ, and the treasury of the Basilica, including the plate for Divine service, which is enormously valuable.

Next comes a visit to the Crypt. This is a chapel within the rock, wherein is a perpetual half-light. The vaulting is low; the supports are groups of columns; the altars are hollowed in the walls; the walls are hung with ex-votos and golden lamps. No sound from without reaches this kind of little catacomb, where come many who seek a place for lonely prayers and for lonely tears, and for the finding of a little hope, perhaps, to the soul in distress, the best thing in the gift of the Virgin who wept on Calvary and looked upon the death of her Son.

Lower down, on the level of the Place, is the new Church of the Rosary. The architect is M. Hardy. His church is not accredited to any distinct "order"; it is a large rotunda receiving light from the lantern that forms the dome; the absence of windows gives the building a character of its own. The decoration of the whole is extremely simple. Here also, however, all the surfaces are hung with ex-votos, framed and arranged symmetrically about a centre, which is the Greek cross above the altar. The fifteen chapels are dedicated to the mysteries of the Rosary. From every part of the church the worshippers may see the altar, no pillar, pile, or column barring the way. So dear has the Church of the Rosary grown to pilgrims that it will certainly in a few years be as rich in offerings as the Basilica itself. To complete this outline description; the church was founded in 1883, and finished (as to building) and consecrated by the Cardinal Archbishop of Toulouse in 1889. The glass in the great door helps to admit light and sun, and on its tympanum is the group of Our Lady of the Rosary. At the side of the church is a turning staircase leading to the Crypt and to the Basilica. But exterior access to these may be gained by two great ascents in the shape of a horseshoe that lead to the higher level. Their architectural effect is somewhat to crush the church; nevertheless, they and their arches of grey Pyrenean marble compose well with the whole group of building, and lend themselves singularly well to the effect of processions of pilgrims between the Basilica and the Grotto. The two streams of people seem to frame in the Place and its statue of the Apparition. Especially striking is this at night when the pilgrims carry torches and candles. Then the Basilica, with illuminated face, rises above thousands of moving stars and cressets, scattered here, closer there, and gathered near the Grotto into a mass of light, while the night air carries away to the mountains the sound of perpetual hymns.

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