Though most of our members only experience Lourdes in the last week of August when the Catholic Association Pilgrimage is in town, the sanctuaries continue to function all year round thanks to the efforts of permanent paid staff and volunteers from around the world who give their time and energies for a few days each year. If you’ve been on pilgrimage with the CA, have you ever considered how Lourdes functions on such a large scale? Have you ever noticed the people at the Grotto wearing little badges with flags on? Have you ever wanted to extend your time in the amazing town of Lourdes? Learn how to by reading below or Please contact the CA Stage team for more information.
In the past a ‘Hospitality’ was a charitable organisation whose aim was to gather, accommodate and feed the less fortunate in a hostel or hospital. Today the Hospitalité Notre-Dame de Lourdes (HNDL) builds on that tradition, welcoming pilgrims to Lourdes (especially, but not only, the sick and disabled), and assisting at religious ceremonies. It is an organisation of pilgrims at the service of other pilgrims and Our Lady.
The HNDL was founded in 1885, and through its work aims to pass on the ‘message of Lourdes’, that is, Our Lady’s call to turn back to the gospel – the good news – of her son Jesus; to know that we are all deeply loved by God. Members, known in French as hospitaliers, strive to do this not only in Lourdes but also in their home parishes and institutions, for the good of the church and the world.
The HNDL is a religious confraternity under the spiritual authority of the Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, and works closely with the Rector of the Sanctuaries and his pastoral team. The HNDL (and each of its sections) is governed by a President and a council.
The HNDL is led by a President, Bertrand Clerc Renaud, and it employs a small team of administrators in its bureau (situated in the domain itself, in the former Accueil Notre Dame). The HNDL has a full-time chaplain, Père Régis-Marie de la Teyssonnière. Whilst it is an organisation within the Roman Catholic Church, it is open to all women and men of good will who support its aims, regardless of religious belief. Strictly speaking it is a lay organisation and so not open to clergy and religious, though this rule has only been enforced in recent years and our own group includes at least two priests, a deacon, and a religious sister who joined before the restriction was in place.
Why not try something new next year? All are welcome. Here is some basic information about stage, and how it works within the structures of Lourdes. This information about the Stage’s history and mundane practicalities isn’t designed to patronise, confuse or scare you! Stage is challenging, fun and rewarding and we hope you will consider joining us.
The Hospitalité Notre-Dame de Lourdes and its ‘Stage’
During one of the Virgin Mary’s apparitions to Saint Bernadette in 1858, she asked that people come in procession to the Grotto. Ever since then there has been a ‘ministry of welcome’ in Lourdes, receiving and caring for all the pilgrims who come to the apparition site, especially the sick and infirm.
Bernadette described how Our Lady smiled at her ‘as one person would to another,’ and this smile of welcome is today extended to six million visitors a year by the volunteers who work in the sanctuaries of Lourdes. Some of these volunteers work in the Forum-Information Centre welcoming individual pilgrims and small groups. Other volunteers work in the Youth service, or give of their time and talent in one of the pavilion tents around the Domaine. However, the largest group of volunteers (16,000 of them) is known as the Hospitalité Notre-Dame de Lourdes (Hospitality of Our Lady of Lourdes).
The HNDL has a strong international dimension, with volunteer helpers coming from more than twenty countries across the globe. One third of its members are French, and another third are Italian. According to the latest statistics, 10-12% are from Great Britain, approximately the same number are Spanish, and the remainder are Irish, Belgian, Dutch, Swiss, German, American, Canadian, Maltese and an increasing assortment of Asian and African nationalities. The main administrative language is French, though members are not required to speak any language but their own. All those on Stage wear a Hospitalité badge, which also indicates by little flags the languages they speak.
The HNDL is active in Lourdes during the main pilgrimage season (which normally lasts from Easter until November), and it also provides people to welcome pilgrims at the Piscines (Baths) during the winter.
A period of service with the Hospitalité Notre-Dame de Lourdes is known as a ‘Stage’. The name ‘Stage’ comes from the French for ‘work experience’, and certainly a week working on Stage in Lourdes is a great experience. Those on Stage are often known as ‘stagiaires’ or more recently ‘hospitaliters auxiliaries’. The HNDL encourages people to do a Stage lasting at least 6 days. The Stage is open to new helpers aged between 18 and 75 (though 65 is the maximum age for someone to do their first Stage with a view to making their ‘engagement’ as a member of the Hospitalité on their fifth Stage — we’ll explain later!). You can continue to work for the HNDL beyond the age of 75, though the Hospitalité might suggest that you work in a particular area or at a less busy time of year. Doing a Stage requires dedication, a willingness to serve, and a certain maturity of character (though that doesn’t mean dullness). Stage offers tremendous satisfaction and opportunities to enjoy life in a group.
The Relationship between the HNDL and Pilgrimage Hospitalités
Each major pilgrimage that comes to Lourdes with assisted pilgrims (i.e. sick and handicapped pilgrims) – whether it be the Catholic Association or a group from elsewhere – has its own ‘hospitalité,’ that is, a group of people committed to looking after its pilgrims. These hospitalités usually consist of brancardiers (male helpers), hand-maids (female helpers), doctors, nurses, chaplains, youth/children’s groups etc. These smaller pilgrimage hospitalités – approximately 200 of them in total from around the world – are known as ‘accompanying hospitalités’ because they accompany the assisted pilgrims on their journey and they work in close collaboration with the HNDL.
The Catholic Association has its own Hospitalité, which some of you will already be members of. You don’t have to be a member of the CA Hospitalité to come on stage, but conventionally it has been thought best to go on at least one ‘mainstream’ pilgrimage first so you learn something about Lourdes in a more ‘familiar’ environment. Those who have worked for the Hospitalité Notre-Dame de Lourdes on stage are often considered particularly useful on the main pilgrimage because they have a greater knowledge of how Lourdes functions ‘from the other side,’ and how our pilgrimage fits into the ‘larger picture.’
The Catholic Association’s Stagiaires
Individual members of the Catholic Association Pilgrimage go to Lourdes on stage throughout the year, but for those wishing to join a group of fellow CA pilgrims on stage there’s a choice of two/three groups. The first (consisting of about 10-20 people) goes to Lourdes over a two week period starting before the May half-term week and then during the half-term (perfect for teachers), when Lourdes is quite different from how it is in the summer, with some other English stage and Diocesan Pilgrimage groups present (SOLL, Middlesborough, Plymouth, Birmingham). Traditionally the May stagiaires organise their stage on a fairly individual basis, especially as most of them are very experienced in the workings of Lourdes. Visit the stage contact page to contact members of this group for more information. The main group goes out the week before half term.
The second group of CA people that go on stage together goes in the week before the CA arrives, thus spending a fortnight in Lourdes. This August group normally consists of anything between 20 and 25 men and women. CA members who go on stage in August also make their own practical arrangements, but historically the group has tended to be more centrally coordinated – for example although everyone is responsible for making his or her own travel booking many of us fly to Lourdes together; the stage coordinator maintains a database of members to produce a tri-annual mailing; and we try to hold a reunion in the UK once a year in the winter. If time and finances allow, you can of course go on stage with both groups! Visit the stage Contact Page to contact members of this group for more information.
Planning and Practicalities
There are several options of how we get to Lourdes, and each member of the CA stage groups are responsible for getting him/herself there and back. Members can either travel independently (several make a holiday of their journey) by plane or train, or if travelling on stage in August can join the dozen or so people who travel with the group. Either way, the transport to and from Lourdes for stage is no more expensive than for the pilgrimage week. So, in transport terms, doing the stage and CA weeks is no more expensive than just the CA (indeed, stagiaires travelling in a group with Tangney Tours get a discounted plane fare). Insurance is optional, and available through Tangney if you wish.
The only thing that costs more is that you’ll be in Lourdes twice the time, so more pocket money might be needed. Spending money might have to double, but as I’ve said, Hospitalité Foyer prices are a quarter of that in the rest of the town, and you can use it both weeks.
We advise you to make accommodation arrangements as soon as possible, since it’s always easier to cancel a place than try to get a room at the last minute.
When it comes to paying for the rooms, this is normally done in cash when you arrive, and gents are asked to leave a small deposit for their room keys. Please note; all Stagiaires need to bring their own towels, though bed linen is provided.
Meals on stage are cheap, normally quite tasty and practical. All stagiaires, of all sections, can eat together if they like (and we generally try to arrange it so that we do). The food is provided by the Hospitalité, at two central dining halls (the Abri St Michel, and the Ave Maria). Meals (which are generous and not too much like school dinners) are paid for by tickets. In other words, you get a three-course meal in Lourdes for not very much! Breakfast tickets cost very little too (though in Saint-Frai breakfast is provided on-site). The ‘Homes’ for the women who work in the Piscines have kitchens, so people usually make their own breakfasts and self-cater for some other meals if they wish, joining the rest of the group in the Abri or Ave Maria at other times. The price to pay – a walk to the supermarket!
Formation, Training, and Commitment
You don’t need any special skills to do a stage, just a willingness to work, and a desire to enter into the ‘spirit of Lourdes’. You don’t have to be Catholic or Christian, though obviously stage work is a very practical way of living the Gospel; loving God and our neighbour.
It’s not necessary to speak French, though a basic knowledge of that or any other language is of course useful. Any languages that you are confident about speaking can be indicated on your stagiaire’s badge by flags. The groups you work in are international, and naturally English is an international language spoken all over Lourdes.
As well as spending our social time together, the men and women on stage are increasingly involved in joint work, such as directing and taking part in processions. During your first four years, stagiaires must take part in the formation (a type of stage training, formerly known as école) twice in the week. This provides both practical training, and an overview of the spirituality of Lourdes. The formation classes are taught in English, when an English speaking formateur is present (which is usually the case). There are no exams and plenty of opportunity for interaction and discussion. Usual topics for discussion include: our attitudes to the sick; the symbolism of the grotto and its water; a tour of the places where Bernadette lived; the history of the domain; Christian approaches to suffering; etc.
In recent years, after a campaign on our part going back to at least 1973, the Lourdes Hospitalité has a developed a course of training for stagiaires. In part, this includes, as it clearly should, technical training: how you lift a pilgrim, how to transfer them from a blue chaise to a voiture, or from a train to the platform. These are required for our old friends Health and Safety, and for insurance purposes (not to mention the comfort of sick pilgrims). Deeper than that, however, runs the training for those who do not really know Lourdes, or who need to understand it better; there are sessions for stagiaires in each of their first four years, appropriately graded. In the first year, they get the absolute basics: finding out where everything is (including the toilets – for you will be asked, several times a day, where they are), how the Hospitalité works, and an introduction to the spirituality of service that should animate us all. There are various expeditions, for example in the steps of that redoubtable figure Bernadette Soubirous, who said she saw the Lady in the rock. In subsequent years the work of formation takes stagiaires deeper into the mystery of Lourdes, building on what has gone before. This all reaches its climax on the Wednesday of each week, when those who are making their “engagement”, their definitive incorporation into the Hospitalité, make a prayerful retreat, assisted by their Formateurs, to ponder the step that they are about to undertake.
Your first stage is known as the anneé d’accueil (reception year). After this you become a hospitalier auxiliaire, for years 2, 3 and 4. After the reception year and three stages of formation Christians can apply in their 4th year to make an engagement into the Hospitalité. The following year (5th), after approval from the Council, you are presented with the silver medal on blue ribbon you may have seen, when you voluntarily make a promise to commit yourself to the service of the assisted pilgrims, specifically by coming on stage regularly (according to your possibilities). This medal is a dedication, not a decoration, and a sign that you are at the service of anyone who may call on you in Lourdes. This isn’t the end of your service, but the beginning of a deeper commitment. After a period of further formation‘titulaires’ can make an engagement into the church—a more spiritual commitment with no outward insignia.
One thing you learn from stage is the ability to adapt and change. The arrangements for accommodation, the masses, and how the HNDL functions, change year after year. The information in this letter is accurate to the best of my knowledge. One thing is always true however – no matter how much fuss and kafuffle there may seem to be sometimes, the desire to serve our sick sisters and brothers always remains the most important thing.
Once you’ve become a titulaire member of the HNDL, you are asked to pay an annual 15€ cotisation to help cover administrative costs. You may become a member of the Association of British Members of the HNDL, and be invited to an annual reunion in the winter.
The Social and Spiritual Aspects of stage
Many of the people from the CA who have been on stage find that they actually enjoy the stage more socially. An advantage of all the stage groups is that we are quite small, especially in comparison with the CA, so we get to know each other very well.
Occasionally, you may find that there is little work to do, but the HNDL tries to keep you as busy as possible, because after all, the stage is a time to work, and people who just stand around all week don’t want to come back on stage!
Whilst the stage week is usually busy, we tend to have more free time than during the pilgrimage which you can spend in private devotions, or socialising together in the bars, or doing the tourist things that you just don’t have time to do during the CA week. You get to see different places in Lourdes, and meet with different friends. stagiaires also have their own private social venue, the Hospitalité Foyer, which is near St Michael’s Gate. The bar there serves hot and cold snacks, the cheapest drinks in Lourdes and is often the venue for international parties and sing-songs.
Because we go on stage at approximately the same time each year, we meet old friends from all over the world year after year.
During the week, we normally attend mass daily as a group (especially if we have our own Fr Tony, Fr Nick or Fr John with us), and the entire HNDL gathers for an international mass on Wednesday evening. Because the pace of life on stage is generally more relaxed, you also have more time to find your own private space for reflection.
The Practicalities – Applying for Stage
Whether you decide to go on stage by yourself or with a group, you must inform the Hospitalité Notre-Dame de Lourdes yourself in advance, preferably several months before you arrive. Usually the best way to inform the Hospitalité of your desire to do a stage is to write to them (writing in English is usually not a problem) or send them a form known as an Annonce de Stage. If it is your first stage, you must enclose with your Annonce a passport-type photograph and a letter of recommendation from your parish priest or an existing member of the HNDL. If getting a reference is a problem, let any HNDL member know
Requests to do a stage must specify which of the six main ‘sections’ you wish to join. Until a few years ago each section was its own independent Hospitalité or a sub-section of another, but recently they have all been united under the umbrella organisation of the HNDL and the barriers between the sections are increasingly coming down:
Service Saint Joseph
Service Saint Jean Baptist
Service Saint Bernadette
Service Saint Michel
The men’s group does a wide variety of possible work. For their first four years, whilst they are receiving formation, male volunteers work in teams of about a dozen people of mixed age and nationality. A team coordinator, known as the Chef d’Equipe leads the group. His job is to find out what daily duties his team has to do, to ensure that no one is asked to do anything beyond their ability, to instruct the group practically and to ensure that everybody turns up for their tasks. He will also submit a brief report to the HNDL on each stagiare at the end of his service.
Generally, in the St Joseph Service you will get an opportunity to try your hand at most things during the week, since jobs are rotated. The tasks you might be asked to do include helping pilgrims bathe in the piscines; welcoming assisted (sick) pilgrims who arrive at the train station or airport: – there is a very skilled job to be learned on how to help often severely disabled pilgrims off or onto a train or plane. These are confined spaces and sometimes this has to be done by physically lifting and carrying them (remember that training is provided and nobody is asked to do the impossible!). Members of St. Joseph Service also work in facilitating the passage of pilgrims at the Grotto and co-ordinating the big processions and liturgies in the underground basilica.
After the first four years of service and formation have been completed it is possible to ask to work in a specific area e.g. at the Grotto. If this can be arranged within the needs of the Shrine at that time then this is normally possible. It may be though that your work is needed in another area and members are expected to show un esprit de disponabilite – a willingness to work wherever you are asked.
The hours can either be quite few, or very long, depending on the times of trains and aircraft, and how many pilgrimages are in Lourdes on any given day. There is a great group feeling and a real spirit of hospitality and camaraderie. It’s particularly nice if you have been on stage in August to recognise all the people still working for the HNDL during the CA week, and it can certainly make things flow more easily if the guys organising things are your friends from stage!
Stagieres can opt to stay wherever they like in Lourdes and some book private hotels. Subsidised accommodation for men on stage is also available from the HNDL in a hostel style block called the Salle Bernadette. It is above the cinema, opposite the Little Flower Café. Just behind the Salle Bernadette is another block of rooms known as the Benoit Labre centre (named after the patron saint of the Hospitalité, St Benedict Joseph Labre, an eighteenth-century pilgrim-beggar). In the Salle Bernadette you can have either a lockable cubicle-room (called a Box) in a type of dormitory, or if you’re lucky (and willing to pay a little more), a single room, though these are usually reserved for stagiaires who have been coming to Lourdes for a few years. The accommodation is basic, but comfortable, and ridiculously cheap in comparison with the hotels. There are good washroom and shower facilities, and a washing-machine. The Benoit Labre offers somewhat better accommodation with a limited number of twin rooms for married couples. There is no curfew at the Salle Bernadette or Benoit Labre, but you are asked to respect the need for quiet, since some people have to get up early to welcome train pilgrims! Please note that, because of the shortage of accommodation for stagiaires in Lourdes the St Michel service now only allows stagiaires to have an HNDL room one day before their stage service begins and one night after it ends.
The Accueil Marie Saint-Frai is the ‘house of welcome’ for the sick, built by a nun, Marie Saint-Frai, in the 1870s. It is the oldest surviving accommodation provided for more than 400 sick pilgrims in Lourdes today, and the beautiful large grey building (on Avenue Bernadette Soubirous) was renovated over ten years ago.
Most female stagiaires from the CA seem to join this section of the HNDL. The work there again involves being at the service of the assisted pilgrims (sick) from other pilgrimages. This generally means providing them with fresh linen, cleaning the rooms, setting up and clearing the dining hall, and loaning out wheel chairs. It’s more fun than it might sound, since again, there is a great sense of community. Increasingly Accueil Saint-Frai ladies are joining their male colleagues in ‘mixed service.’ Saint-Frai is one of the most beautiful and well-run buildings in Lourdes.
Accommodation for stagiaires is available on-site, and is very comfortable. The rooms are en-suite, and very modern, many with beautiful views overlooking the town, but note that there is a midnight curfew at the Saint-Frai. There are some double-rooms for couples. Again, prices for stage accommodation are quite reasonable. As with the men’s accommodation, you cannot keep your Saint-Frai room for the second week of pilgrimage. You can, however, try and transfer (as many of our group do), to the Ave Maria or elsewhere. Female members of the CA stage group, like the men, are responsible for booking their own accommodation for the entire duration of the trip, though we have various people in our contacts section who can help you.
Please note that if you wish to work in the Accueil Saint-Frai, you must bring with you a plain white dress (or two!), like a nurse’s, or a large white apron/overall suitable for manual work. These are your ‘uniform’, and are available cheaply from shops like ‘Alexandra Overalls’.
To work in the Saint-Frai, prospective stagiaires can write directly to the stage office there. You can normally write in English. Say that you are part of the Catholic Association, and the dates you would like to do your first stage there. Request accommodation if you need it.
The work in the Accueil Notre-Dame is very similar to that done in Saint-Frai. Again, stagiaires work in teams to welcome and serve the assisted pilgrims in other pilgrimages. The Notre-Dame is a bright, modern building which can receive up to 904 assisted pilgrims, and a lot of work is done behind the scenes to ensure that all runs smoothly. Most stagiaires there are French and Italian.
No accommodation is available on-site for stagiaires working at the Notre-Dame. Women volunteering here usually stay in a variety of Hospitalité buildings (the Hospitalet, Villa Bernadette, Maison Marthe et Marie, or the Florence) located behind the Accueil, and up past the top entrance to the zigzag path. Due to the location of these buildings I would recommend applying in a group of 2 or 3 to avoid feeling lonely! Alternatively, if you wish to join this section you could find private accommodation but hotels aren’t usually cheap in Lourdes.
A few of our Hospitalité members work at Notre-Dame (especially nurses, who sometimes work in the Sanctuary Dispensary), though generally less than in the other two women’s sections, and it would be good to get more working there, especially since we use it for our own pilgrimage. The same rule applies as in Saint-Frai regarding white dresses. The Notre-Dame section of the HNDL allows women to work elsewhere, such as in the airport, at the station, at the Grotto, and at ceremonies (once they are HNDL members).
To notify the Notre-Dame section that you wish to come this August, please write to the bureau, asking to do a stage, with the required dates, your age, and a note requesting accommodation if desired. Mention how many times you have been on pilgrimage with the Catholic Association if applicable. You can include Simon Gallop’s name in case the Notre-Dame want a recommendation. It would be good to include a self-addressed envelope for the reply, and we would recommend including a passport photo too. The reply can sometimes be very slow from Notre-Dame, as English letters are left to be dealt with by an Irish nun, who is not there all the time in the winter months, but a reply should come by the end of April at the latest.
Saint Jean Baptist (Piscines)
Many of our finest handmaids have dedicated themselves to this service at the baths. The CA is keen to get more people involved in this section, since there is always plenty of work to be done, and several of our handmaids work in the baths during the CA pilgrimage.
‘Go to the spring, drink, and wash yourself there’
The work in the baths is some of the most rewarding time you can spend in Lourdes. Working in the piscines involves bathing those pilgrims who want to wash in the water of the grotto, dressing and undressing sick pilgrims, and praying with visitors. Although the work is quite hard (emotionally, as well as physically), the hours are limited: approximately 8.30 – 11.45am and 1.45 – 4.45pm, including time for practical and prayerful preparation. On Sundays and major feasts the piscines are closed in the morning, but the afternoon session starts earlier. During each session you work in an international team, and the tasks you are allocated will reflect your experience and ability. You will be taught all the required techniques and skills. Any linguistic ability is a major advantage, but some of our experienced CA piscine workers only speak English.
The sense of teamwork is enhanced by the house-style accommodation (‘Homes’) which piscine-stagiaires share. This accommodation is fairly basic single and double rooms, with no curfew as everyone has a front door key, but an absolute requirement for quiet after 10pm. Getting accommodation can be difficult however, so you may have to book in elsewhere.
The protocol for new stagiaires at the piscines is as follows. You need to fill in an application form, and supply a passport-type photo and a letter of recommendation from your parish priest or an existing member of the HNDL. Like at the Accueil Saint-Frai, the application form also includes the request for accommodation.
The role of the Service is to enable all Hospitallers and Hospitallers of Notre-Dame de Lourdes to acquire a better knowledge of the message of Lourdes. A chance for all to prepare to be witnesses in Lourdes and where they live.
The service of Saint Michael is the first contact for many. It is:
• Hospitality Office for Hospitallers
• Accommodation Manager
• Manager of Saint-Michel