Inspiration Destination

Religious pilgrims flock to the shrine of Lourdes in Litchfield.

 

Ray Bendici

One day in 1858, While gathering firewood in the Grotto of Massabielle near the village of Lourdes, France, a farm girl by the name of Bernadette Soubirous claimed that an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary had appeared to her. Over the course of the next few months, Soubirous (now known as St. Bernadette) said she was visited multiple times by the vision, receiving divine inspiration and instructions that a church be built on the spot in the remote countryside. A chapel (and eventually much more) were constructed, and today, the shrine in the grotto at Lourdes is one of the most visited religious sites in the world, drawing millions of pilgrims each year.

Jump to 1954 in Litchfield, Conn., where the seminary students of the local Montford Missionary wanted to honor Pope Pius XII’s declaration of the first Marian year (12 months dedicated to venerating the mother of Jesus). Influenced by the local topography’s similarity to Lourdes and the approaching centennial celebration of St. Bernadette’s vision, they decided to re-create the renowned grotto shrine on their 170-acre property. Using local fieldstone and designing it based on a single postcard from Lourdes (which the eager students nailed to a tree), the Connecticut replica was completed and dedicated in 1958, and immediately began drawing the faithful. To this day, like with its French namesake, Lourdes in Litchfield is visited by throngs of pilgrims—an estimated 12,000 to 14,000 per year.

I find myself making the trip to Litchfield one sunny morning, and as I pull off of Route 118 and onto Montford Road (and subconsciously turn down the Green Day playing on my stereo), it’s fairly apparent why so many come here for inspiration and meditation. Birds twitter happily, trees sway in the chilly breeze and a small brook babbles nearby, all elements that invite introspection and a sense of peace. Even without the religious trappings, this is a quiet, pretty place that can spirit you away from your troubles.

“I do think people come here for a moment of peace out of their busy or burdensome lives, to receive hope for their tribulations,” says Rhonda Duggan, who after years of visiting and volunteering here is now on staff to handle communications, public relations, grant writing and other duties. “I used to come here when my children were really young, in the summer evenings. My husband would get home from work and I’d say, ‘Okay, I’m going,’ and I would drive down here. I’d go sit down at the shrine and pray, or just think on my own thoughts, and then come away prepared for the rest of the week and ready to cope with whatever life dealt me.”

The centerpiece of the sanctuary’s grounds is the stony grotto shrine itself—a yawning cave-like altar with rows of long benches fanning out from it. At the front is a marble statue of a kneeling St. Bernadette, hands clasped and looking up reverently to another marble statue, this of the Virgin Mary, perched above the altar in a rocky alcove. Tucked inside the actual grotto are a small tabernacle and rows of devotion candles, many of which flicker silently in the cool morning air. During the warmer months and weather permitting, Mass is celebrated here regularly in the shade of tall pines.

Other times, services—like this month’s Holy Week activities—are held in the nearby grotto chapel, an unadorned and intimate space with a few rows of benches and small altar. The wooded grounds also are home to a few smaller shrines, a retreat house and Pilgrim Hall, which contains a small café and gift shop that sells all sorts of shrine-related and religious items, from books and CDs to statues and gift items.

As Easter is this month, visitors will also be celebrating the way of the cross, especially on April 10, Good Friday. For the uninitiated, the story of Jesus’ crucifixion is traditionally broken down into 14 stages (or stations), often depicted around the inside walls of a church; to celebrate the ritual, participants go from station to station, reciting specific sets of prayers. At Lourdes, the way of the cross starts at one side of the grotto shrine and winds through the trees and assorted flora, up to the summit of the hill and then back down the other side, with each station represented in sculpture.

Next month, the official 51st pilgrimage season kicks off with a full schedule of special services, including the ever-popular annual blessing of motorcycles on May 17, during which riders drive right up to the grotto altar, get their bikes blessed and then enjoy a barbecue. Busloads of pilgrims, as well as many individual visitors, will be welcomed weekly through October.

“People always say they feel that they belong here, that they feel so welcomed it seems like home to them,” says Duggan. “It’s just feels so spiritual, so holy and so peaceful. It’s a church without walls.”

For more info, visit shrinect.org.

Inspiration Destination

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