From Thursday up to Monday, my sister and I were volunteering. Yes, the helping out kind of volunteering. Why? You may ask. I don’t know about my sister, but I felt volunteering was something to not just make the last few days in Lourdes more meaningful, but also a way to really help those in need.
After weeks (okay, two weeks) of seeing people in wheelchairs and so many volunteers keeping the whole place up and running, I wanted to do something more than just pray for them, pray for the haze, and pray more. I felt like I needed some form of action to put those prayers into use – somehow.
After asking a few people, and some friendly English speaking volunteers, we headed to the Hospitality headquarters of sorts at the santurary and asked how to volunteer and if we are able to. The both of us were up for anything, be it washing the floors or helping out at the baths.
Initially, we were “rejected”. Volunteers have to sign up about six months in advance so that the necessary procedures can be taken. They also have to volunteers for at least 24 days over four years and undergo training. Accommodation can be provided at a cost and same goes for food. They have to wear a uniform as well, a white coat, and name tags that specify name, country of origin, language(s) spoken.
Thankfully, the person we spoke to at the hospitality counter managed to find us the next day, by sheer luck and probably God’s will. She informed us that we could actually volunteer, despite us being totally new and last minute!
We then got whisked away to Marie Saint Frai, a hospital of sorts just a walk down from the sanctuary. We then got our uniforms and registered straight away, and were told we could start the next day!
My sister and I were attached to the second level with Sister Maryam. We only went down during meal times, mainly to dry the washed dishes as they had a dishwasher. The plates came out really hot so we used the cloths to hold them and wipe at the same time. Towards the end of our stint, the Italian group, U.N.I.T.A.L.S.I, left and we had to kind of sanitise the whole place by cleaning the chairs and railings, as well as to prepare for the next group coming in.
Just a little bit more about Marie St Frai, it is run by the Daughters of Our Lady of Sorrows, better known as the Sisters of St Frai. They have houses in France and Near East. However, the house in Lourdes, which is the second for the Order, was built specifically to welcome pilgrims, especially the sick. It was built in 1974, and has since undergone expansions and construction to maintain and house more and more pilgrims. As such, volunteers play and important role to help the Sisters in the background. Groups, such as the Italian group mentioned, come with their own volunteers and doctors to clean up and take care of the sick directly.
But what really amazes me is how some of these volunteers come back year after year, without fail, for decades. Anna, from France, has been volunteering for 49 years and it’s so amazing how she still does her work with such joy! No one complains about doing the work given and most do it with such enthusiasm and they sing while cleaning dishes, laughing, and communicating through dramatic hand gestures.
On our last day, we managed to get the privilege of having tea with all the volunteers and sisters at Marie St Frai. It was interesting as there were “English translators” slotted between us English speaking people. We all introduced themselves, along with lots of jokes and laughter, and they explained some rules and regulations for all those staying there. The sisters were such fun – making all the jokes and getting everyone laughing, even though I didn’t really understand what they were saying! It was really nice to meet the rest of the volunteers even though it was our last day.
Sister Maryam was also amazing towards us. An Egyptian, she has been in Lourdes for two years and talked to us through very simple English. She even gave us, and the rest of the volunteers, some food left over from the meals. And these were the little things that I appreciated especially after all the hard work!
Volunteering was a terrific experience, to get a change to help out at the Holy place where loads of pilgrims come year after year. It really isn’t something you’d expect from s holiday, but as Anna said, it was “fantastic”. We said our sad goodbyes that day, and I really hope that somehow, maybe I might be able to meet them again or at least do more than what I am currently doing. It felt great to volunteer again and to give my service and whatever I had to others! May this experience lead on to even greater things (but maybe not as far).