Lourdes visit led to a transformation – and a book

finney    Mary Desforges Engler was at an “emotional low point” in her life in 2008 when her sister, who is married to an Englishman, called to invite her to travel to England to attend the birthday of her husband’s 100-year-old mother.
    “I didn’t really want to go, but we both knew getting away might help,” said Engler, a parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo in Destrehan.
    In planning her transatlantic trip, Engler figured this might be the perfect time for a side pilgrimage – perhaps to Medjugorje, which she had heard about for many years. But her sister, who had taken Bernadette as her confirmation name, responded by suggesting they travel to Lourdes instead. Neither had ever been.
    The plans were set. Engler and her sister, taking separate flights, were to meet in London and then fly to France, see Lourdes for one day and then fly back to London for the big birthday bash. When Engler’s sister’s transatlantic flight was canceled, Engler was left in London with a big decision to make: Should she go on to Lourdes by herself?
    “Ultimately, I went by myself,” Engler said. “I was there a very short time, but I knew I would be going back.”
    It was a seat-of-the-pants experience. Although Engler was a seasoned traveler in the U.S. as a regional claims director for a national insurance company, she never had traveled anywhere like Lourdes before on her own. She didn’t know it, but Pope Benedict XVI was to arrive in Lourdes for his own pilgrimage the weekend after she arrived. Still, she got a hotel room with no problem.
    “Everything was taken care of,” she said.
    She met a stranger in Lourdes who turned out to be one of the volunteers who care daily for the thousands of pilgrims – both able-bodied and medically frail – who flock to the site of the 1858 apparitions. The volunteer guided her through Lourdes and told her what to do.
    “It was so amazing that everything fell right into place,” Engler said. “I felt like I was called to be there in the end. Everything was taken care of – the prayer, the devotion, the care, the love, the praise, the multiple languages. You just felt like you were right in the middle of the universal church. And since then, there have been a lot of things that happened which the Blessed Mother has seen me through.”
    The most amazing thing, Engler said, was that “I was there only 26 hours.”
    The experience changed the way she views life. Engler had attended Mass at St. Charles Borromeo Church regularly, but she admits she was a back-pew Catholic.
    Engler was so touched by the thousands of volunteers from across the world who help Lourdes pilgrims that she joined the North American Lourdes Volunteers, which each year plans 12 trips to provide free service. Three times a year, the volunteers accompany the sick and dying from the U.S. and Canada to care for their needs.
    This is not glamorous work. The volunteers work as bath attendants in the piscines – the pools where pilgrims come to bathe in waters from the grotto. They work in hospices around Lourdes, keeping the rooms clean and cooking or serving meals. They transport pilgrims to and from the train station and airport.
    Engler has been back to Lourdes five times since 2008 – each time as a volunteer – and after meeting Pere Regis-Marie de La Teyssonniere, the Lourdes chaplain, she discovered the strong ecclesial connection between Lourdes and New Orleans, which is the focus of her new book, “Igniting the 19th Century Embers of Lourdes.”
    The book documents how Archbishop Napoleon J. Perche, a native of France, consecrated the Archdiocese of New Orleans to Our Lady of Lourdes on Dec. 8, 1873 – just 15 years after the apparitions.
    “He didn’t just consecrate the Archdiocese of New Orleans to Our Lady of Lourdes but he also enrolled the archdiocese, with papal approval, into the archconfraternity,” Engler said.
    Archbishop Perche was so devoted to Our Lady of Lourdes that he launched a series of pilgrimages in New Orleans to nine churches, and some of those processions attracted 35,000 people. Engler believes the devotion appealed to the diverse ethnic groups who were struggling emotionally and economically after the Civil War.
    “It was a way in which everyone could come together under the mantle of the Blessed Mother and really embrace a healing and kind of a new day,” Engler said.
    Archbishop Perche had an altar built in 1873 to honor Our Lady of Lourdes to the left of the main altar of St. Louis Cathedral. “This would have been one of the earliest grottos to Our Lady of Lourdes in the country,” Engler said. “There was real Lourdes water flowing there for many, many years.”
    Now, Engler has Lourdes flowing through her veins.
    If she serves as a volunteer in the sanctuary for five years, she has the opportunity to “consecrate” herself to a lifetime of service.
    “I tell people this is a life-changing experience,” Engler said. “It has given me a direction to go in to pursue more of the virtues that I think Mary has. It’s helped me appreciate some of the concrete symbols our church relies on – rocks, water, praise, prayer, Eucharist. It’s all there. And it brought me to feel like I was really a part of the universal church, something I had never felt before. We really are bigger than our parish, our city or our archdiocese.”
    To order Engler’s book, go to www.claitors.com. For information on the North American Lourdes Volunteers, go to www.lourdesvolunteers.org. Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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