More about Mary

If you’re Roman Catholic, I’m sure you’ve heard it: “You guys are weird – Don’t you ‘worship’ Mary? Aren’t you only supposed to worship God?”

Let’s face it, a lot of Protestants (and Catholics, for that matter) grow-up with some pretty inaccurate notions of Catholicism.  Trying to respond with patience can be a challenge.

“No. Catholics do not ‘worship’ Mary. We revere her as the first Christian – The one whose ‘yes’ opened the way for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Then I get the furrowed borrow and quizzical response, “Yeh, but you pray to her, don’t you?”

(Sigh.) “Yes, but not as God or some deity.  We Catholics believe in intercessory prayer.  When I pray to Mary, I figure I have a pretty powerful advocate in my corner.”

This does not always help.  “Yeh, but can’t we just pray directly to God?  Why do we need a go-between?”  Now I’m warming-up.  “Of course you can pray directly to God – I mean, we’re talking about ‘God’, right?  But we Catholics also believe intercessors like Mary are strong advocates for us and can help strengthen our prayer.  Why would anyone refuse such a powerful blessing?”

Now the arms are folded and the push-back comes, “Well, we don’t believe you need any of that.”

And what a shame that is!  Mary, the Mother of God, the first Christian and the Queen of all Saints (she carries many beautiful titles) knows her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, so closely – as only a mother can.  Our love for her is not worship, but profound reverence for one who trusted the Word of God would be fulfilled in her.

Imagine if Mary had told the angel, “Yeh, right.  This whole thing is terrifying me, and you really need to leave right now!”  But she did not.  She said that amazing “yes” that resounds through the ages.

This is one of the most beautiful aspects of our Catholic faith!  Throughout history, God lifts-up our humanity, working through fallible persons to bring about His perfect Kingdom, and magnifying each of them through His power, grace and unconditional love.  They go from ordinary to extraordinary, becoming living examples of the holiness to which we are all called, and to which we can all aspire.  “Hey –  If she was able to do it by the grace of God, so can I!”

Wouldn’t it be so much simpler for God, in all His power and glory, to appear on earth, snap a mighty finger and make everything perfect?  Instead, “He humbled Himself to share in our humanity” through the simple “yes” of a young Jewish woman named Mary.  Talk about your “amazing grace”!

No, we do not “worship” Mary. But in this Month of Mary, we remember her amazing act of faith, all she endured, her shining example, and her constant, loving intercession. We call upon her for aid, especially in these times that know so much darkness and stress.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.  Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.  Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

Those who don’t get it are missing something very special.

Steve Gottwalt is a member of the Church of Saint Peter in Saint Cloud. He and his wife Paula have five children and four grandchildren and live in west Saint Cloud. Read more about Steve on the Meet Our Bloggers page.

A DAY IN THE LIFE: Seminarian Rick Aubol

Seminarian Rick Aubol

Introducing a new monthly series called, “A Day in the Life.” This section will feature a day in the life of Catholic folks from around the diocese. This is the first in the series and features seminarian Rick Aubol, who is studying for the priesthood at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He is scheduled to be ordained as a transitional deacon on June 16 at 10:30 a.m. at St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud.

From Rick:
This is my first view early in the morning. We wake up very early to pray morning prayer and Mass so we have time for breakfast and walking to class.
Next is of us walking into the chapel for prayer as said above.
Then breakfast.
On the walk to class. This is the market in il Campo de Fiori. Here they sell all sorts of produce and products.
The second is from a different route along one of the main roads through town which goes by San Andrea delle Valle, which is like a mini St. Peter’s.
This is part of the excavated Roman ruins and Trajan’s column with a statue of St. Peter atop it at the bottom of the hill my university sits on.
The gate of my university, the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in the city, or the Angelicum for short.
A view inside a classroom.
Place for breaks, the back garden. Beautiful and peaceful, especially in the spring with the orange and then lemon blossoms bloom. Also home to the biggest olive tree I’ve ever seen.
On the way home, Trajan’s column and twin Marian churches.
Back roads way home where we have a community lunch, or pranzo, in Italian.
My somewhat messy room where I often study. The afternoons are our time to get everything done, including meets, apostolates, and homework.
Going into the chapel for vespers. After this dinner, or cena in Italian, is served. Then the night is often free. Guys may watch movies, read, study, hang out, etc. Some go out to eat in the city instead.

Missed Opportunity

OK, so I know it did to be controversial and sell its magazine, but when GQ last week put the Bible on its list of “books not worth reading,” I think it still made a mistake. (You can read the article here:

In an attempt to be “cutting edge” with the current trend toward faulting faith and Christianity, for which my defense has been stated, it took a short-sighted, narrow approach. Rather than throwing out the Bible as bad fiction, irrelevant, or divisive, there is potential to find commonality in it.

Jesus Christ is not just an important figure in Christianity. He was Jewish and he is contained in the Muslim faith as a prophet. Abraham is another important figure uniting the three religions.

I have to agree with Tim Swarens at the Indy Star. The Bible also provides an opportunity to understand.

He argues the Bible is important “To understand history: Our nation’s founding document states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Where did those self-evident truths originate? They’re rooted in the biblical concept that all humans are created in God’s image.

I’d argue that the same idea was the inspirational and philosophical bedrock of the Abolitionist and Civil Rights movements. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist preacher; to truly understand his work and writing, you have to read the book that most inspired him.”

Swarens also makes the point that to understand current events – everything from abortion to the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians – the Bible holds the key. Even understanding why Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby are closed on Sundays.

Beyond that, how will we ever understand our neighbors if we dismiss them? So instead of insulting Christians and minimizing what they believe, I think we need to realize the Bible reaches beyond any particular group.

He also complains it is repetitive. Yes, it is. In the NRSV version, love is mentioned 538 times, praise 204 times, and joy 172 times. And I appreciate every one. He argues it is foolish and “is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it.” Well, I certainly don’t read as much as I should, but, like other books, words influence and shape thoughts and actions. I sincerely appreciate (and need) the peace the Bible provides, as well as its ability to lift me up on my worst days.

From his comments, it is obvious the GQ author does not understand the difference between reading a book and truly spending time with authors. At a minimum, I believe he has missed an opportunity to encourage others to learn some history and understand current events. At most, he missed an opportunity to change his own life. It’s a shame.

Proverbs 18:2 “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”

Psalm 119:130 “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.”

Sheila Hellermann is a member of St. Rose of Lima Church in St. Rosa. She works at St. John’s University as a program and department coordinator for several academic departments. Read more about Sheila on the “Meet Our Bloggers” page.

A Few (Of My Favorite) Places to Find Mary

Spring is the perfect time to honor Mother Mary and perhaps take a drive on a little adventure, don’t you think? As a child, our family often took Sunday drives to familiar and unfamiliar places. Most times they led to us checking out a well built and beautifully detailed church (Many were left unlocked back then.) and finishing out our journey by locating the nearest Dairy Queen. Now with my own family, we don’t make those same Sunday drives, but we have located a few great spots where we’ve found Mary. I’ll even share our favorite place to pray and honor Blessed Mother Mary at the very end!

  1. Grasshopper/Assumption Chapel, Cold Spring
Image of Mary at Assumption Chapel, commonly called Grasshopper Chapel, in Cold Spring (photo courtesy St. Boniface Church)

This was a common destination for our family when I was younger. Driving up the hill and finding the serene trees and quietness around the chapel was always a treasure. Being there was a prayerful experience, whether inside the cold granite chapel or enjoying a picnic out in the grassy areas. In the summer time, you can even head here for one of the Masses during their annual novena of Masses (watch the Visitor for dates). Read the story about how the chapel came to be and its significance.

  1. Stella Maris Chapel, St. John’s University

Grab your comfy shoes and head out for a walk along The Chapel Trail to find this hidden gem. St. John’s was also a common place where my family headed in my younger years, especially to walk out to the wooden pedestrian bridge that spans the freeway. Just last summer, I took my kids and we met up with my parents and brother’s family for an afternoon trek. With kids ranging from toddlers to teens and a couple of strollers, it made for quite the eventful memory, but it was great to see the renovations and enjoy the woods.

  1. Mary Garden, Sacred Heart Church, Sauk Rapids

Living an hour away from St. Cloud, we only recently discovered this one while on our Holy Thursday Seven Churches visitation tour. Tucked away around the side of the church, following the pleasant path and over the bridge, you’ll find Our Lady of Guadalupe. (I’d like to see this one when in summer bloom.)

  1. Our Lady of the Hills, Millerville

If you’re up for a pleasant country drive to find a 22-foot high Mary beyond the Alexandria area out on a gravel road, this one is for you. The statue was built in 1993 in thanksgiving for answered prayers. The size alone is captivating and kids are impressed with her magnitude in this little hidden away spot. While you’re out driving, you could also make a stop to climb up to Inspiration Peak, the highest point in the area, to gaze out over the land and praise God’s goodness. This makes a great Sunday drive, and family memory worthy outing. Find a bit more and directions here.

  1. Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, Christ the King Church, Browerville

While stopping in to visit the church a couple of summers ago (If you haven’t seen this magnificent church, you really should stop in and pay Jesus a visit in this exceptional place.), we found the rock grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. Set in the small wooded area next to the church, it’s a sweet alcove to stop and pray while taking in the enormity of God’s creation in the shadow of the towering church. If you’re following my family’s tradition of ice cream treats along the way, Cherry Grove Market on the edge of town serves up hand dipped ice cream in their little store (closed Sundays).

  1. Mary Garden, Our Lady of the Angels, Sauk Centre

This is our family favorite! Being that we’re just a short 15 mile drive from this peaceful spot (and there’s a DQ in this town as well), it has become a favorite place to stop for a few minutes, to pray an the rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet. Set to the side of the church, between it and what used to be a parish house, once you step within the well designed and landscaped garden with climbing greens and statues of the archangels along with Mary, serenity overcomes you. It is well tended and the flowers are always so exquisite that it surely is just a glimpse of heaven.

Whether it be in your home, church, town next door or a Sunday drive away, find a way to encounter Mary this May or this summer, in a new and special way. May she keep you under her mantle of watchful protection.

Sarah Heidelberger is a wife and homeschooling mom of five who keeps her days steady with her planning and organizing skills. Read more about her on the “Meet Our Bloggers” page.


The joys and sorrows of Mother’s Day

I have the date marked on my calendar.  Not that I need a reminder as the retail businesses and restaurants have been reminding me of Mother’s Day approaching.  And yes, it is the opening weekend of fishing!

Today is Mother’s Day. The day set aside to honor and recognize mothers. On this day we recognize, show our gratitude and bless all the mothers everywhere. The women, who give us life, birth us, raise us and support us in our lives. The women who grace us with the model of sacrifice and care for life, who place their children’s needs before theirs and without limits care for us. We honor those women who support us in our mothering vocation, those aunts and friends who (many without children of their own) support our vocational call to raise our children.

This day of remembrance has taken on many more layers for me in my years.  Mother’s Day can be a challenging day of celebration for some women who have experienced the death of an unborn child, an infant or child or a mom.

I recall many Sundays of Mother’s Day in which “all those who are mothers” were asked to stand for a blessing at Mass.  I recall those years of striving to conceive despite a diagnosis of infertility and the pain of sitting and enduring that blessing to mothers in church.   I recall the first year I too, stood to that invitation, expecting our first child, and yet was so aware of those not standing.

In recent years, I am increasingly mindful of all those moms whose mothers are no longer living in our earthly home and the mixed emotions they have, standing and yet so aware their mother is no longer living on earth.

I recognize that I cannot solve or, “ fix” the pain of these emotions; but I can and will be present in some small way as I am able this year.  The pain of mothers who have lost their child is a place I will recognize and honor, and yet have not known personally.  I just completed mailing cards for Mothers Day.  I have included in my list a few women who I wish to remember and show a bit of compassion and kindness to this year.  I do believe that a mothers love for their deceased or hoped for child never ends.  I will let as many of these moms as I can know that I am thinking of them.   I will use their child’s name when possible to honor the life that was often so anticipated and loved and so very much missed.

This day is part of our society and for the most part, it is a good day.  It also is a good day for me to be mindful of others and aware of the gift of care and compassion to others.  The simplest of acts and words that we offer during this time may be the most loving and supportive moments of many women’s days. I will use this time to reach out and show some care and compassion to those, for whom this day may not be filled with feelings of joy. I know that I cannot fix or take away the negative emotions of this day, but I can be present.  I can reach out with a card or call.   I do not know the pain of losing a burying a child, but I know my heart aches to walk with those that do know this journey.

Just as Jesus did not take away all pain, Jesus modeled for us the gift of presence.  To simply and yet profoundly be with another.  I may not use words but rather my time and presence to support and care for others.  After all, there are times where there are no words but the profound gift of being present with another that may speak volumes.

For all who will joyfully celebrate this Mother’s Day, I wish you joy and gratitude, love and peace. Thank you to those women who have “mothered,” myself and so many others. Thank you to all who support mothers.

May you be blessed and feel the profound gift you are to your children, your grandchildren, your church and our world.

Geralyn Nathe-Evans has been called to the vocations of wife, mom, Lay Ecclesial Minister, nurse and friend. Read more about Geralyn on our Meet Our Bloggers page.

Cocoa Party Cake stirs sweet memories


Last week my colleague Dianne Towalski, graphic designer and multimedia reporter at The Visitor, reminisced about the chocolate cake that her mother, Vicky Williams, always baked for her birthday. Vicky shares that special recipe with our readers in honor of Mother’s Day this Sunday and recalls fond memories of her own dear mom.

“This chocolate cake recipe is from a small cookbook that came with a can of Hershey’s Cocoa decades ago,” Vicky said. “I don’t remember when I made it for the first time — it was so long ago. We are all chocolate fans, so my kids usually requested chocolate cake with chocolate frosting for birthdays.

Vicky Williams, right, poses with her mom Margie Arnold in 2010.

“I enjoy baking and like the way the house smells when there’s something in the oven. It smells like home to me,” she continued. “My mom, Margie Arnold, was a great cook and also loved to bake. On Saturdays, when we were growing up, my sister Sandy and I would make two kinds of cookies for the week, while our mom baked coffeecake and cinnamon rolls. Her cinnamon rolls are the standard by which I judge all cinnamon rolls. She also made a great peach cobbler.

“Mom passed away last year,” Vicky said. “She was a lovely woman and we all still miss her so much.”

Happy Mother’s Day to Dianne, Vicky and all mothers everywhere!

Cocoa Party Cake with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
Submitted by Vicky Williams

1 cup butter or margarine, softened
2 1/4 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 cups buttermilk or sour milk*

1/3 cup cocoa
1/3 cup butter
2 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1-2 tbsp. milk

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 13x9x2-inch pan or three round 8-inch layer pans.

Cream butter and sugar in large mixer bowl. Add eggs and vanilla; blend well. Combine flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt; add alternately with buttermilk to the creamed mixture.

Pour into greased and floured pan/s. Bake at 350°F for 55 to 60 minutes for a rectangular cake (or 30 to 35 minutes for layers) or until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean. Frost when cake is cool. (If making a layer cake, cool in pans for 10 minutes then remove cake from pans to cool completely.)

For the frosting: Mix the cocoa and butter together, add the powdered sugar and vanilla. Add the milk, a little at a time, until it’s the right consistency.

*To sour milk: Use 2 tbsp. vinegar plus milk to equal 2 cups.

A note from Vicky
I always use butter when baking this cake — it just tastes better. (If you’re going to indulge, you might as well do it right.) I always use all-purpose flour even though the original recipe called for unsifted cake flour. I’ve soured the milk occasionally, but I usually buy buttermilk. It’s good either way. I believe in doing things the easy way, so I usually bake it in a 9×13-inch pan. (Of course, it looks more spectacular as a three-layer cake, so if you want to impress people, that’s the way to go.)

Carol Jessen-Klixbull is a copy editor at The Visitor. She is a former Family and Consumer Science teacher who has a passion for all things “food.”

Lessons from Mary

This blog post is part of a series on Mary during the month of May.

May is one of my favorite months. Not just because the air no longer hurts my face, but because it is the month of Mary. I have always been a huge fan of Our Lady and made a consecration to Jesus through Mary when I was a teenager. The peace I get when I pray to Our Lady is unreal and she is the perfect example of who I am striving to be.

The last couple of weeks have been the hardest weeks of my entire life. Friends have told me how hard it is to lose a grandparent, but I could never have imagined just how hard it really is.

Tricia with her grandpa

I had breakfast with Grandpa that morning on the day he passed away. He was joking around, giving me hugs, acting completely normal. I had no idea the hug he gave me as he left St. Peter’s that morning would be the last hug I would ever get from him. When I got the panicked phone call from my dad that night, I knew something was seriously wrong. I raced out to Grandma and Grandpa’s, and after about 20-30 minutes of CPR we were given the news we were dreading- Grandpa wasn’t going to make it.

Our Lady has really been helping me through this tough time. Not only in bringing me much-needed peace in the moments I begin to realize grandpa is really gone, but also through all of the people we have encountered in these past few weeks. People came out of the woodwork for Grandpa’s wake and funeral. It was so comforting to hear of all the lives he had touched, whether he knew them his whole life, or only met them a couple times. I had never taken part in planning a wake or funeral before, but the workers at Williams-Dingmann seemed to be sent directly from God for our family. Their patience and the small things they did for my family throughout our time with them was so unbelievable. Just one example was that when we arrived at the wake, there were two teddy bears in the casket. Emily then told us that one would stay in the casket with Grandpa and the other was for my sister’s baby who will be born the end of July– Grandpa’s first great-grandchild. Small things like this meant more to us than they will ever know.

Countless people took on the spiritual and physical roles of Mary for my family after my Grandpa’s death. Not only were there a ton of people praying for us, but Masses are being offered for Grandpa’s soul all over the United States. We were also taken care of physically, with people dropping off all kinds of soup, fresh bread, cookie bars, donuts, so many kinds of flowers, and much more. Not to have to worry about what to make for dinner was such a big relief, and each act of kindness toward us reminded us of the tender care that Mary provides for us, through her motherly heart.

This whole experience made me realize how much these ‘motherly’ acts are appreciated and how we especially as women are made to nurture and to be a refuge for others. I encourage you to look at your life and see how you can resemble Mary to someone in your life that needs you, through your tender love and care.


Tricia and Nikki Walz are proud Minnesotans who were born and raised in the heart of St. Cloud with their younger sister Briana. Read more about them on the “Meet Our Bloggers” page.



End of the Academic year reflection: Community

Introducing our newest blogger, Lucas Gerads, a student at St. Cloud State University. Read more about Lucas on the Meet Our Bloggers page.

As the end of the academic year winds down, I was invited and found time to reflect on the past school year and see where the Lord had really blessed me and guided me. Every time I’m asked that question on the spot with no time to pray, reflect and think about an answer, I usually get flustered and a little panicked. This time was different. I found myself answering almost immediately by saying, “The community I’ve been led to.”

Having been a student at Saint Mary’s University in Winona for two years, I built a strong community there, and toward the end of my second year, I found out I was not able to continue my education there for financial reasons. Coming home from Saint Mary’s University was a really hard transition for a couple of reasons, but the most prominent was the disconnection with a community. I still had my friends down in Winona and we talked but the face-to-face personal interactions were absent. Trying to grow deeper in my faith without that face-to-face community was hard and I was struggling.

Around Thanksgiving, I had the opportunity to sit down and catch up with Father Scott Pogatchnik, the diocesan vocations director, and we got to talking about my transition and how I was resettling in. I expressed my struggles and he invited me to attend a Marmion House event to watch a football game. The Marmion House is a place where men in college have the opportunity to live in communion with one another and grow in their faith. A couple of days after Father Scott and I had talked, Father Ben Kociemba, who runs the Marmion House, had texted me inviting me over to events, and before I knew it, I was talking about moving in. I moved in on the 8th on January and I was a little concerned. I had only met some of the house members three times and now was living with them?!? It was crazy how quickly everything went through.

A photo of the chapel inside Marmion House.

As crazy as it all was, it has truly been one of the largest blessing of the past year. Since moving in, I’ve grown to know each of the guy in personal ways and we as a community have grown close to each other and Christ. Being able to live in the same house as the Blessed Sacrament allows us to grow our relations together rooted in Christ through prayer. I’ve always been a firm believer in the saying, “Iron is sharpened by iron; one person sharpens another,” (Proverbs 27:17) and that is exactly what has been happening. We check in with one another. Make sure each of us is staying faithful to the sacraments and prayer, and ultimately Christ. I think the pinnacle of this whole thought came through the other night when Father Ben celebrated Mass for 13 young men as a kickstarter for finals week. After Mass, we had time for some fellowship, and I could feel the presence of Christ amongst us.

The men of Marmion House at a recent gathering.

At the end of the day, a personal relationship with Christ is the greatest relationship a person could have, but Christ recognized the great need humanity has for community and relationships with one another. Even His apostles needed to be sent out in groups of two, (Mark 6:7) and so I encourage you to thank God for the communities you are part of that leads you to Christ. Pray for deeper relations with them and Christ, and for those who may not have such communities.

Lucas Gerads is a student at St. Cloud State University, currently living in Marmion House, an intentional community of men in St. Cloud. Read more about Lucas on the Meet Our Bloggers page.

Bottles and Water (part three in a series)

Guest blogger Yvette Piggush shares reflections about her recent trip to Lourdes, France. This is the final in a series.

My bottles of Lourdes water.

Souvenir shops in Lourdes sell many kinds of water bottles: gallon jugs, plastic bottles shaped like Mary with a screw-off crown, spray bottles, and tiny, jewel-like glass bottles. I had only seen water from Lourdes reverently stored in these special containers. In my experience, people regarded this water almost as a kind of miracle-working juice, one drop of which could defeat cancer or mend a broken heart. At the shrine, by contrast, the water was so abundant it almost seemed ordinary. People collected it using regular water bottles and they spilled it everywhere in the process. No one acted as though a drop or two would change their lives. Yet, in February 2018, the Catholic Church officially recognized the seventieth miracle attributed to Lourdes (

Lourdes water special equipment.

St. Bernadette insisted that Lourdes water was not a magic potion. “One must have faith and pray,” she urged, “the water will have no virtue without faith.” The spring had its origins in an act of penance. In her apparition on February 25th, Mary directed Bernadette to scrape water out of the muddy ground at the back of the grotto and to drink and wash with it as a sign of penitence. Disgusted, Bernadette spit out the murky brew several times before managing to swallow some of it and to smear the rest on her face. People thought she had gone insane.

Pilgrims fill bottles with water from the miraculous spring at a row of taps.

Struggling for a way to say goodbye to Lourdes, I recalled Mary’s instructions to Bernadette. I went to the taps, cupped my hands, and drank, spilling water everywhere. I then took another handful of water and poured it on my head. I realized that I like bottles too much. Open gestures of faith are difficult for me. Yet faith, like water, needs to be poured out in order to have any effect. The most penitential experience I could muster in the moment was braving my friend’s quizzical look at my dripping face. But, just as the water has no virtue without faith, so too does our faith lack virtue if it is not like water, poured out, spilling over, and making us look a little silly for Christ.

Yvette Piggush is active in St. Mary’s Cathedral parish in St. Cloud. She teaches in the English Department at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. When she isn’t reading something, she may be found baking desserts, going on long walks, and enjoying time with her nieces and goddaughters.

The Grotto of Lourdes (part two in a series)

Guest blogger Yvette Piggush shares reflections about her recent trip to Lourdes, France. This is the second in a series.

The grotto at Lourdes. The statue marks the niche where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette.

The shrine of Lourdes in southern France commemorates the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Saint Bernadette Soubirous between February 11 and July 16, 1858. The majority of these apparitions took place in February and March, but the pilgrimage season is from May through October. So, when we arrived in Lourdes in early March, we quickly learned one French word: fermé (closed). The tourist information office was “fermé,” many shops and restaurants were “fermé,” sites related to Bernadette’s life were “fermé,” and even the parish church was “fermé.” As a result, we approached the shrine itself with some misgivings about what might be “fermé” there.

Pilgrims touch and kiss the rocks of the grotto as they pray.

But the fact that the town was “fermé” meant that the shrine itself was very open. We joined a handful of other pilgrims for a rainy morning Mass in front of the grotto where the apparitions occurred. After Mass, we wandered freely in and out of the grotto. We viewed the spring welling out of the back of the cavern and touched the rocks polished by the hands and lips of millions of other pilgrims. I had expected barriers, lines, crowds, and lots of regulations. Instead, the grotto space was peaceful and largely empty, a mixture of shrine and park. I watched a nun kneel on the ground absorbed in prayer; a grandmother snap photos of her sticky-faced grandson; and a couple have an animated, whispered discussion about their relationship. People carried out their lives at Mary’s feet, praying, nurturing, and loving unselfconsciously and without shame.

Night life in Lourdes: a candle-lit procession with the grotto in the background.

I understood then that the real world at Lourdes did not consist of the shops, hotels, and tourist sites that were “fermé.” The most real world, the world where people became present and alive, was at the grotto. There it was just us and Mary, the silence and the weak spring sunlight, as it might have been for St. Bernadette 160 years ago. There, God had made an opening to His love that could never be shut.

Yvette Piggush is active in St. Mary’s Cathedral parish in St. Cloud. She teaches in the English Department at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. When she isn’t reading something, she may be found baking desserts, going on long walks, and enjoying time with her nieces and goddaughters.