Monday, February 7, 2011

An American Lourdes

One winter I made a retreat about ten miles from the tomb of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born citizen to be canonized. She was a beautiful, cultured, educated lady who suffered the loss of husband, two children, and social standing. Shunned by most of her family after she converted to Catholicism, Saint Elizabeth started a community of teaching nuns in what was called Saint Joseph's valley at the foot of Saint Mary's Mountain near Emmitsburg, Maryland.

I often came to Emmitsburg during my childhood and young adulthood, visiting the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. It is the spot where my husband and I became engaged on Easter Sunday in 1996. We also visited it after our wedding in November of the same year, leaving the bridal bouquet at Our Lady's feet.

The Grotto is a popular pilgrimage site and has a miraculous spring. My mother once injured her foot after she dropped a motor bike on it. We took her to the Grotto. After bathing her foot in the icy water the pain disappeared, even as she was walking back to the car. There are many other healings that have happened there, both physical and spiritual. The daily Mass is in the glass chapel on the side of the mountain. Through the tall trees can be seen the blue expanse of Frederick County, "fair as the garden of the Lord," as the poet Whittier said. (Well, at least it used to be; now it is a bit congested.)

The Grotto is a serene and beautiful spot even in the dead of winter. We were amazed at all the youth groups who were there, praying. One Saturday, there was Mass followed by confessions and Adoration. I confessed to an elderly priest, Fr. George Reed, whom I remembered from high school days. He had given me some helpful spiritual direction when I was seventeen; there he was at the Grotto, still hearing confessions after so many years. There are few things quite like a pilgrimage for putting everything in perspective. People come from all over to St. Mary's Mountain in order to find healing, peace, and inspiration, in the spirit of the original Lourdes in France.

At the Grotto is the rock where Mother Seton would come every Sunday and teach the children, those of the neighborhood and her own, the catechism, explaining the truths of the faith with clarity and love. Mother and her nuns would walk up from the valley, rain or shine, to spend Sunday on the mountain. It was in the first decades of the nineteenth century, before the Lourdes apparitions in France, but the Grotto was seen as a venerable and holy place by Mother and the French priests who assisted her. Walking there in the twenty-first century one is still overwhelmed by the sense of being on holy ground.

Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us.

Saint Bernadette, pray for us.

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