A Protestant Looks At Lourdes Part 1.


The cures of Lourdes -cures of the hopelessly sick and disabled by forces unknown to modern science-have made that small French town the most visited shrine in the world. They have also, for nearly 100 years, been a source of endless controversy and wonder among doctors and laymen alike.
“The Miracle of Lourdes” is an exhaustive firsthand study of the famous Catholic shrine and its cures. To prepare it, Ruth Cranston lived in Lourdes, talked with doctors, nurses, stretcher-bearers, patients. A Protestant herself, her approach was that of the reporter and impartial investigator She has verified and documented the facts she presents. No reader will finish her report without feeling that, whatever the explanation, the experience of Lourdes reveals something profoundly significant to men and women everywhere.


I WENT to Lourdes out of an irrepressible curiosity.
For years I had been interested in the part that faith can play in alleviating our human ills. But I had known very little about this famous French shrine until one morning my eye fell on the headline:


This incredible newspaper story, which also told of other startling cures-cancer of the stomach, peritonitis, lung tumor, angina-stirred my imagination. I wanted to know more about Lourdes.
I read every book I could find on the subject, both in English and French, for I spent much of my youth in France and knew the language. The more I read about it, the more deeply I became interested. Was this Catholic shrine, which apparently produced such staggering physical cures, and which certainly drew two million pilgrims each year, simply a mass delusion?
Was it a gigantic hoax or was it truly, as my French authors presented it, a place of simple sincerity, reverence, and amazing miracles?
I decided to see for myself. I had no axe to grind. I was not a Catholic but a Protestant. I belonged to no organization, religious, medical or metaphysical, which had any special interest in my findings. I was just an ordinary citizen with an inquiring mind, bent on my own quest.
When I reached Lourdes, in the spring of 1953, the help of Monseigneur Theas, Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, and of Dr. Francois Leuret, President of the Medical Bureau, opened every door. Nurses, Protestant physicians, the sick and those who had been cured co-operated wholeheartedly to make this report possible.
Lourdes, a thriving town of some 13,000 residents, lies near the Spanish border. If you are lucky, you come into it-as I did-in the radiant early morning: the sun just rolling up into a dazzling sky, silver streams rushing along between rows of swaying willows; the mountains soft and hazy in the distance.
For an hour the train has been speeding through rich waving cornfields, dotted with red-roofed farmhouses and clumps of dark-green cypress trees. As we enter Lourdes, we see that a long pilgrimage train is also just arriving. From every window eager faces of the sick look out full of hope. Although many of them have endured bitter sufferings during their journey, they seem amazingly cheerful. Someone starts a hymn, the “Song of Bernadette.” As I learned later, this is the theme song here. One hears it everywhere. Now car after car takes it up, till the whole long pilgrimage train is ringing with it:
“Ave, Ave-Ave, Maria.
Ave, Ave-Ave, Mari-ia!”
On this wave of joyous praise and hope, we move into the Lourdes station. There groups of leather-harnessed stretcher-bearers and blue-caped nurses hurry along the platform to assist with the very sick. The well pilgrims line up with the pilgrimage director or rush about to see their invalids safely established in the hospital ambulances. Lourdes is not like any place you ever saw before. You are in a city of pilgrims, and they are everywhere; people who have come from the four corners of the earth with but one purpose: prayer and healing, for themselves or their loved ones.
The city exists for them. You will be surrounded by them every moment of your stay in Lourdes.
The main street-ancient Rue De la Grotte- is a typical mountain town thoroughfare, narrow, bustling, noisy; shops offering varied Lourdes souvenirs crowd the tiny sidewalks. Pilgrims tramp up and down here all day long with their knapsacks and lunchboxes.
Follow this street to the bottom of the hill (Lourdes is a town of steep hills and sudden dramatic vistas) and it takes you into the Avenue Bernadette. Equally crowded, equally noisy, this leads directly to the Domaine, the vast enclosed park which contains the baths, the sanctuaries, the hospital, and all the buildings for the complex administration of the shrine. This is the section for which the rest of Lourdes exists. All day and every day, a continuous throng is surging toward it.
Here are people of many tongues and many garbs: a Scottish stretcher-bearer in a kilt, a Swiss pastor, shepherding his picturesque flock with their wide lace headdresses; English curates, Italian Monsignor, American and Irish bishops in colourful purple; French peasants, American students, Dutch sailors, bevies of little boys and girls in provincial costume. The old and the new jostle each other at every turn: donkeys carrying huge bundles of laundry to the convent on the hill; young men tearing through on motor bikes; groups of humble village priests trudging along barefoot; an actress in a long convertible en route to Biarritz. At the corner, cars and buses rush by- until suddenly a girl appears with a big herd of sheep. All halt, resignedly, and wait for her to go through. After all, Lourdes is still very much a country town. Cross the perilous, strident highway, enter the big iron gate, and you are in the Domaine, the refuge in which the endless stream of pilgrims turn their backs upon the world outside and give themselves to prayer. Directly you enter this consecrated area, you yourself feel more peaceful. It is a place of wide green lawns dotted with sacred statuary, of magnificent trees, of spacious vistas; and all about are rolling hills and the beauty of the grey-green countryside. Walk to the right, under the arcades of the great horseshoe ramp which sweeps out from the shrine’s three churches, and you find the famous piscines, or baths, where the pilgrims come to be plunged into the waters of the spring. Pass the fountains where thousands come to drink and to carry away Lourdes water, and presently you come to the very heart of Lourdes, the Grotto.
Here, in a cleft in the mountain wall, flanked by tall pyramids of creamy flowers and hundreds of flickering candles, stands a statue of the Virgin. The sides of the Grotto are worn smooth by all the hands and lips that have reverently touched it.
All day long people are praying here, absorbed, withdrawn. Procession after procession comes and goes: pilgrims from Brussels, from Bordeaux, from Strasbourg, Luxembourg, Dublin; from everywhere. For this is today the most visited shrine in the world.
And all, the people of Lourdes will tell you, because a young girl had a vision, and was faithful to it to the end. The story goes that, nearly a hundred years ago-it was February 11, 1858- the Virgin Mary appeared to a 14-year old peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, while she was out gathering firewood. Bernadette saw “The Lady” in a sort of radiant mist in the grotto. There followed a series of such visions, during which The Lady instructed Bernadette: “Tell the priests to build a chapel on this spot. I want people to come here in procession. . . . Pray- tell them to pray! . . . Go and drink from the spring and wash in it.”
No spring had been known to exist there, but when the child dug in the earth at the indicated spot it appeared. At first a mere trickle, it soon became a powerful stream.
From the beginning the people believed in Bernadette. She communicated her intense faith and vision to them and they followed her implicitly, built a rude shrine at the spring and prayed there in increasing numbers. But local authorities scorned the visions, threatened Bernadette and her family, and attempted to close the shrine.
Then the miracles began. A blind man who washed his eyes in the spring water found that his sight was restored. A mother, one of Bernadette’s neighbours, dipped her dying child in the waters, and the little boy not only lived but became well and robust for the first time in his life. The child had suffered from a bone disease which had completely paralyzed his legs, and had been beset by violent convulsions until the physician finally pronounced his death “only a matter of hours.” And since the cure restored the child to complete health within 24 hours, the case made a profound impression, even on the medical profession. Soon people began to bring their sick from all over the land.
Finally the Church set up a commission to investigate the whole matter. After four years’ study it completely vindicated Bernadette and declared that certain cures had occurred which must be considered contrary to all known biological laws. Eventually in 1933, some 54 years after her death, Bernadette was canonized at St. Peter’s in Rome. One of the honoured guests at that ceremony was a 77-year-old man, Louis-Justin Bouhohorts, who owed his life to
Bernadette. For he had been that dying child, paralyzed and convulsive, who had been saved by one of Lourdes’ first widely publicized miracles.
Although the Church quite early accepted the miracles of Lourdes as authentic, the medical profession did not. For many years doctors pronounced Bernadette “hallucinated,” and the dramatically cured patients victims of “false diagnosis,” “hysteria,” and “auto-suggestion.” Lourdes was considered a resort for dupes and fakers. In 1903 a young doctor at the University of Lyons was ridiculed because he mentioned that a tuberculosis case he attended had been miraculously cured at Lourdes. “With such views, sir,” said the Dean coldly, “you can hardly expect to be received as a member of our faculty!’ “In that case,” said the young physician, “I must look elsewhere.” He went to New York, to the Rockefeller Institute, and in 1912, as a result of his researches there, received the Nobel Prize. His name was Alexis Carrel.
But the implacable professional prejudice against Lourdes was already breaking down. The Bureau of Medical Verification, established at Lourdes in 1885 for professional study of alleged cures, attracted an increasing number of curious doctors of all beliefs to the shrine. In 1893 the celebrated French neurologist, Jean Martin Charcot, wrote sympathetically of Lourdes cures under the title: “The Faith Which Heals.” In 1906, when a Paris editor launched a bitter press campaign to close Lourdes in the name of hygiene, he met with an unexpected and thunderous reply. A physician in Lyons (the city from which Dr. Alexis Carrel had departed only a few years before) now got together the signatures of 3000 doctors testifying to the invaluable services rendered by Lourdes to the sick “whom we doctors have been powerless to save,” and insisting that nothing be done to interfere with them.
A large number of books have since appeared by medical men of high reputation, discussing the phenomena of Lourdes and giving accounts of outstanding cures. But the most powerful force in transforming public and professional opinion has been the cures themselves. They have constituted a living argument difficult to explain away. Their cases are documented in the archives of the Medical Bureau. Here are some of them.
In December, 1900, Gabriel Gargam, a railway postal clerk, was at his work sorting mail on the Orleans Southwest Express when the train was wrecked. He woke up in a hospital bandaged from head to foot. He had been crushed almost to death. His collarbone was broken, his spine was hopelessly injured, paralyzing him from the waist down. The least movement produced vomiting, and he had to be fed painfully through a tube. A court ordered the railroad to pay 6000 francs annually, since he was “a human wreck who would henceforth need at least two persons to care for him.” After 20 months in the hospital Gargam was growing daily weaker. He could no longer swallow. The doctors warned his family that death was near.
Gargam had not set foot in a church for 15 years. But his mother, a deeply religious woman, persuaded him to undertake the pilgrimage to Lourdes. The journey was accomplished with great suffering, on a stretcher.
On his first afternoon at Lourdes he lay on the route of the Procession of the Blessed Sacrament, extremely weak, and soon entirely unconscious; his features relaxed, cold and blue. But at the moment when his nurse thought him dying, suddenly he opened his eyes, raised himself on his elbow, reeled back again, but tried a second time and succeeded in getting up. His paralysis was gone. He had recovered entire freedom of movement.
He was taken to the Medical Bureau, where doctors and newspaper correspondents surrounded him. “Gargam arrived wrapped in a long bathrobe,” one records. “He stood before us, a spectre. Big staring eyes alone were living in his emaciated colourless face.” But he was now able to throw aside his tube and eat normally, and in a few days he was to gain 20 pounds. When he returned home the post-office department’s physician told him he could immediately resume his post.
His case created a sensation. The 60 physicians who examined him at Lourdes all agreed that this cure was scientifically inexplicable. Indeed, Gargam had great difficulty in persuading the incredulous railroad officers to discontinue his annuity. But he enjoyed robust health for the rest of his life. He came to Lourdes each year, serving tirelessly as a stretcher-bearer, until he finally died in 1952 at the age of 83.
Madame Marie Bire of Lucon, hardworking mother of six children, suffered fiendish headaches, dizziness, and was finally stricken with blindness. After examining her the doctor said, “I hate to tell you, Madame, but there has been a complete wasting of the optic nerves. I’m afraid there’s no cure.”
Some months later Madame Bire went to Lourdes, accompanied by her doctor and her oldest daughter. At the Grotto, which she visited in an invalid carriage, she suddenly stood up and said, “Ah, I see the Blessed Virgin!” She fell back into the carriage seat, fainting. Her daughter thought she was dying. But Madame Bire quickly recovered consciousness and found that she could still see.
She was taken to the Medical Bureau and examined by several doctors-among them Dr. Henri Lainey, an oculist from Rouen, who wrote: “Examination of the eyes with the ophthalmoscope showed on both sides a white pearly papilla, devoid of all colour. The diagnosis was forced upon me: here was white atrophy of the optic nerve, of cerebral cause.
This, one of the gravest affections, is recognized by all authorities as incurable. But Madame Bire could read the finest print, and her distant vision was just as good.” She had recovered her sight, but the lesions remained. They were to disappear a little later.
Ten doctors made a second examination next day. Same results: the organ still atrophied and lifeless, but the sight still clear and perfect. Questions followed thick and fast. “How can you see, Madame, when you have no papillae?” one doctor asked impatiently.
“Listen gentlemen, I am not familiar with your learned words,” Madame Bire replied with spirit. “I have just one thing to say. For nearly six months I could not see, and now I can see. That is enough for me!”
It had to be enough for her questioners also. They acknowledged that the cure appeared complete. The future would tell whether it was permanent.
A month after her return home three eye specialists examined Madame Bire again. The Medical Bureau wished to know whether she was still seeing with “dead” eyes. They found that the phenomena had ceased. “All traces of papillary atrophy have disappeared,” one of the examining physicans wrote. “There are no longer lesions. The cure is complete.” That was in the fall of 1908. When the president of the Medical Bureau, Dr. Auguste Vallet, saw her 20 years later her sight was still excellent. All the doctors who studied the case found her cure “absolutely inexplicable clinically.” Other extraordinary cures baffled the doctors during those early years of the shrine. Little Yvonne Aumaitre, daughter of a Nantes physician, was cured, at the age of two, of double clubfoot-the case being recorded by her father in the Medical Bureau records. Constance Piquet was cured of cancer of the breast- an advanced case pronounced inoperable by two Parisian doctors. Marie Le Marchand, her face half eaten away by a tuberculous skin disease, came out of the piscine with only a long red scar to remind her of her former malady. A vivid account of her before-and-after appearance is on file in the Medical Bureau.
Such cases gave pause to even the most antagonistic doctors, and the attitude of the medical profession as a whole changed considerably. As a British doctor wrote in 1930. “The change is from scepticism and incredulity to an acknowledgement, not necessarily of the supernatural, but that cures do occur at Lourdes which cannot be explained by any known biological laws.” A year later the Society of Medicine and Surgery of Bordeaux devoted an entire meeting to Lourdes. The papers read by the various doctors, discussing cases of sudden inexplicable  Bordeaux’s solidly respectable Fortnightly Gazette of Medical Science.
Obviously medical men no longer dismissed the shrine as merely a resort for charlatans and crackpots. This interest of the medical profession has continued. In 1953 some 1500 doctors from all over the world registered at the Lourdes Medical Bureau. Many of them, as is true every year, studied the records and helped examine the patients.