HARLEM — Gasps mingled with clicking cameras as three men, including the parish pastor, hoisted an ornate reliquary carrying the relics of St. Bernadette onto a table at Our Lady of Lourdes Church.
The May 20 event at the Hamilton Heights church was part of the first-ever U.S. tour of the relics that began in April. Some of the nuns and volunteers who helped prepare for the Friday evening Mass and veneration wept with joy as they viewed the reliquary.
“A saint is coming to our church,” whispered Ana Rosario, smiling. “I feel very happy.”
A crowd of parishioners braved a thunderstorm to venerate the relics of St. Bernadette, a visionary of Holy Mother Mary in the mid-1800s in France.
Each knelt in prayer before the relics. Many handed personal religious objects — rosaries, statuettes, holy cards — to an attendant nun, who pressed them against the glass surrounding the reliquary and fervently prayed a blessing. A Mass and procession followed.
The West Harlem visit May 20-24 included a side trip on May 23 to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the parish church for the Archdiocese of New York.
Excitement crackled during the Friday afternoon preparations inside the 121-year-old church.
Father Gilberto Ángel-Neri, the pastor who helped unpack the reliquary, said his parish is all “all-immigrant” with members from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. He added that while they are mostly working families, their cultures differ, as do their customs for adoring the mother of Jesus.
Catholics in the pastor’s native Mexico celebrate her on Dec. 12 with the feast of the Lady of Guadalupe. But the Lady of Lourdes galvanizes this parish, named in her honor, Father Ángel said.
“When we have the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes [on Feb. 11], we all come together to celebrate that,” Father Ángel said. “She brings us together no matter what. She unites us all.”
A Child’s Veracity
On Feb. 11, 1858, Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old girl from a poor family, was gathering firewood near a shallow cave about a mile from her home in Lourdes, a remote town in the far south of France, near the border of Spain.
While at the grotto, Bernadette beheld the first of 18 appearances of a “lady in white” who said she was the “Immaculate Conception.”
Four years earlier, the Church affirmed the idea of the Immaculate Conception — that original sin had no presence in the conception of Mary, Mother of Jesus.
But a local priest, Father Dominique Peyramale, realized that neither Bernadette nor anyone around her could have known anything about this Church declaration. Bernadette at 14 had little education because childhood illnesses kept her out of school.
Also, she did not understand French until later in life. Lourdes is in the Pyrenees Mountains straddling southern France and Northern Spain. In the mid-1800s, Bernadette and everyone else in this region spoke a unique dialect — Occitan.
Thus, the Lady’s identification as the Immaculate Conception was a critical determiner of the girl’s veracity. Through Bernadette, the Mother of Christ called for the washing and drinking of the water of Lourdes for healing. She also requested pilgrimages, candlelight processions, and the construction of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes.
After the apparitions, Bernadette left Lourdes in 1866 to seek a religious vocation with the Sisters of Charity community at Nevers, France. She died at age 35 of tuberculosis. In 1925, the year of her beatification, Vatican officials exhumed her body to extract several relics, including rib bone fragments, muscle tissue, and hair. Bernadette received canonization to sainthood in 1933.
To Heal Faster Than Ever
Barry Vaughn of the North American Lourdes Volunteers, based in Syracuse, explained that the sanctuary sought a U.S. tour of the relics. It subsequently partnered with Vaughn’s organization, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Hospitalité of Miami, and the Order of Malta.
The Harlem visit is part of a 23-diocese tour schedule that wraps in Los Angeles on Aug. 4. It includes stops at 34 churches, cathedrals, and shrines.
Father Ángel said that when parishes named for the Lady of Lourdes or St. Bernadette were offered the opportunity to participate, he eagerly accepted.
Vaughn said he did not know which relics are contained in the reliquary — the golden container is not opened and remains behind glass — however, the mystery did not deter those who came to venerate the relics.
Rosario’s daughter, Carolyn Landolfi, said an ulcer recently caused her mother to have intense stomach surgery. She hoped her mother would heal “faster than ever” having been in the presence of the saint’s relics.
“We have always known [St. Bernadette] to heal people from the sickness,” said Landolfi, bookkeeper for the parish. “I am so glad and excited because I brought my mom. And she’s loving it.”