From an old Roman
My mother, who was Irish, used to gather us together after tea to say the Rosary. We each had our own decade to lead and pity help anyone who “pinched” someone else’s decade.
So when a group of Australian seminarians was sent to the Pontifical Urban College for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome (aka “Prop”) for further studies in August 1957, a visit to Lourdes on the way had to be a possibility. The Suez Crisis had finished in March and we didn’t know whether our ship would get through the Suez Canal. These were the days before cheap air travel; five weeks to Europe by ship, students went steerage.
We disembarked at Genoa and caught trains which took us to Lourdes in the Pyrenees in a very cold and wet autumn. We booked in to the Casa del’ Clero and went straight over to the grotto. Even in the wet and cold there were many pilgrims there and we happily joined them at Mass at the Grotto and the Rosary.
One of the things Our Lady said to Bernadette was to drink the water in the spring and wash in it. I clearly remember the scene in the film “The Song of Bernadette” where this was portrayed. The spring was not there until Bernadette dug for it and then it was mud and she washed her face with the muddy water. So we went off to investigate this.
We found the men’s baths, an old building which looked like a shearing shed filled with concrete troughs 2 metres by 1 metre by 1 metre deep filled with water from the spring. Each of the troughs was curtained off for privacy and there were several men assisting the pilgrims and a priest who was saying the Rosary.
After changing into swimmers, I had to stand thigh deep in the trough of freezing cold water for ten minutes reciting a list of prayers. When the prayers were finished, the assistant’s offsider appeared and without warning they grabbed me on either side and dunked me in that freezing water three times.
I came out of it coughing and spluttering and one of them scooped up a tin mug full of the water that I – and how many others I don’t know – had been dunked in and said “Drink”. I apologised to St Bernadette for laughing at her muddy face and drank.
My friends were waiting for me in the Dressing room with the news that there were no towels for drying yourself, you put your clothes on while wet. From that wet and cold place that autumn afternoon I recalled the Rosary being prayed on a spring evening that joined me to the rough and tumble of family life on the other side of the world. And I wondered who had “pinched” my decade.