Harlem church packed for veneration of relics of Saint Bernadette during first American tour
HARLEM — Gasps mixed with clicks of cameras as three men, including the parish priest, hoisted an ornate reliquary bearing the relics of Saint Bernadette onto a table at the Church of Our Lady in Lourdes.
The May 20 event at the church in Hamilton Heights was part of the first-ever American relic tour that began in April. Some of the nuns and volunteers who helped prepare the Friday evening mass and veneration wept with joy upon seeing 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 Saint Bernadette, visionary of Holy Mother Mary in mid-1800s France.
Everyone knelt in prayer before the relics. Many handed personal religious items – rosaries, statuettes, holy cards – to a serving nun, who pressed them against the glass surrounding the reliquary and fervently prayed a blessing. A mass and a procession followed.
The May 20-24 West Harlem tour included a May 23 trip to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the parish church of the Archdiocese of New York.
Excitement crackled during Friday afternoon preparations inside the 121-year-old church.
Father Gilberto Ángel-Neri, the pastor who helped unwrap the reliquary, said his parish was entirely “immigrant” with members from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico. He added that although they are mostly working families, their cultures differ, as do their customs for worshiping the mother of Jesus.
Catholics in the pastor’s native Mexico celebrate it on December 12 with the feast of the Lady of Guadalupe. But the Lady of Lourdes energizes this parish, named in her honor, says Father Ángel.
“When we have the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes [on Feb. 11], we all come together to celebrate this,” Fr. Ángel said. “She brings us together no matter what. It unites us all.
The truthfulness of a child
On February 11, 1858, Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old girl from a poor family, was collecting firewood near a shallow cave about a mile from her home in Lourdes, a remote town in the extreme south of France, near the border of Spain.
While at the grotto, Bernadette saw the first of 18 apparitions of a “lady in white” who said she was “the Immaculate Conception”.
Four years earlier, the Church had 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 know anything about this statement from the Church. Bernadette at 14 had little schooling because childhood illnesses prevented her from going to school.
Moreover, she did not understand French until later in her life. Lourdes is located in the Pyrenees, straddling southern France and northern Spain. In the mid-1800s, Bernadette and everyone else in this area spoke a single dialect: Occitan.
Thus, the Lady’s identification as the Immaculate Conception was a critical determinant of the girl’s truthfulness. Through Bernadette, the Mother of Christ called for washing and drinking the water of Lourdes for healing. She also called for pilgrimages, candlelight processions and the construction of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes.
The water in the cave is recognized for countless healing cures recorded at the sanctuary. Bodily illnesses are a patronage of Saint Bernadette.
After the apparitions, Bernadette left Lourdes in 1866 to seek a religious vocation with the community of the Sisters of Charity in Nevers, France. She died at age 35 of tuberculosis. In 1925, the year of his beatification, Vatican officials exhumed his body to extract several relics, including rib bone fragments, muscle tissue and hair. Bernadette was canonized in 1933.
To heal faster than ever
Barry Vaughn of the Syracuse-based North American Lourdes Volunteers said the shrine was looking for a US tour of the relics. He later became associated with Vaughn’s organization, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Hospitality of Miami, and the Order of Malta.
The Harlem visit is part of a 23-diocese tour program that ends in Los Angeles on August 4. It includes stops at 34 churches, cathedrals and shrines.
Father Ángel said that when parishes named in honor of the Lady of Lourdes or Saint Bernadette were offered the opportunity to participate, he eagerly accepted.
Vaughn said he doesn’t know what relics are contained within the reliquary – the golden vessel is unopened and remains behind glass – however the mystery has not deterred those who have come to worship the relics.
Rosario’s daughter, Carolyn Landolfi, said an ulcer recently forced her mother to undergo intense stomach surgery. She hoped her mother would heal “faster than ever” after being in the presence of the saint’s relics.
“We always knew [St. Bernadette] to cure people of the disease,” said Landolfi, the parish accountant. “I’m so happy and excited because I brought my mom. And she loves it.