Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
December 30th, 2009

Mary Was Here

A pilgrimage for my two mothers



The summer of 2008 was to be a particularly busy season at Lourdes, as it marked the 150th anniversary year of the apparitions of Mary. I was assigned to work in the Piscines (Baths in French), where thousands have traveled to bathe in the same healing waters that have flowed freely since 1858. There are 17 baths in all, separated for men, women, and infants. The volunteers arrive at 8:15 in the morning; long lines of people begin forming as early as 6 a.m. We start each shift by praying decades of the rosary in English, French, and Spanish. The words of the Hail Mary in French — “Je vous salue, Marie, pleine de grâces” — still echo in my mind.


There is an otherworldly feeling within the walls of the Piscines. The entire experience was an emotional overload, to say the least, that ran the gamut from humility (witnessing an international devotion to Our Lady) to joy (being hugged and kissed by many pilgrims after their immersion into the water) to strife (carrying stretchers with paralyzed children into the baths.) The intensity of trying to lift a person properly while maintaining a reverent demeanor was only part of the challenge; oftentimes the other volunteers didn’t speak English. Words like si and oui became invaluable, as did gracias and merci. I found that nodding my head in obedience worked wonders, even when I didn’t understand what I was agreeing to. The rumor among many of the older generations was that the younger “Americanos” were lazy, so I worked even harder. I was lucky to be reprimanded only once — by a stern and bossy directress who slapped my hand and spoke very good English when she said, “I detest gum chewers!” I fought back tears and considered not going back the next day. Then, I met Annalise.

Annalise just laughed. “I only volunteer at Lourdes two weeks a year; I sin the other fifty!” Because of her, I no longer felt like a misfit.

Annalise was my directress on the third day in the baths. As I walked towards piscine #4, Trident-free, I couldn’t believe that my boss for the day had spiked hair, a shade of red that seemed almost volcanic as it erupted into a cascade of purple bangs framing her round face. A music teacher from Holland, Annalise was in her mid-forties and spoke three languages. Her uncanny resemblance to Cyndi Lauper contrasted severely with the starched and solemn majority of directors, and it was admiration at first sight. Annalise embraced me as I walked into her room. When I confessed to her my fear of being “not holy,” and told her of my many screw-ups from the previous two days, she reassured me that soon I would have the job down. “I’m a sinner,” she said matter-of-factly. I smoke, I’m divorced, and sometimes I even have two boyfriends at a time: one for Monday through Friday, the other for weekends!” Instantly, I adored her. In fact, she became my hero. “I’m probably going to hell,” she said. I protested this, but Annalise just laughed. “I only volunteer at Lourdes two weeks a year; I sin the other fifty!” Because of her, I no longer felt like a misfit.


I also met Rosa, a beautiful Italian woman in her early fifties. When we met for the first time, there was an instant sense of recognition. Rosa was tall and thin, and had a meticulous yet gentle approach to the work. She wore glasses and navy blue Crocs, an endearing part of otherwise solemn attire. Rosa patiently mentored me in the proper way to lift pilgrims in and out of the water, going so far as to say “Prego!” after one difficult shift, even though I was still struggling. By the end of the day, it was as if we were family, despite her few words of English and my vague comprehension of Italian.

When I was assigned to work with her in the children’s baths on my last day, she clapped her hands and kissed me on both cheeks as I entered the room — as if we were teenage best friends who’d just found out they’d be in the same homeroom. To this day, I miss her. In my mind’s eye, I can see that August afternoon where, without words, we immersed infants into the Lourdes water. I would never again be the same after that.

At night, I think about Rosa, and the hundred or so other women who worked and prayed together in those stone baths as earnestly as soldiers in battle. I remember the faces of women from France, Italy, Spain, Croatia, Holland, and Ireland who at this moment are united by the bonds formed in those baths, and who right now are praying to the same Mother who led us there in the first place.

At the end of the week, we wrote down our prayer requests and left them in the Grotto, where they would be prayed over at mass and eventually burned.

“How then, would Mary receive them?” I ask. My roommate Karen, a young French teacher from California, answers, “Mary doesn’t need to read our requests. She already knows what’s in our hearts.” It was then I remembered Mary Poppins, the magical nanny, and how she’d received her children’s request even though the paper had been incinerated. My roommate thought this analogy was a bit far-fetched; truly, one can’t compare a Disney character with the Mother of God. Yet, I couldn’t help but see evidence of the miraculous in both. As children, we’re able to accept miracles without question, as Jane and Michael did. As adults, it’s much harder. Too often, the burden of proof becomes just that — a burden. One of the miracles I experienced in Lourdes was the realization that miracles are indeed possible, however rare and elusive they might seem.

In the aftermath of my pilgrimage, I tried to explain the miracles of Lourdes to people back home. It wasn’t easy. How can you explain that which is inexplicable? I decided to stick to the facts. I bought 75 postcards of Lourdes, and wrote the same three words on each: Mary was here…

Originally published May 6, 2009.

Pages: 1 2

The Author : Carolyn J. Martone
Carolyn Martone is a graduate of Fordham University and the State University of New York at New Paltz. In 2012 she received a three-month artist-in-residence fellowship to the Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico, where she finished the screenplay, "Upstate," which is in development for television. She lives in Los Angeles.
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  • Ginny Kubitz Moyer

    This is so gorgeous, Carolyn — thanks for writing about your experience with such honesty and grace. It touches a chord with me (a big Mary fan who also had a bit of an unexpected experience in Lourdes once upon a time). I adore the connection to Mary Poppins, too! — you look at Mary in such a fresh way. Thank you for that.

  • jim

    Very well done. Part of what makes pop culture popular is that it is easy to relate to-the Tao of Pooh explained Taoism in a way that connected something we know and understand to a larger philosophy-and this is what I feel you were able to do with your 2 Marys. Start with where we are, and get us to where you want us to be.
    Again, very well done.

  • Andy

    Another beautiful piece of writing – thank you for sharing your gift with us.

  • Jack P.

    Has this writer published anything else? This is really interesting.

  • Sheila Jordan

    You touched my heart! How wonderful to be able to put such an important part of your life into a beautiful collection of words. God Bless you and stay with your writing!

  • Laurie Morse

    It’s a beautiful piece Carolyn…takes me back to a tough time in your life, and I’m very happy that you are writing about it now…very cathartic I’m sure. You are a prolific writer my dear.

  • John E. Slattery

    Well written and deeply moving.
    Thank you for your faith.

  • Michelle Irons

    I loved this article. Carolyn’s writing style captured me from the first paragraph and I couldn’t stop reading, even as my three children began climbing on my lap. When it ended, I wished for more. What a wonderful tribute to both of your mothers!

  • Joel.


    You are such an exceptional writer. Thanks for sharing your story with us. Please continue to write!

  • Tianna Pettinger

    Thank you for sharing such intimate personal accounts in such a way that we could all see pieces of ourselves in you. The story is at once only yours and everyone’s.

  • Sadie

    This article was beautiful. My grandmother was devoted to Mary and prayed the rosary daily. And it was Carolyn’s Mom’s rosary that I held in my pocket the day I went on my own journey looking for a mother 3 years ago. It was only through the many prayers to Mary that I found my daughter’s birthmother that day, and am now a mother myself. Another one of Mary’s miracles to be thankful for this Mother’s Day.

  • Lisa Gendron

    Beautifully expressed. The feminine divine, compassion and strength shine through. Thank you for sharing this Carolyn.

  • Kate Murphy

    Amazing! I just returned from the funeral of my 95 year old grandmother who had a strong devotion to Mary and reading this article just sent chills down my spine. Carloyn, your writing is so powerful! I felt like I was right there with you. Thank you for sharing that with us all! Can’t wait to pass it along to everyone…

  • Anne Moscinski

    What a comforting piece to read as I approach Mother’s Day weekend. I awoke missing my own mother – as I do most days – althought she’s been gone 12 years. My mother was especially devoted to Mary – as I write this I sit near mom’s statue of Mary. The veil on her head is still stained with my mom’s lipstick from her early morning and late night kisses to start and end her days. Thank you for this heartfelt and well articulated story.

  • Mary Beth Dunne

    I loved the comparison to Mary Poppins! Miracles require the ability to be open to see – just as Carolyn became more open and was tranformed. Great story. Great writing. Thought provoking.

  • Gloria Darrah

    Excellent and beautifully written account of actual happenings. Love the way you write. God bless and keep writing.

  • Dave Cooper

    Your well said words cry and sing the thoughts we often fear to share and the miracles we can recognize only in doing so. Thank you.

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