On April 27, the Holy Relics of St. Bernadette arrived in Savannah, Georgia for two uniquely different days of veneration and celebration in honor of St. Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes. The Developing Region of the Order of Malta in Savannah Georgia was honored to be joined by colleagues from the Federal Association in Jacksonville, Florida and Bluffton, South Carolina, and colleagues from the American Association in Central Florida to support the two days of activities. The pastor of the parish, Fr. Pablo Migone, also serves as the Chancellor of the Diocese of Savannah and he warmly welcomed the participation of the members of the Order of Malta and our chaplain, Fr. Jerry Ragan, in the planning and execution of the two days of celebration.
Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church is a historic church in the Savannah Diocese with a rich history as a mission parish since its founding in 1940 and today, as it serves as a mission parish to Savannah’s Hispanic community. In 1916-1917, the Savannah Sugar Refinery relocated to Port Wentworth from Louisiana. Many who relocated from Louisiana were Catholic so a mission of Saint Patrick Parish was established using the Sugar Refinery Hotel Lobby for Mass. In 1939, the Sugar Refinery loaned the land for a permanent church. On January 1, 1940, the mission church was officially named Our Lady of Lourdes. In 1958 the Pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church established an organization, known as Our Lady of Lourdes Men’s Club, as a leadership group in the parish. One of their early initiatives was to build a Grotto in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady to St. Bernadette. The Grotto was constructed facing on the parish grounds facing the roadside, inviting all who pass by to a moment of respite and prayer.
It was at this site, on two mild spring days, that pilgrimages were made by hundreds of faithful to prayerfully venerate the Holy Relic of St. Bernadette and participate in liturgies dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. From the moment the doors opened each day until late into the evening, a continuous stream of the faithful, many of whom were overwhelmed with emotion, walked through the doors of this historic church. People came from near and far – from Savannah, Valdosta, Macon, Augusta and Statesboro Georgia; Columbia, South Carolina; northern Florida and even vacationers from Ohio who were visiting Hilton Head, SC. Members of the Order stood with the Holy Relics as an honor guard throughout both days and fully participated in the evening liturgies including Mass, Marian Candlelight Processions, recitation of the Litany of the Saints and the Rosary in the Grotto. The Savannah Region prepared gifts for the hundreds of participants which included a small bottle of Lourdes Water, the Order of Malta Prayers for the Sick pamphlet, and Prayer Cards secured in a small white silk mesh bag.
April 27th was designed to provide opportunities for private veneration and celebration in English. Individual opportunity to venerate the Holy Relic occurred throughout the day where members of the Order stood as an honor guard, and in the evening, Mass was celebrated followed by a Candlelight Procession from the Church to the Grotto where the Litany of the Saints was recited. On April 28th, the celebrations were designed to support the worship familiar to the Hispanic community in the Savannah Diocese. After a full day of private veneration supported by the Order of Malta honor guard, a virtual Lourdes Pilgrimage in Spanish was hosted by the North American Volunteers – an English Virtual Pilgrimage had been hosted two months earlier in the Savannah Diocese. This was followed by a Marian Procession with parishioners serving as the Marian bearers with blue silk scarves flowing in the evening breeze. Following the Marian Statue were the faithful of all ages reciting the rosary in Spanish. Between every decade of the Rosary a guitar group played a Marian Hymn while the faithful gathered in a circle around the Madonna and joined in song, raising their voices to Our Lady. The procession wound around the church, along the street and ended in the Grotto where a Litany of the Saints was recited. Many participants returned to the church in prayer before the Holy Relic late into the night.
HISTORY OF OUR LADY OF LOURDES GROTTO, PORT WENTWORTH
Early in 1958 the Pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, Rev. Francis Donohue formed an organization known as Our Lady of Lourdes Men’s Club with the intent of bringing together the men of the parish to stimulate interest within the Parish by undertaking worthwhile projects. When officers of the organization had been elected, a search for a worthy project began headed by the club’s president, Bill Sullivan. In pursuit of a worthwhile project, Fr. Donohue mentioned the fact that the year 1958 marked the centenary of Our Lady’s appearance at Lourdes to Bernadette and since they were named a parish in honor of that occasion that it would be nice if in some way their activities could honor Our Lady. Thus, and idea was born: why not build a Grotto. Then, why not a roadside Grotto so that all people local or transit could share the pleasure of spending just a few minutes at the site of a Grotto not at Lourdes, France, but right in Georgia USA in a parish named in honor of Mary Mother of God.
The next step involved the research as to what the Grotto of Lourdes looked like. Did the men know anyone who had been to Lourdes? No one. Where could they obtain the information as to the structure? Should it be built of cement block? How much would it cost? How long would it take to build it? There were so many questions with no answers that to many it seemed hopeless. Then, Our Lady took over. A friend of a friend had a post card sent to her from Lourdes with a picture of the Grotto on it. Their blueprint for the Grotto replica was one tiny postcard.
Construction began when Mr. Sam Finley donated the ballast (stones) that had been used by the early cargo ships coming into the Port of Savannah. Parishioners with pick-up trucks made numerous trips to canal at the foot of the viaduct at the main entrance to the city to load the stone for the Grotto. The construction of the Grotto became a labor of love by the men of the parish. It did not cost the parish or the Diocese a dime. When gasoline was needed for the machinery, it was supplied with no charge. When sand and cement were depleted, it was mysteriously replaced on the site the night. When pipe, tubing, wiring supplies would be delivered by vendors and no one knew who purchased it, and the vendor claimed he just had orders to deliver.
The result stands as a beautiful prayer to Our Lady of Lourdes, situated in the midst of miles of shipping containers from the Port of Savannah and a sugar refinery on what used to be a major highway and now appears as a small two-lane road. But the beauty of the Grotto remains unchanged and continues to offer respite to those that pass by.