A 15-year record number of supported pilgrims taking part helped make the 65th Diocese of Middlesbrough Pilgrimage to Lourdes a resounding success.

The pilgrimage was led by Bishop Terry assisted by about a third of the priests from our diocese, as well as hundreds of pilgrims from Middlesbrough, Hull, York, Scarborough and surrounding areas.

Most flew out in two specially chartered flights from Durham Tees Valley Airport, with others making their own way to the French shrine by air, coach and train.

“It really was a wonderful week,” said pilgrimage executive director Keith Tillotson. “As always, we had plenty of issues to deal with, but they were all sorted and we overcame any challenges.

“I’d like to give huge thanks to everyone for their help, support, friendship and camaraderie, including the clergy, doctors, nurses, handmaids and brancardiers, our teachers and youth leaders and musicians.”

The organising committee introduced a number of changes to this year’s programme, taking into account feedback from previous pilgrimages.

They included a free Saturday morning the day after arrival, with the traditional Stations of the Cross moving to the afternoon, although this service had to be cancelled due to intermittent rain that returned at intervals throughout the week but failed to dampen anyone’s spirits.

There were also two trips out for meals in hotels in the town and a first opportunity for all our supported pilgrims to take a ride on the famous Little Lourdes Road Train.

“The slightly more relaxed start worked very well and enabled all our pilgrims to get to know their new surroundings or visit the town or the Grotto at their own pace,” said Keith.

“Because of the far larger numbers of supported pilgrims we didn’t have a day out this year, but instead enjoyed lunch and a sing-song alongside some of our youth in the Agena Hotel on Tuesday, where there was an amazing atmosphere, with the waiters dancing along with us.

“Then on Wednesday they were treated to fine dining and more entertainment in the Gallia & Londres, which was the first time our supported pilgrims have ever eaten in a restaurant with chandeliers while they were in Lourdes!”

The young people who attended were all treated to an ice-cream and Bishop Terry congratulated former chaplain to the sick Father Brian Nicholson’s on the 40th jubilee of his priesthood, with a special cake being provided to mark the occasion.

“The music in the Agena was fantastic, with a spine-tingling rendition of The Fields of Athenry from the brancardiers, and everyone enjoyed the afternoon so much,” said head brancardier Tony Kirk.

“The Gallia & Londres was far more challenging logistically, but the supported pilgrims loved it and that’s what it’s all about. Not one of them came out afterwards without a smile on their faces.

“The opportunity for the diocese to have our very own Middlesbrough International Mass in the Underground Basilica on Wednesday was fantastic. About 40 people from other countries turned up for our Mass, not realising the real International Mass had been moved to the Thursday.

“We greeted them and explained it would be all in English but that they were welcome to stay and most of them did. Bishop Terry also welcomed them all in French and Spanish at the start of Mass.”

In another change to the publicised programme, at the request of youth leaders Andrew Gardner and Father Phil Cunnagh, the planned Youth Mass was merged with that day’s pilgrims’ Mass. During the service, young people from schools and colleges throughout the diocese took part in beautiful liturgical led by Andrew and handmaid Naomi O’Neill as the music group sang We Come To Your Feast, by Michael Joncas.

“I was at the back with all the big, gruff brancardiers and there wasn’t a dry eye anywhere near me, it was amazing,” added Tony.

Head handmaid Chris Tillotson said: “There was a wonderful sense of family throughout our pilgrimage and especially in the Accueil this year. To me, the way such a mixed bag of people as we are come together and provide the care we do is a Lourdes miracle.

“I loved night prayers in the hospital, particularly on the Monday night when two of our supported pilgrims, Tony Robinson and Tommy Wright, spoke to young people from Trinity College in Middlesbrough and the Sacred Heart, Redcar.

“Tommy was very emotional and told them how his wife had died in Lourdes and that he didn’t know why he wanted to come back after all these years until he saw his granddaughter, Beth Taylor, carrying the banner in the procession. He said he sobbed the whole way round and knew then why Our Lady was calling him back. Everybody in that crowded room was in tears and Tommy was a hero to them for the rest of the week.

“Another highlight was the tea party, which this year was held together with the Diocese of Birmingham. We had to go out an buy fresh food because of a problem with the fridge, but everyone pulled together to make sure the party could go ahead.   

“We didn’t forget out supported pilgrims in the hotels and a team joined them for coffees and walks and gave them breaks. Pat McBride, Marie Kilgallon, Stevie Read and Sally Ferguson offering treatments such as Indian head massages, foot massages and hand and nail therapies, which are very much appreciated.

“The feedback has been overwhelming. One lady said she’d been on the earth 76 years and never seen anything like it. One thing that saddened me was knowing that at least one of our supported pilgrims was going back to an empty house afterwards. We can’t do anything about that, but for at least one week everyone felt loved and cared for.”

Head of hospitalité John Brown added: “The teamwork of all our handmaids, brancardiers, doctors and nurses working in the Accueil was a lovely sight to behold. This was much appreciated by our supported pilgrims and many told me they were blown away by the dedication and effort shown by all. We were led in beautiful liturgies by our clergy and musicians at our services, bringing out whole Lourdes family together in prayer.”

A total of 95 supported pilgrims and their carers took part in the pilgrimage, 57 in the Accueil and 38 staying in hotels.

Lourdes pilgrims who have recently died were remembered in our prayers, including Pat Edge, whose funeral was funeral held in Hull during the week, and two others who passed very recently, long-serving brancardier Tony Tasker, who lived in York before moving to Northern Ireland, and former matron Agnes McGrogan.

Next year’s pilgrimage dates are Friday May 24 to Friday May 31 2019. Look out later in the year for further details – and book early to avoid disappointment!