[Editor’s Note: Saint-Jean the Baptist church in Lowell caught on fire on 21 November 1912 and re-opened after extensive repairs had been completed it officially re-opened on 28 April 1915. The following year a souvenir and historical album was issued for the occasion. The following article, by an unknown author, is taken from this publication and translated from the French.]
Lourdes in Lowell
Lourdes in Lowell. There is no other way to describe the wonderful day of September 4, 1911; it was without a doubt the most beautiful religious event the city has ever seen. This spontaneous event turned out to be comparable to the most superb processions of Lourdes itself. It’s possible that those who will read this account may find it exaggerated, but not so for those who experienced this wonderful day.
Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes
It’s barely one year since the idea was presented in a very vague manner and with some hesitation, only a feeler, to see if the parishioners of St-Joseph’s Parish would support the idea. The parish bulletin had quietly introduced the project with an article entitled, “Is this dream possible?”
The dream was to construct a grotto in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes on the grounds of the Orphanage; it would be a monumental work comparable in size and detail to the one in Lourdes, France. The goal was to give the poor orphans an idea of their heavenly mother, while forgetting as much as possible that they no longer had one here on earth.
As it turns out this dream was taken to heart and the majority of the people wanted to see it become reality.
In the mind of its promoters this dream could be realized in 5 to 6 years at best. Thanks to everyone’s generosity, it came to pass in less than 6 months.
Now it stands, with a strong frame of iron and cement, and the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, a gift from two generous sisters, illuminates this monument with its white light and celestial smile. Oh! How dreams, even the most audacious ones, quickly find their way to Lowell.
It was toward the end of June that the thought of making the occasion of the blessing of the Grotto a major event. It seemed a good idea and Father Watelle sent a letter to all parish organizations requesting their opinion – all were in agreement, and a committee was formed. The project immediately took off in a wise and solid fashion.
It’s impossible to describe all the efforts made in preparation for the procession for this occasion. Be it known that all these were unanimous and spontaneous. Most admirable are the facts that this was accomplished with a shortage of workers and a lack of funds.
We would be at fault not to mention the capabilities of the general committee and the zeal exhibited by the parishioners of Pawtucketville.
The Grand Day
All the week before it had rained. The outlook was not good for the procession. We were quite anxious, fearing the bad weather would ruin everything. The thought that foul weather would ruin the results of all our efforts was discouraging.
Monday morning the sky was perfect; not one cloud – we breathe a little easier. It was going to be a beautiful day. From three or four o’clock on, the streets came to life. Hammers were banging away and houses on the procession route were being tastefully decorated. A festive feeling of joy permeated the air – everyone was at ease– and happy. Today would be an absolute success. Throughout the day extraordinary activities were seen in all the streets. The crowd is punctuated by the colorful costumes of various bugle corps. Closer to the orphanage there was even more activity – the crowd was like a human river – people had trouble making their way through it. The Orphanage itself was being transformed as we looked at it. Its decorations were numerous, rich and elegant as compared to the bland and trite ones used for legal holidays. Inside the building it was like a beehive with everyone gaily coming and going; the children were dressed as pages in costumes that were the result of hard work by the good sisters. On the grounds visitors are fed. In the distance the orphans’ float is being decorated. In one corner of the yard a group of young girls is preparing ribbons and bouquets to decorate theirs. And way in the back, still unadorned, the grotto stands like a strong, black mass.
At about 1:30 the streets neighboring the general area of the Procession Committee were crammed to the point that it was nearly impossible to move. The floats and participating organizations took their assigned position. The captains of the various corps reviewed their group. A long, multi-colored ribbon makes its way through the crowd like a serpent. Everyone murmurs, “It’s the orphans, what a beautiful sight.” Suddenly the bugle sounds. The bells of the City Hall ring through the air with a solemnity befitting a momentous occasion – that’s the signal. The procession, in an admirable display of precision, begins, led by the Chief Marshall and two assistants, all three on horseback.
We are at the present time near the City Hall. We look around and behold an amazing spectacle. Every window is crowded with onlookers. The sidewalks can hold no more spectators, and the street, as wide as it is, is completely filled, almost as far as the eye can see, with the 2nd regiment of the Brigade of Franco-American Volunteers and other bugle corps from all around. It’s a panoramic sight of rifles, sabers and flags resembling the activities of an ant colony.
At the City Hall, the Mayor, surrounded by his counselors and other dignitaries, waited to review the procession. His Honor was most affable and welcoming when the car carrying Fathers Watelle, O.M.I., Lefebvre, O.M.I. and Paquette, O.M.I., arrived. All of them were seated in the front row of the reviewing stand.
The long and picturesque line of the four divisions of the procession arrives at the City Hall. First is the 2nd Regiment of the Franco-American Volunteers Brigade that advances in perfect order and as they pass by the religious and civil authorities they execute a right face and raise their swords.
The second division is composed of our national organizations. This is where we begin to see floats, which reflect the History of Canada, especially as it relates to the Blessed Virgin. We were asked which float was the best. Impossible to say. They were all tastefully done especially the one depicting the virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, the one representing Jacques Cartier erecting a cross on the shores of the St-Lawrence river, another of Champlain consecrating Québec to the Blessed Virgin, the one of Lafayette and Washington.
How graceful were the ones representing Jeanne Mance, and the Fifteen mysteries of the Rosary and the one of the Catholic Association, and “les Dames du Bon Secours”. Due to a lack of space we regret that we can only mention without comments the floats of “France et Canada”, “les Enfants de Marie”, “les Demoiselles de Notre-Dame de Lourdes”, “les Reverendes Soeurs Grises de la rue Moody”. All of these were simple yet inspirational and beautiful. How we would like to forget nothing and mention all the names. It’s impossible to do, space will not permit it. In fact, we can only mention “La Sainte-Famille” without further comment in order to touch upon the floats devoted to the little orphan girls, not elaborate but artistically decorated. Finally, the float carrying the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, pulled by 6 white horses led by six men in medieval costumes appeared. She was surrounded by a group of orphans dressed as pages. From her hands, ribbons stretched out to little orphan girls holding bouquets.
Arrival of the Procession
It was the most solemn moment of all. We saw many people in tears. Nearly 1,500 young girls, “Congréganistes” and “Enfants de Marie” lined up, loudly singing a Marian hymn and one by one the Bugle Corps cease playing as they arrived. The guardsmen stood at attention and presented their swords. Eighty orphans. dressed in blue and in groups of four filled the center aisle. As soon as the float carrying the statue arrived, ( the only one admitted on the grounds), the orphan boys intone the “Magnificat” and the girls offer crowns of flowers. It takes about a half hour to reach the grotto while maneuvering through the immense crowd. Once arrived, the orphans come stand in front of the altar, the statue is positioned in the grotto and the float leaves. The grotto is now complete and the statue seems to smile at the throng. Rev. Father Watelle, visibly exhausted, speaks from the pulpit. “Oh, how often,” says he, “has my heart been overcome with sadness as I stand at the foot of the bed of a dying mother. I can never control my emotions. With hands turned cold by the approaching death, eyes filled with their last tears, lips already pale, these mothers would say to me: ‘Oh, Father, I’m not afraid of death; but these poor children, what will become of them without their mother?’ “ “I wanted to give these orphans that you see here before you, a picture of their Heavenly Mother. It seemed to me they would not be so sad when each day they could see the image of their Mother of Heaven. This is why, with your generosity, I undertook the construction of this grotto”.
After his short allocution the throng again takes up the hymn to Mary. In the meantime a short procession is organized to go to the Orphanage chapel and return with the Blessed Sacrament. When it returns, the faithful fall to their knees as the canopy, escorted by 40 orphans passes by. The benediction is performed by Bishop Provost of Fall River. Following the blessing, Fr. Watelle pronounces some invocations and this concludes the ceremony. Slowly the crowd disperses, but with the promise to return later for the candlelight procession.
The Candlelight Procession
This procession had been slated for 8 P.M. At that time the seemingly immense area of the Orphanage grounds is so populated it was impossible to even approximate the number of people gathered. “Les Enfants de Marie” and “Les Demoiselles de Notre-Dame de Lourdes”, each young girl carrying a lit candle, work their way toward the Grotto. Soon the orphans, also with lit candles, join them. Following the praying of the Rosary, the procession begins. It was a procession that defies description. It began at 8 o’clock and marched around the property. When the start of this religious spectacle returned to the starting point one hour and fifteen minutes later, the last ones had barely left. For more than two hours it was a religious spectacle of candlelight, hymns and Hail Marys throughout the grounds. The streets in the area of the Orphanage were mobbed – nothing like this had ever been seen in Lowell. As the procession winds down, the orphans meet at the foot of the grotto to pray for their benefactors, a practice they will continue on a daily basis. When the hymns and prayers cease the children begin chanting the “De Profundis.”
The ceremony is over. For many it is hard to leave this holy place. They remain, singing and praying. By eleven o’clock most people have left. The lights go out. Silence reigns. But around the Grotto the burning candles illumine the statue of the Blessed Virgin. She seems more beautiful than ever. The orphans are asleep in their big dormitories. They can sleep peacefully, these poor children. Henceforth Our Lady of Lourdes watches over them and blesses them.