Stories from the Middlefield Archives #2 - Pilgrimages to Lourdes (by Jennifer)

I don’t want everything to be about me as that is not what the Hidden Lives Remembered Project is about. It’s about remembering all those that were in Middlefield and Hampton Manor and enabling their voices to be heard.

However a recent article from Middlefield has reminded me of a time in my life that I hadn’t thought about in ages until I saw the article. I will start with my story but conclude with why we are really doing this project.

From Warwickshire County Record Office CR2941/13

The article was this one, about a Middlefield resident called Danny Fahee in 1985. The ‘Our Lady Society’ of Birmingham had raised enough money to send him on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, with “other mentally and physically handicapped pilgrims”. The date stood out to me because it was the year after I was born. I found this article heartwarming because although the residents were mostly kept hidden away in Middlefield, they also got to be a part of the community. The article doesn’t give much detail about his pilgrimage, such as where he stayed or what he did.

This article made me think about the times that I have been on pilgrimages to Lourdes. People have gone on pilgrimages there since 1858, and now over 5 million people go there every year. I have been with different organisations and had very different experiences.

Until I was 13, I went to Lourdes with a group called HCPT, the Handicapped Children’s Pilgrimage Trust. They tend to just use the acronym ‘HCPT’ rather than spelling out their name these days, which is interesting. The name never really bothered me as a child, because to me it meant going on a fun adventure. However now, I think they should look into changing the name because the word ‘handicapped’ is associated with begging and not being able to do things for yourself.

I got selected at the age of 13 to go with group 196 and again about 4 more times until I reached the age of 16 and then I started going to Lourdes with the Birmingham Archdiocese. It was fun - a whole week with no parents! We had a coach take us down to London Heathrow to get the plane, which was lots of firsts for me: first time on a coach, first time on a plane, first time away from home without my parents. I really loved it there, they were the best days ever, football, prayers and singing on the prairie, day trips to Gavarnie, I forgot till recent that we actually even went to Hosanna House in their gardens and we had face painting and various activities. Each group also does their own unique activities and we would have awards given out in our group, I got an award for being able to eat the most sausages! I really miss HCPT. You feel normal you get the opportunity to do things, make new friends; I just feel at peace in Lourdes.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have been to Lourdes, maybe 12 times. I normally stay at the hotel and am termed a ‘hotel sick pilgrim’ (‘sick’ because I am disabled – although this obviously can’t be ‘cured’!). However, 3 years ago I went as a ‘hospital sick pilgrim’ and I hated it. It felt like I was in prison, even as someone that can speak up for themselves. I don’t want to say anything too negative because I am very grateful to the people who donated, I think it was sponsorship, because they enabled me to go to Lourdes (I paid half and they paid the rest). However, I would not stay in the hospital again. My status only changed from ‘hotel’ to ‘hospital’ as the hotel we used to go to had shut down, and the hotel they now used was not accessible for me. I was no more or less ‘sick’ than before, and definitely not needing to be hospital-bound! I had no freedom. I could not go out at night to the pubs or cafes and had to go straight back to the hospital after the mass or the photos were taken instead of having a walk around town and then going for dinner etc. Breakfast, dinner and tea all had to be at the hospital.

The Accueil Notre-Dame, the hospital where I stayed

Me by my hospital bed. We stayed on wards. I’m smiling in this picture - but it was before I realised my bed actually had my name stuck on it!

Reflecting on Middlefield being a hospital and the newspaper article about Danny made me remember about my time staying at the hospital. The one thing I really did not like was being woken at 6am for breakfast when it wasn’t till 7:30. I know I need to get up early to give myself time to be ready because of my cerebral palsy but that was far too early! I get all my clothes and bag ready for the night before so all I have do in the morning is get my myself washed, breakfast and medicine. Also I didn’t like the fact that we had to wear badges of ourselves all the time as you don’t have to do that if you are staying in the hotel. The badges stated where you’re staying, your ward number etc. It was like I was being physically labelled as somebody who couldn’t look after themselves when I very clearly can. I also had to travel everywhere in a wheelchair and was not allowed to get out of it.

I did get the opportunity of going to the cachot, and then my helpers took me to a café after for a drink before taking me back to the hospital.  They were teachers from Bishop Walsh, which is my old secondary school. I felt sorry for them because they had to push me up a steep hill to get to the cachot. We also got to do the torchlight procession twice, arranged by the staff which I loved, I love the torchlight procession. I would have liked to have explored Lourdes and revisited all the old places that we used to go with the Birmingham Archdiocese and with HCPT. As an adult ‘hospital sick pilgrim’ I actually had a lot less freedom and got to go to a lot less places than I did as a child.

My hospital badge.

The entrance to the Cachot

On the nights when we didn’t attend the torchlight procession I wanted to watch from the balcony of the hotel, but they wouldn’t allow me to go on my own and without a wheelchair, even though I said it wasn’t necessary and was able to get in the lift and walk to the balcony. Also in the morning we went to masses. One of the churches we went to, St Bernadette’s church, was walking distance for me from the hospital and I said that I could walk but they still insisted on me going in a wheelchair. They were disabling me.

The only highlight really of finally being back in Lourdes is that I did get to do some things with helpers from the Birmingham Youth Group and from my old school Bishop Walsh. Every year during May half-term a group of year 11 and sixth form students from schools all over Birmingham Archdiocese volunteer to help out in the hospital, making the beds, helping with cooking, taking us out to various places around Lourdes or to the masses. I hated the fact that they and the rest of the pilgrims get to go and have a fun time in Gavarnie, which as a child I was allowed to do, but this time us ‘hospital sick pilgrims’ just went to a lake. All we did was sit there. I did say to my 3 helpers from Bishop Walsh “can I be a part of Bishop Walsh and come to Gavarnie with you?” I love Gavarnie it is up in the mountains and you can stand on the border of Spain and France, have horse and donkey rides, and there are nice shops and things. It was freezing at the lake too. We had a picnic outside but it was so cold we ended up sitting in the café till it was time to go back to the hospital. This was the only time I actually got to go into one of the cafes on this trip, which is something I really like to do when I travel.

The really exciting lake…

Me in my wheelchair lighting candles for my loved ones.

As said I mainly had helpers from Bishop Walsh School and the Birmingham Youth Group, they did take me to light candles for loved ones, and to visit the grotto and saying bye to Mary. There is a statue of Mary and it is thought if you say Hail Mary 3 times you will return to Lourdes. Also went to the shops for gifts and got to be part of the theme for that year the Jubilee of Mercy gate, to mark the year of mercy. It was lovely looking around and also sing to my favourite song ‘Here I am to Worship’, I also got to look at the shops and buy souvenirs but again it was straight back to the hospital.

The baths in Lourdes for me is a crucial part of Lourdes, I can’t go to Lourdes without going to the baths. But when I last went I was feeling really anxious and nervous while waiting in the queue to go into the baths. As ‘hotel sick’ I was with my parents and friends, so I went in with them, (although men and women were separated). But this time I was on my own and it is an experience I wouldn’t like to repeat. I had 3 women go in with me who did not speak English and so I couldn’t communicate with them. They were getting me undressed and I was trying to explain that I was fine undressing but they didn’t understand me. They couldn’t work out how to take my leg supports off and I was trying to help them but they wouldn’t let me. Going into the bath I was scared as they wouldn’t let me hold on to anything. However, they sensed this and couple of them did hold on to me and help me down the stairs across to Our Lady and out again. This was totally different treatment to what I received as a ‘hotel sick pilgrim’, and because of my totally unnecessary labelling as a ‘hospital sick pilgrim’ it was assumed that I could not do any of these things for myself, even when I was telling people that I could.

The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception

Grotto of Massabielle

When we were waiting at Tarbes Airport to leave, we were separated from everyone else. We were kept in a room that only had toilets in it, while everyone else was in the main departure lounge. It was a very hot day and we our flights were delayed. They kept telling me to drink water and water is the worst thing for me because due to my Cerebral Palsy it means I have to go to the toilet a lot. I am more than able to make such decisions for myself, but they kept trying to make these choices for me. I hate flying, I’m scared of flying, and won’t even use a toilet on the plane. I don’t move just stay in my seat and look out the window. This whole experience made me even more nervous, and I would have much rather been in the departure lounge with everybody else, rather than locked away in a small holding pen with my anxiety. We were labelled and segregated. This was all only 3 years ago.

Going back to the article, I hope Danny enjoyed Lourdes and felt at peace there like I did. I wonder also how Danny and the other pilgrims coped with travelling to Lourdes, going by land takes 24 hours! Pilgrims today still have the option of going by land which is 24 hours on a coach or 2 hours by plane.

Danny Fahee, 1985

It is positive that Middlefield had arranged or allowed for Danny to have the break away from Middlefield. I wonder when the term ‘sick pilgrim’ started, is it because it the place where sick and disabled people go to get ‘cured’? Everyone knows the hospital in Lourdes is where all the pilgrims who are dying, ill or disabled go. The name has now been changed to ‘assisted pilgrim’, which is a bit better.

Looking back over the years with how people have lived in institutions and how the community sees people with disabilities it is still very much going on today, as my experience from 3 years ago shows. I was only living in the hospital for a week or so, but it made me wonder if this is what life was always like for somebody at Middlefield or similar places. I hope other people with disabilities, whether they’re being cared for at home, in a residential home or able to look after themselves, are able to get a chance to go to Lourdes if they want to. It is a really important part of my faith. Let’s hope Danny going will show that it is possible to arrange pilgrimages for those that wish to go and that this positive story of Middlefield will always be remembered and this is his story to share.