Each year millions of faithful make the pilgrimage to Lourdes in search of healing or simply peace. For an intrepid Australian woman and her mother, the promise of peace was so powerful they have relocated permanently to run a guest house for pilgrims …
More than five million faithful make the pilgrimage each year to Lourdes, the French town at the foot of the Pyrenees where Our Lady appeared to St Bernadette.
More than half are sick or elderly, with some seeking a cure from the spring nearby the Grotto of Massabielle, and many have an unwavering devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes.
Sydney lawyer Jessica Dal Busco, 32, did not count herself among them.
For Jess, Lourdes was a requisite stop for any Catholic travelling in France but she wasn’t expecting to find a miracle.
Or Australian hosts.
Natalie Fernandes, 35, established Juniper’s Holiday Apartments with her mother, Tricia, 63.
“I always say our arrival here to Lourdes was by accident,” she says.
After 10 years as director of operations for a hotel in Beverly Hills, California, hotel, Natalie had decided it was time “to take a break, downsize, and travel”. She returned to Australia but the wanderlust soon resurfaced and she took off again, this time with 60-year-old Tricia, a psychologist and hypnotherapist.
Tricia’s retirement dream had included a house in Spain, near family in her native Ireland.
Uninspired after days on the road, they crossed the border into France for a break and “loved it”, Natalie says.
“Once we got home to Australia, I started looking at real estate in France. I saw some places and decided I wanted a hotel in France. So Mum’s retirement house became my hotel dream.”
Tricia’s response to her daughter’s suggestion was nothing short of astonishment.
“I said: ‘That is a holy place! People only go there to heal the sick, people don’t go there to live. And, besides, you don’t speak French’.”
Natalie was undeterred and later departed Australia for Lourdes with her mum on-side, and by her side.
“It was a day never to be forgotten,” Tricia says. “As we entered the village of Lourdes in France, Natalie was totally elated on arrival. Her whole face was glowing and without any hesitation and without even seeing the Sanctuary of Our Lady, Natalie turns to me and said, ‘Mam, I am home now, I am not leaving Lourdes. This is it’.
“She said this with such a glow that is indescribable to explain that I knew this was the right thing to do was to just to support her.”
The mother-daughter team set about researching local properties and soon found a four-storey building suitable for holiday apartments.
Natalie quickly agreed on a price for the “grubby falling-apart building” and, in her mum’s words, “decided to trust and have faith that this will work out somehow”.
In transforming the fixer-upper into a comfortable oasis for travellers, Tricia and Natalie were determined to do much of the work themselves. When they did call in professionals, things didn’t always go according to plan.
“We had terrible disasters with builders taking off with our money and not finishing work.
“The roof now leaks. It didn’t before the work started.”
The building comprises three studio apartments and a tiny travel goods shop on the ground floor.
Both women live on-site for the time being, and are proud of the lodgings they provide for guests.
“We have tried to make everything as comforting as home. We have travelled a lot, so we understand what it’s like to want clean, comfortable and welcoming place to stay,” Tricia says.
While they have had guests from around the world, both get a special thrill when Australians arrive.
“So far the comments are just amazing from our Aussies,” she says.
“So many comments on just how wonderful it is to come to France and find such a haven and to meet Natalie that is so warm and welcoming after travelling and being back with an Aussie again.”
While many Australians, Catholic or not, have no idea what to expect of Lourdes, the pair makes sure guests make the most of their visit, from a dip in the famous baths to an evening candlelit procession.
“They are not sure themselves what they are looking for when they come to Lourdes,” she says.
Jess was one such Aussie traveller.
“Initially, I just wanted to see it, I just wanted to say that I had been there,” she says.
She had previously been on pilgrimage through the Holy Land and, despite not having a great devotion to Our Lady, settled on five days at the famed pilgrimage site as part of a trip that also took in Rome and Assisi.
Jess had booked the apartment online, unaware of the little piece of home that would await her.
When Natalie greeted her at the train station, they bonded instantly, two Aussie girls 17,000km from home.
“We just hit it off and they just started telling me their story, and the stories of other pilgrims they had met. It was beautiful, because I was travelling by myself.”
Jess says this reception “really made the experience more beautiful”.
“From the minute I got there, I could feel the energy [at Lourdes],” she says.
She described the Sanctuary as “beautiful, loving, light-filled”.
“I don’t like to say it’s a magical place, but it felt like a very special place.”
Ultimately, many travellers come “just to find peace”, says Tricia who, along with her daughter, has found exactly that as a resident of Lourdes.
“We have found peace in our lives, no miracles – not that we came for any – but a very strong sense of peace and wholeness,” Natalie says. “I guess that in itself is the miracle.”
Natalie’s run through town each morning – itself a miracle, she says, as she “was never very athletic before”, has taken on a spiritual significance.
“The mid-point of my run is at the Sanctuary; usually as I pass through I sit for a moment,” she says.
“It’s these moments that are like a wave washing over you and I feel such sense of calm and energy to go forward.”
And when things have become tough, there have been unexplained moments to keep them going.
“One particular experience that I recall not long after we arrived here,” Natalie says, “we were both out this particular morning, it was dark, the sun was starting to come up, we were rugged up with layers of clothing, gloves, and ear muffs, and as we were walking through the Sanctuary hot air burst past us.
“At first I thought I was imagining it because we were in the middle of open spaces, then it happened again, and at the same time Mum and I said to each other: ‘Did you just feel that?’
“I am not sure what it was, on that freezing icy morning. It was so energising to the soul, almost like we were being told ‘welcome home’.”
Tricia says every day she wakes in Lourdes is a spiritual experience.
“Each day we are trusting in life’s directions … despite all the financial difficulties, and the struggles of dodgy builders robbing money from us and leaving us high and dry financially with still incomplete work.
“But each day we continue to experience miracles in our daily lives. So far we have not had one hungry day.”
The challenges have not dampened Natalie and Tricia’s passion for what they do.
They plan to remain in Lourdes and dream of expanding their business with the acquisition of a larger property.
With Tricia’s training, the two hope to offer the comforts of a bed-and-breakfast for the body, with Catholic counselling services for the mind and soul.
“I hope to provide spiritual and grief counselling for the many people coming into Lourdes that are experiencing so much grief in their lives, which is, for many, the reason they come,” Tricia says.
As the busy tourist season winds down in Lourdes, the pair will soon travel to Australia for Christmas with family.
They will then return to their new home in France to continue what Tricia describes simply as “living the dream”.
Bookings: Juniper’s Holiday Apartments