One of the worst things about the long Christmas holiday is that it is very difficult to get started again when the time comes to go back to work. And to make matters worse I was going on my first interview of the New Year on a Friday evening.
Kathleen and Gerard McCann had asked me to wait until about 7pm when they agreed to meet me. Not being sure of where they lived I ended up arriving at their door about 15 minutes late. As I entered their house I was glad I was a little late as Gerard was still eating his dinner. It’s always a little embarrassing when you arrive and someone is eating.
We were invited in to one of those Irish homely homes. A young boy whose name turned out to be Sean led us to the dining area and Kathleen and Gerard welcomed us like old friends. Immediately we were asked if we wanted a cup of tea and Gerard said that he would be finished with his dinner in a couple of minutes. By the time the tea arrived Gerard was ready to join us.
Kathleen McCann was quick to point out that she was only continuing the work begun by her mother over forty years ago; Cissie Maguire, who passed away in 2011. Cissie began taking people to Lourdes in 1970 and continued every year until 2010. Kathleen decided to keep the pilgrimages going in memory of her mother.
“Mum was ill for years and wanted to get to Lourdes herself. Eventually in 1969 she got the chance to go and while she was out there she got her eyes opened when she saw how the other people who were sick coped,” Kathleen began.
“While mum was out there she promised Our Lady that if she got well she would take someone to Lourdes every year. Well, she didn’t really fully recover but she lived for another forty years and was able to keep her promise.”
“Ann Marie Craig, a local woman from Toome who suffered from MS, was the first person she took out in 1970,” Kathleen said. “I was still at primary school at the time.”
From these humble beginnings “Our Lady of Lourdes Pilgrimage Society” was born. During forty years of organising with almost 60 pilgrimages, Cissie Maguire took 3,500 pilgrims to Lourdes. Many of these were sick people and helpers who were assisted in their finances.
“The people who go with us are not necessarily sick,” said Gerard, “many of them are just people who want to go to Lourdes to see it. Then we have the regulars who come every year or every two years.”
Kathleen told us one of those interesting stories that only something like the Our Lady of Lourdes Pilgrimage Society could relate.
“We once had a doctor from New Zealand come with us to Lourdes. We use Joe Walsh Tours every year and one year a doctor from New Zealand contacted Joe Walsh and asked if he could recommend a pilgrimage going to Lourdes that could use his services and where he would fit in. We needed a doctor, Joe Walsh knew about us, the match was made and he fitted in perfectly. That was in the mid nineties.”
Our Lady of Lourdes Pilgrimage Society 2012
Kathleen McCann is obviously and rightly proud of her mum. Trying to slow her down in her talk, I asked her a little about herself and her family. Gerard her husband works in building control in Magherafelt District Council. When I heard this I had to ask him a couple of questions about little building issues I had with my own place. He was very helpful.
Outside of his work with the pilgrimage society and his family, Gerard has one big passion in life; rugby.
“I was born and reared in Castledawson and I went to the Rainey in Magherafelt. I played rugby for the school and after I left I played for the club for years. I retired from the game when I turned forty and realized I couldn’t keep going with the young ones,” said Gerard.
When I heard he was from Castledawson I asked him if he knew the O’Kane family and we chatted for a while about various mutual friends from the area. That’s one of the nice things about talking to people; you get a chance to find out things about friends that you don’t already know.
Gerard also told me that he loved fishing and often goes to Donegal or down to the Moyola River to pursue his hobby. “Last year we put all the salmon back that we caught. The salmon numbers are well down and it shall take a long time for them to recover so the fishing clubs decided to put back any fish that they caught.”
Gerard and Kathleen strike you as the kind of decent people who would do things like that.
Kathleen then introduced us formally to her son Sean. Sean is twelve and goes to St Pius’ College. He has been to Lourdes every year since he was born.
“What is your favourite place in Lourdes,” I asked. “The castle,” was his instant reply. “I know my way around it and I can tell other young people on the pilgrimage all about it when we go there.” Sean told me that the castle overlooks the whole of Lourdes and gives a great vantage point for taking photos of the town.
The next thing Kathleen told me about her family is one of those gems that only an Irish person could come out with and that only an Irish person could understand.
“We’re blow ins to this part of the world. My mum was from Crossmaglen and my dad, Tommy, was from Ballycastle. There were nine of us, five boys and four girls; Tom, Seamus, Maeve, Marian, Philip, Leo, Bernadette, me and lastly Adrian.”
Here was a woman whose family had been here for at least sixty years and still considered herself and her family blow ins!
“All of us are in good health and living in this Mid Ulster area,” Kathleen told me with a sense of pride.
“My dad worked with South Derry Construction for years. He was foreman with the firm when they built the Poor Clare Convent in Belfast in the 1990s. When he died and we were clearing out his papers we found plans and notes from the job. There were also pictures and photos of the official opening that he was at along with some of the other workers.”
Gerard then told me that he had also worked on the same job with Tommy but I forgot to ask him what his job was in the firm.
Then Kathleen told me a lovely story about something that happened with one of the nuns. The Poor Clare’s are an enclosed order which means that they never go outside of the convent unless to hospital or the dentist or something like that. Sister Marie Therese was an old nun who had not been outside a convent for 60 years.
Kathleen told me that when Sean was born in 2000 she took him down to Belfast to visit Sr. Marie Therese. However, her friend was in the hospital, so instead of seeing her through the wire mesh that the nuns always stay behind when they have visitors, Kathleen took Sean to the hospital for a visit.
Sr. Marie Therese held Sean and told Kathleen that she had not held a child in her arms from since she joined the order, 60 years previously. There is something beautiful in that story.
“My dad, Tommy, was not to the fore when mum was organising the pilgrimages but he always worked away in the background. A bit like Gerard does now,” Kathleen said with a smile. “Actually, dad worked very hard to help mum make the society a success.”
I asked Kathleen how they organised the pilgrimages and how they raised funds to bring the sick along. This along with the helpers, sorting out hotels and everything else must take a lot of time and commitment.
“We go to Lourdes every year from the 11th to the 16th of July. We stay in the same hotel, the Hotel Agena which is located in the Peyramale area of Lourdes, 150 yards from the Sanctuaries. The hotel is a short walk from the Basilica. The hotel is Irish owned and we have a good relationship with the owners so we have no problem there,” said Kathleen.
“The hotel owner is from Ireland and she knows the type of food we like and the way we like to have a bit of craic in the evening. With older and sick people, there are often dietary needs and she is always willing to help out if she can.”
“The difficult part in organizing a pilgrimage is getting the names and addresses of sick people. We usually get in contact with them through word of mouth. Then there are the people who are sLick but say nothing until they get to Lourdes and then it becomes clear that they have something wrong with them. We take at least 20 sick people every year. Some of them insist in paying their own way as they can afford but we try to never turn anyone who is sick away,” continued Kathleen.
“Helpers raise their own funds,” said Gerard. “Last year we had Michael Og and Roisin McCluskey from the Kilrea line. There are plenty of good young people about who want to volunteer and do some good work.”
Kathleen then gave us an example of how she finds out about sick people who would be suitable to go on the pilgrimage. “I was in the chemists the other day when a woman came up and asked me if her mother could go on the pilgrimage. She said she was sick and wanted to go to see Lourdes. That’s how we find out about people, from priests, neighbours or friends.”
The pilgrimage usually has about 80-120 people each year. The lowest figure was 56 but that was the year that Cissie died and there was not a lot of effort put into it because of all that was going on.
Kathleen told us about the help that they get from people. The first thing she said was that the pilgrimage always has its own Spiritual Director. Fr James Buggy and Fr Sean Farraher were two names of that Kathleen mentioned that I did not recognise but she also named Fr Henry McCann from Portglenone, who is a local priest.
I was beginning to have some idea of the degree and level of organization that a pilgrimage like this takes and I passed some comment to that effect.
“Oh, we have our own nurses as well,” Kathleen said. “Ann Donnelly from Drumullen and Ann McGarvey from Lavey come with us every year now. In the past Bernie Maguire, my sister in law, and Ann McGrath from Newbridge came with us for years. These good people gave of their time freely and we really appreciate the work that they do for us.”
On the first Friday of January, I was sitting in the home of a friendly couple and I was beginning to feel that it was good to be back at work. Gerard McCann has the laugh and personality of a man who is happy in life and he threw his head back with delight a few times when he caught me out in things. His wife Kathleen is slightly more serious and likes to think about things before she answers.
I decided to broach the question of finances.
“How do you raise the money for all the expenses?” I said. In a way I always feel sad that these things come down to money and the effort at the raising of the money.
“We have a gala dinner every two years and we have sponsored walks and golf charity days. Things like that,” said Kathleen.
Then Gerard told me about Paddy Gray of Draperstown. “Paddy has a barbeque every summer for us. He lives away out in Drumard and how the people find him, I don’t know. You’d think he would get no one away out there but he does and he raises a considerable amount of money for us every year.”
“Last year there were thirty Americans over on holidays and they went along. They had the best day’s craic they ever had. He roasts a pig on a spit and the buffet spread to go along with the barbeque is fantastic. Then he has salmon and roast beef.”
Kathleen then said that a lot of people do various things to help raise money but that with the recession and the lack of work in the country she felt guilty asking people to help.
Damien Maguire and Kieran McCann Lourdes, Midi-Pyrenees.
“People are so good. They give of their time and do things that you would never think of. I don’t want to start to talk about all the people who raise money for us because I would leave someone out and they might be offended. You would be amazed at even simple things that need to be done.”
A simple thing that Kathleen told me about but that you would never think of is that the wheelchairs which the pilgrimage uses have to be serviced every year. All these things take time and effort. This job is done by Kathleen’s brother Philip and his son Damien.
While we were chatting various other things came up. These were just general points but they helped give a better picture of Cissie Maguire and the work that she had put into organising the pilgrimages.
At one point Kathleen said in passing, as if it was just another bit of information, “When the pilgrimage was going for twenty five years my mum was awarded the Bene Merenti medal by the Pope.” Bene Merenti is the Latin for Well Merited and is given out to people who have done particular service for the Church and the spiritual wellbeing of people.
“My mum’s sister, Minnie Clare, was born blind but she went on to become a music teacher and an organist in her local chapel in Crossmaglen. She was also awarded the medal,” said Kathleen.
This led to a discussion how people with disabilities can lead useful lives. Kathleen and Gerard told us some amazing stories of how people who were sick had enjoyed Lourdes and the joy and happiness that they brought to so many people.
“When the Pope came to Ireland in 1979, mum organised a bus and two mini buses to take people to Knock. That was a great day out and we all enjoyed it,” said Kathleen who was now reminiscing fondly of a mother she loved and respected.
All through our talk and chat it was becoming apparent how much effort and work went into organizing the pilgrimages so I ventured to ask if they ever went anywhere other than Lourdes.
“We were asked to organize trips to the Holy Land and other places but we decided against it. We love Lourdes and feel we have enough to do with the pilgrimage to there,” said Gerard, before going on with a laugh, “You could be full time organizing these things!”
Looking at the clock I could see that we were nearly two hours chatting about various things. As in all these conversations we were asked things about ourselves, we talked about a whole lot of life’s problems and friends and people we knew. I enjoyed it.
Lourdes 2012 Kathleen McCann, Damien Maguire and Charlie O'Neill in Lourdes, Midi-Pyrenees.
The McCanns are people that are easy to get along with. I complained to Gerard about the planning people but he put me right on a few things. If the others in his department are as civil as this man then I think the planning office would be fair enough to deal with.
Our conversation was approaching its end so I ventured to ask Kathleen what she got out of the work that she does. She rested her head on her hands and thought for a moment before answering.
“I like to see the change that takes in people during their week in Lourdes and to hear so many people try to put into words the affect the place has had on them. Every year the pilgrimage renews my faith and makes me appreciate the health that I have. Over the years we have had people from all sections of the community, young and old, Protestant and Catholic, and I have enjoyed the company of them all.”
Kathleen continued, “There is an old hospital right beside the hotel which has two small oratories. We have Mass there a couple of times each year. The priest on the pilgrimage says Mass for us at some point every day. There is a wonderful communal feeling at the Mass, we are all pilgrims on our own individual journey.”
To my final question of how long the two of them would keep the pilgrimage tradition going she replied, “We shall keep it going as long as we have the energy to get us there and we have the support. It is hard work but worth every moment of it.”
“The letters of thanks make it all worthwhile. When we get a letter from someone saying how much they enjoyed the trip and how much they got out of it, this lifts our spirits. Lourdes is a special place and we shall go to it for as long as we can.”
Gerard, Kathleen and Sean McCann
We took a photo of Gerard, Kathleen and Sean. They were totally unselfconscious and free—the type of people it is a joy to meet, the type of people who do their bit for the community and make no big fuss about it.
I hope that someday Kathleen gets the recognition she deserves.
Article published in the Mid-Ulster Observer Newspaper, N.I. January 10, 2013
Lourdes pictures added to online article from Facebook; Our Lady of Lourdes Pilgrimage Society.