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Free To Travel West, Throngs of East Europeans Head To Lourdes

October 3, 1991

LOURDES, France (AP) _ Sleeping in buses en route, bringing food supplies with them, tens of thousands of East European Catholics are choosing as their first trip to the West a low-budget pilgrimage to Lourdes.

Their advent to a shrine where Christian devotion coexists with tacky, tourist-trade capitalism has been a source of both delight and frustration to those in charge.

Most of the Eastern Europeans arrive with little pocket money and no reserved accommodations. They sleep in fields, at campgrounds or in dormitories for impoverished pilgrims.

″They’re not organized - they just show up,″ said Cecile Marynissen, who directs a reception center for groups of pilgrims.

″In their own country, they are not poor. But the moment they cross the border, their money isn’t worth anything,″ she said. ″They discover a lot of things, including a very capitalistic system.″

More than 4 million visitors come annually to Lourdes, where, according to Roman Catholic tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared 18 times before a poor 14- year-old girl named Bernadette Soubirous in 1858.

It is the No. 1 destination worldwide for Catholic pilgrims, who bathe in or drink spring waters reputed to have miraculous properties. But until last year, the Iron Curtain kept many believers from coming.

″Our people are glad that today we can make a pilgrimage to this famous place where Mary came. Two years ago, we couldn’t,″ said Dr. Jaromir Janosek, one of a group of Czechoslovaks from the Bohemian-Moravian highlands camping out beside their bus at a campground intended for young people.

″We can’t afford a hotel - one night costs what we pay for a month’s rent at home,″ he said. ″It’s especially difficult for the older people, who are pensioners ... The currencies of the West are very unfavorable for us.″

But Janosek, the only group member who could speak either English or French, said the mood was upbeat.

″There’s a very good spirit,″ he said. ″We have a priest with us. We sang and prayed in the bus along the way.″

Officials at the shrine also told of high spirits and determination among the pilgrims from the East.

The Rev. Joseph Bordes, who oversees the entire complex in the foothills of the Pyrenees, recalled a group of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox pilgrims from Moscow who came at Easter: ″They were joyous, they were singing.″

He described a Russian mother of 22-year-old twin sons, both suffering from Downs syndrome, weeping happily as she told him: ″At home, we hid them. Here they are accepted as people, not as idiots.″

Michel Fauqueux, director of the Cite St. Pierre - the handsome mountainside complex for poor pilgrims - recalled four Czechoslovaks who came to Lourdes by wheelchair, accompanied by four friends on foot, using mostly arm power during a 3 1/2 -month trip.

Before last year, only a trickle of Eastern Europeans came to Lourdes. In 1990, officials registered 11,000 pilgrims from the East, and this year’s total has climbed well past 30,000. These figures don’t include those who visit without checking in at the reception center.

Fauqueux said a quota system was instituted at the Cite St. Pierre to prevent it from being swamped by the East Europeans. They now are allotted 40 percent of the 500 beds, and only 7,000 of 30,000 advance requests for accommodation were accepted.

Many Eastern Europeans show up with the misconception that nice hotel rooms await, in some cases because they have been deceived by tour agencies, Fauqueux said.

″The danger is that Lourdes will provide an occasion for exploitation,″ he said. ″These people end up sleeping in the fields.″

Hardships can result. Fauqueux said some pilgrims have suffered food poisoning after eating rations that spoiled during their long bus ride.

Even the poorest guests at Cite St. Pierre are encouraged to give something, however modest, in return for the hospitality. Volunteer workers said Ukrainian art students drew portraits of them as a gift.

Newcomers to Lourdes encounter a place of jarring contrasts - a stately religious complex bordered by a hectic zone of hotels, snack-food restaurants and garish souvenir shops.

Narrow streets are thronged with tourists, nuns and pilgrims in wheelchairs. There is a wax museum, and a theater offering discounts for sick people at showings of a film about Saint Bernadette.

The shops, with signs in a dozen languages, offer plastic water bottles in the shape of Mary, displayed alongside wind-up toys. Most sell religious statuettes topped with electric-light halos and gigantic candles, including one 77-pound model selling for $300.

Inside the shrine, pilgrims line up to pass through the grotto where Bernadette reported conversing with Mary. On the overhanging rock wall dangles a rusty row of discarded crutches.

A medical bureau in Lourdes investigates claims of miraculous cures at the shrine, and since 1862 has certified 65 miracles.

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