The (Not Quite) Damned Story: In the spring of 1858, while searching for firewood in the grotto of Massabielle near the small village of Lourdes in the French countryside, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous claimed she was visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary [BVM for short, or if you need to text her]. Over the next five months, BVM appeared 17 more times to the young Bernadette, giving her instructions to have a church built on the spot, among other religious messages. The world being a much different place a century and a half ago, the divinely inspired urgings were heeded, and within a few years, a BVM statue stood in the grotto along with a basilica. More and more religious pilgrims started visiting the site over the next few decades, requiring the construction of a bigger church, in addition to other buildings. By the turn of the 20th century, the sprawling sanctuary had become one of the most visited religious sites in the world. Today, it draws millions of pilgrims each year to France, including multiple popes, who have celebrated mass there.
In 1954, with the centennial of the original French sanctuary approaching and with Pope Pius XII having declared the first Marian Year, students of the Montfort Missionaries decided to construct a replica sanctuary here in the United States for the faithful to visit. With only a postcard from the original grotto tacked to a pine tree as a guide, they fashioned it with local stone, trying to replicate it as closely as they could. It was officially dedicated and opened to public in 1958.
The 35-acre retreat also includes a small chapel, cafe, assembly hall and gift shop. Each year, thousands of the faithful make pilgrimages to the site, arriving by car, bus and van, seeking inspiration and answers.
But is there any special connection between the original grotto shrine in France and the one here in Connecticut? Well, there is this one stone (at left).
Aside from that sole imported rock, there's seemingly nothing else connecting the two duplicate sites aside from shared faith -- no miracle originally occurred on the spot, no long religious history in the area, not even so much as a Jesus Tree on the grounds. The young seminarians just decided that this part of their property randomly located in the Litchfield Hills sort of had the same topography as the original shrine and would be an appropriate place to build a replica of the one of the most venerated Christian shrines on the planet, which is why we include it here as a "weird" or "curious" (but not exactly "damned") destination in Connecticut.
Side note: In case you were wondering what happened to young Bernadette (she of the visions), rather than become the inspiration for a Four Tops' song, she joined the monastery of Nevers in 1866, where she remained until her death from a long illness in 1879. She was beatified in 1925 and officially became St. Bernadette in 1933. Apparently, she is an incorruptible, meaning her body has "miraculously" remained preserved despite no embalming -- although her face and hands have been replaced with perfect wax copies because the original skin had become too shriveled. She is on display in a crystal coffin at the monastery in Nevers.
Our (Not Quite) Damned Experience: We visited the shrine at Lourdes in Litchfield on a quiet morning in February 2009. As you might expect, the grounds are beautiful and serene, and often full of pilgrims seeking divine inspiration. Birds twitter amiably and a brook babbles peacefully near the grotto altar. It's not hard to understand how many can find spiritual fulfillment while wandering among the flora and fauna or while viewing the numerous religious statues, or sitting in the shade of a tree on one of the benches that comprise the open air grotto chapel.
If so inclined, visitors can walk the stations of the cross (seen at left), starting to the left of the grotto altar and going up, around over the top of the hill and then back down the other side. At the station of crucifixition (and the apex of the hill), there are stairs that lead up higher to a re-creation of the scene on Cavalry Hill; you can also look back down from the hill through cleared trees to the statue of Jesus at the entrance to the shrine. Visitors can also go onto the altar when there are no services to meditate or light devotion candles.
During our visit we didn't have any heavenly visions, but seeing that our believing may be lacking, we probably weren't looking all that hard. And even though we went up on the grotto altar, there were no "random" lightning strikes, which was a plus.
If You Go: The shrine at Lourdes in Litchfield is open to the public year-round, daily from dawn to dusk. It is located on Montfort Road, which is off of Route 118 near downtown Litchfield. As it is a religious shrine, there are often many visitors as well as numerous services and events.
View Our Lady of Lourdes' Shrine in a larger map