In 1986, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of The Polish Catholic Mission in France, the then Rector of the Catholic Polish Mission Fr George Je decided to go on pilgrimage to Lourdes. He wanted to find a place to buy as a pilgrim hostel, in thanksgiving for the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) over the years.
The property that caught his eye consisted of a complex of single-story buildings in a colonial-pavilion style, which belonged to an order of missionary sisters - The Franciscan Missionary Sisters - known colloquially as FMMs. It was located on the top of the hill, looking down onto the Blessed Grotto from the opposite side of the steep valley wall.
The missionary sisters used the house as a rest and convalescent home for tired and retired missionaries. In the clear Pyrenean air the visitors soon regained their strength, and would go down the steep hill overlooking the Gave Rive, to pray at the Grotto where St Bernadette as a young girl saw the BVM.
The sisters decided however to ‘down-size’, moving up the road a couple of kilometres to the village of Bartrés (where St Bernadette spent some of her early childhood) and put their convent on the market. One sister was especially sad to leave and could only reconcile the need to relocate by praying for a ‘good’ buyer and tucking behind a large framed painting a small card of the icon of the BVM of Czstochowa. When she realised that the Polish Catholic Mission in France had bought the house for the use of pilgrims, she came to the house and showed the new Polish sisters, who had barely had time to unpack, the picture still safely tucked behind the painting. The Polish sisters who proceeded to run the house for the Polish Mission, could hardly contain their amazement. Obviously, as they say, it was always meant to be.
It was surely destiny that the Lady Ryder of Warsaw Memorial Trust would become associated with this project. The house needed much work to be fit as a pilgrim house in the 21st century and was always looking for benefactors and support. The LRWMT was at that time looking for a place in Lourdes (after the wishes of Lady Sue Ryder) where they could accommodate pilgrims. But there was one big need which was not being addressed – the needs of handicapped and sick pilgrims and their carers – who did not wish to reside in the Lourdes hospitals, and yet came to Lourdes with their carers and helpers.
Soon it was decided that LRWMT would fund the building of six rooms and bathrooms especially designed for the sick and handicapped. The rooms are now constantly in use, and large groups with sick pilgrims come back yearly to Bellevue because of the excellent facilities it provides.
Shortly after completing the rooms a request was made to LRWMT for help with the purchase of a special mini-bus adapted for wheelchairs so that disabled pilgrims could be picked up from the airport or railway station and brought safely to Bellevue - and later taken around Lourdes when necessary. It also serves as a regular mini-bus for the frail elderly.
All these important improvements at Bellevue over the years have resulted in the establishment of close ties between the house in Lourdes, LRWMT and Parmoor House, the headquarters of the Sue Ryder Prayer Fellowship near Henley on Thames in the UK. Exchanges and meetings have taken place in both Parmoor and Lourdes. Lady Ryder would be very content that her dream of a home in Lourdes has resulted in this fascinating and inspired co-operation, which benefits the frail, elderly, disabled and sick pilgrims, and even has a connection with Poland.
This year, after over thirty years of service, the Sisters of Nazareth have left and a new order of Polish sisters will be running the house for the Polish mission. LRWMT will continue to liaise with the new sisters and looks forward to making new acquaintances.
The Lady Ryder of Warsaw Memorial Trust is a company limited by guarantee and is registered in England No.3935283 | Registered Charity No: 1082295