This year 15 students from Year 12 at Gumley House FCJ joined the Lourdes pilgrimage as Redcaps under the leadership RE teacher, Sean Whittle. The students were assigned to 10 malades (sick pilgrims requiring assistance are referred to as malades), some forming groups of two Redcaps per malade, their work involving pushing the wheelchairs and transporting the malades to diocesan events. It was quite a daunting task, especially when uphill but the Redcaps never seemed to be fazed. With a little help from their fellow students, they carried on.
Founded in 1841, Gumley House is an all-girls Catholic school (except Sixth Form), which, living by the motto Vive Ut Vivas, ‘ensures students achieve academic excellence combined with a vibrant extra-curricular life’. This was the first time in Lourdes for these students. Being a Redcap is a voluntary service they choose to undertake with fundraising support from the school and generous charities.
One charity provides a voluntary grant of £200 per student. Another charity, the Catenian Group donated £50 per student, which may seem little, but turned out to be a big financial help when added to other donations. The students raised funds by selling raffle tickets and holding charity events such as cake and brownie sales, carol singing and bag packing at Tesco, all of which began as far back as last October.
When asked how they first heard about the pilgrimage, some said teachers, while another student added, ‘I wanted to come here because of my grandparents, from all the stories that I hear from them’. Another student, Holly, says, ‘I came along with my parents five years ago since my dad is very religious, so it was not a new place to me. The thought of helping someone made me happy and so I volunteered’. Many others said what attracted them to Lourdes were stories they had heard from senior students who shared their experiences from last year in the school magazine. Every story, they said, made a mention of how rewarding an experience it had been for the senior students, with the opportunity or representing their school at this annual diocesan event.
The most touching comment came from a student who said, ‘We may be from different communities but since we are here, we are here for a common goal, and that’s the community experience that we have found in the last few days.’ There can be no better place to develop communal peace and harmony among our future generation than a pilgrimage. On being touched in a spiritual manner, a student, Jessica says, ‘I felt overwhelmed at the Reconciliation Service with the choir singing and tears rolling down my eyes.’ This was a common experience shared by many other students. Another student mentioned that she was agnostic before coming to Lourdes, but this experience has made her rethink the whole concept of spirituality and bought her closer to God.
There were moments shared where the malades opened up to their Redcap helpers, as one student explains, ‘My malade shared with me his experience of how he used to come to the Grotto with his late wife and was moved on reaching the same spot. I feel privileged that I could listen to him and comfort him.’ The malades have been kind and gracious to the Redcaps with some taking them for an ice cream in the evenings, others offering them soft drinks on a hot summer’s day, and some buying them goodies, as a token of appreciation.
Bernie Pereira, an administrative staff member at Gumley, is on her second pilgrimage and explains what brought her here this year. Last year on her first pilgrimage, she noticed a woman whose mannerisms were very similar to her late mother’s, moving and compelling her to return to Lourdes again this year. Our Lady has unusual ways to speak to our hearts, sometimes through other people. Bernie was proud of the Gumley students and in her words, ‘In bringing the students on this pilgrimage,
it makes them more sensitive to the needs of the elderly, as they too have grandparents with whom they can relate. The kids were mentally prepared, before coming to Lourdes about how laborious the task can be.’
On asking which event would the students name as the highlight of the pilgrimage, the answer unanimously was the Marian Torchlight Procession, which, in the students’ words, was ‘seeing the faith of the Church, in one place, helping each other come closer to Mary’,
a reassurance that she is with them even as they journey back home.