February 11, Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes
THE LOURDES GROTTO, HERBERT HOUSE, FRESHFIELD: REVIVAL
SITE AND SITU:
When turning off Victoria Road, Freshfield, Liverpool, on the main Drive to Herbert House, the Mill Hill Missionaries Retirement Home, on the right hand side, one becomes immediately aware of a stand of tall, mainly evergreen trees, overshadowing dense foliage of shorter trees, intertwined with bushes and shrubs. Nothing really special there, one could venture to suppose; however, this curtain of vegetation conveniently and amply conceals from view a structured reproduction representing the Grotto at Lourdes, France, where the Virgin Mary appeared to the peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous in the year 1858 – seven years before the foundation of our Society – declaring herself “…the Immaculate Conception”.
This local reproduction of the Grotto was in fact, erected many years ago by the retired MHM community residents after enduring many months of planning, organising, back-straining labour, weather-variations and financial expenditures. Those builders, though now all savouring their heavenly reward, did a fine job using brick, stone and concrete. In fact, the fundamental structure of this erection remains largely intact to this present day; physical testimony to their skill, dedication to the project and acute recognition of the religious significance of the wondrous events of a hundred years earlier.
Yes, the relentless march and ravages of time had taken their toll; exposure to the seasonal vagaries of the weather, the gradual intrusion of weed and scrub, the sad neglect of occasional maintenance, the natural deterioration of the building material etc; most of these factors had contributed in some way or another to the slow declination of the structure of the Grotto and thus its appeal to potential visitors to stay and pray awhile. in fact, many of the present day residents were not aware of its actual existence, perhaps due to its former condition or somewhat secluded location.
SIGNS AND START:
Perhaps significantly, the first hints and suggestions regarding the possible renovation and restoration of the Grotto were offered circa 15th August 2017, the Feast of the Assumption; also the day of the Final Commitment to the Society of many of the original builders of the Grotto in years past – an interesting coincidence or special intervention!
Daunting as it then seemed, work began by cutting, sawing, digging out and removing all the invasive vines, creepers, weed, protruding roots and windblown debris and scattered detritus, to uncover the basic shell and framework of the structure/statue. The whole edifice, front and rear was water-hosed down, using a powerful jet-hose to penetrate every niche and corner, thoroughly cleaning all the structural work and including the statue of the Madonna Herself.
Initially, the plan was to completely remove the statue from the Grotto for a thorough water-hose washing and clean up, then transportation to a specialist company for a professional renovation and repaint. Alas, apparently being cast in solid, reinforced concrete, it proved far too heavy and difficult to extract from its high, enclosing alcove, so it had to remain on its pedestal, for further restorative procedures to be done in situ.
It soon became obvious that the statue was encased in many layers of paint, all or most of which it was necessary to remove before further work could continue. After the passage of so many years, plus the application of so many paint-layers, now firmly ingrained in, care and hard work were required. Still high up on its solid platform, the statue was then gradually manipulated and manoeuvred, grating and grinding incessantly on the detritus beneath its base, through varying angles on the horizontal, to afford appropriate, convenient surface areas on which to operate. Costly paint-remover, scrappers, steel-wire wool, wire brushes and constant rotation and re-alignment through graduation of 360° and removal of old paint from tight niches, all done in the confines of a small alcove while atop a frail ladder, was far from easy work.
PAINT AND PATIENCE:
The surrounding area was scoured for shops, supermarkets and stores for the supply of good quality, weather-resistant, outdoor paint for renovation of the Madonna Statue. Eventually, after many enquiries, one was finally found which stocked most of the required types and colours, although some mixing and combinations of colours was necessary for certain specific tints and hues. Again, the complicated and difficult routine of twisting and turning the image to present a suitable angle for paint application while still in its enclosed site had to be managed. The fact that always some part of it had fresh or drying paint on its surface made for additional complications throughout this hazardous procedure. Painstakingly, the eyes, individual rosary beads and floral adornments were all meticulously restored to colourful life. Once the famous Lourdes Spring and water-flow had been painted around its base, the statue could then be considered as complete.
So, now the Madonna stands, resplendent in her freshly-applied sartorial elegance, gazing wistfully ahead, with a new “Ave Maria” sign and bouquet of roses beneath her feet. Directly adjacent to the edifice are two small garden plots which have been cleared of debris and weeds, tilled and planted with tastefully chosen small shrubs which will no doubt bloom in warm weather to further enhance the immediate environment. These floral augmentations which have also been added to the rear of the Grotto, will hopefully generate an air of tranquillity and peace, encouraging a quiet, prayerful environmental atmosphere – Our Lady of Lourdes!
Across the pathway leading to the Grotto and directly opposite the Statue, a small area of woodland was cleared and levelled. Six concrete slabs plus sand, was purchased locally and the slabs laid neatly and carefully. A steel garden bench was then acquired from the Main House, providing seating accommodation for residents and visitors alike, specifically to spent time in quiet meditation, contemplation or reflection, gently presenting their thoughts and inner feelings. Surely, Mary Herself would approve….!
After several overhead tree branches were trimmed off to allow more light into the Grotto, the immediate site and statue were ritually blessed and dedicated to the Virgin Mary after the Solemn High Mass on, (appropriately significantly) the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, 8th December 2017. Long Live Grotto of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Herbert House as in Lourdes and all the Marian Pilgrim sites and shrines.
(Although complete and brilliant, the Grotto is still in need of the Statue of Saint Bernadette, to place at the base, to gaze up upon the Immaculate Mary. It would be one of one meter long approximately, to complete and compliment the Grotto and the Statue of Lourdes. Any donation or recommendations to Herbert House will be greatly appreciated).
By Br Ted O’Brien, Frs Paul Mooney, Tom O’Brien and Emmanuel Mbeh.