HCPT Thank You Letter

At the conclusion of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations the crowds in front of Buckingham Palace were immense and the people bedecked with flags, colour and joyfulness. It didn’t surprise me to see the Queen herself gasp in amazement as she saw the love in front of her. What I noticed more than anything was ‘the twinkle in her eyes’ -  they were shining with happiness. The nursery rhyme ‘twinkle twinkle little star like a diamond in the sky ‘came to my mind, along with a tear!! So something very special has to happen to make a person’s eyes ‘shine and twinkle with joy’ and that is what happened to our children in Lourdes this Easter. Many of the parents said the same thing to us in the week after our return. ‘My child’s eyes are shining with happiness’ and ‘I have never seen their eyes so bright before’. There are always lots messages of thanks from children and parents, but this is the first time we have had so many comments about ‘twinkling, bright and shining eyes’ - so we must have got it right again!!

Last Easter there was much talk of ‘Rainbows’, not so this year. One ingredient of rainbows was absent this year in Lourdes…. The SUN!! I blame it all on Blackpool. When we had our first outing with the children just before Christmas we took them to the Tower and it threw it down and blew a gale all day. The gale was fitting as the Pantomime was ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and how everyone enjoyed it. It was our first visit the new refurbished Tower. It is now a kind of ‘pay as you go’ place and we only managed the show and the Jungle Jim’s play area in which the children had an absolute ball! The problem is getting the children to come out when their time is up.

We had our meal at a cafe in St Anne’s called ‘Seniors’ and this was a new venture. The fish & chip restaurant was just big enough for our coach load and they were fabulous with us. The owners had an association with a disabled charity themselves and this was reflected in the bill when it arrived – they were wonderful with us and all our special needs. As we were leaving fresh customers were beginning to squeeze in and order food. One of the couples waved Louise over and said ‘I don’t know who you are but you are giving these children a wonderful treat’; she then passed over a £20 note to Louise and said ‘bless you’ … instant kindness!!

Our very first party meeting at our Social Centre was a fantastic success. All the children were there and they all joined in with the fun, games and songs at the end of the afternoon. This isn’t always the case as some children can be a bit shy and hesitant…… but not the children of 2012

I assure you! Not at all. They demolished the buffet and really entered into the spirit of the group. Each child planted a bulb in our Group flower pots which would grow, blossom and be in full flower at Easter time, well that is the plan. The weather was so cold and wet this last year that in time the bulbs did grow & flower but then they were battered to death by wind and rain!! So why were we so surprised that it poured down in Lourdes………. All the signs were there already!!

In January we had the usual trip to Colne Municipal Hall for another pantomime, a proper audience participating one, complete with a full rendition of ‘there’s a worm at the bottom of my garden’ in which Shay, one of our youngsters, went up on stage to sing with the cast! The show this year was ‘Snow White’. Well, what a beautiful young lady she was. Another of our young people, Zack, took a real shine to her, fair enough Zack is 16. After the show we arranged a meeting for them and as it isn’t easy to get a wheelchair backstage Snow White came to Zack. He hasn’t forgotten this and has the photographs to prove it!!

Shay received a bag of sweets for his bravery at going up on stage and doing ‘the wiggly worm’ and when asked if he was going to take them home and eat them he said “no”. He declared he was going to share them with all the children and then went around everyone and gave them all away.

The months flew by and we came together for the Palm Sunday mass at St Alban’s followed by lunch and all the final instructions about the coach to the airport and the plane etc… I hoped it was going to be a big plane as we had lots of extra baggage this year. Special food along with bedroom and medical equipment as well as spare wheelchairs all had to be taken. Yet again there was no room for Father Jude’s golf clubs!

Easter Monday morning arrived and long before the birds had stirred from their nests Group 72 people and families were up and about. From 5am folk gathered at St Alban’s and had their luggage ticked off on Chris’s ‘Baggage list’. Did I mention it was raining!!! Yes, it was raining!

Our group was first to the Airport and the ladies at the Checking in Desk were smiling and ready. Father Jude met them with his Flight Plan for the plane which marked out where all the 8 HCPT groups were to be seated. Forward planning. The check in ladies told me; ‘Oh you aren’t going on that 197 plane, you are on this 727 plane with a totally different seating configuration’. Aaggg I said. As it turned out this plane was twice as big so it was a piece of cake to move people around and it meant there was plenty of room in the hold for all Group 72’s extra baggage….  And there would have been room for the golf clubs!.. Next year !!

In no time we were off to the runway, the pilot, a real child friendly man, instructed the children that his plane was so big that unless they screamed as loud as possible it wouldn’t take off. Half way down the runway he came over the loudspeaker asking for more and louder screams.. And he got them!! When we approached Lourdes airport we don’t scream as we ask the entire plane to sing our HCPT anthem ‘Rise and Shine’, which we did with full voice to the glee of the plane stewards. Guess what? Was it raining in Lourdes? No, the sun was cracking the flags. What do they say? Enjoy it while you can!

It was early afternoon when we arrived at our lovely Hotel Notre Dame de France. We enjoyed some lunch and began to unpack our suitcases and the mountains of extra gear plus 6 or 7 huge trunks, which we leave in the Hotel basement, packed with group equipment which we leave in Lourdes. After a frenetic hour of people and children depositing all and sundry into the appropriate rooms we were ready to hit the streets of Lourdes.

We began at our favourite Church which doesn’t have the best of names as it is called the 7 Sorrows of Our Lady! We enjoyed a truly happy Easter mass. Big Dave introduced the theme of the week; We are all God’s Work of Art to the children. He explained that each one of is special and precious. We all have different talents and gifts; few people can smile like Jules; no-one can laugh like Zack; no one knows as much about films as Bobby and so on!! Dave had a huge poster with the words “is God’s Work of Art” written on it. ‘But what is missing’ he asked? “All of us” one of the children said. So everyone in the group came out and wrote his or her name on the poster until it was filled with all of us in Group 72. Then, we were becoming ‘God’s Work of Art’. Everyone, especially the children were involved in the celebration and as always Cadbury’s Cream Eggs made an appearance at the end of mass.

We then made our way in the glorious sunshine to the area of Lourdes called ‘The Domain’ which is a reference to ‘home’. This is where we find the great basilicas along with the Grotto and Shrine where St Bernadette met Our Lady. At the Crown Statue of Mary we said our opening prayers and pointed out the special places of interest to the children. We made our way past the Lourdes water taps to the grotto of Our Lady. We were able to take the children right into the cave and first show them the spring of water that Bernadette dug up in February 1858. Then, sliding your hand along the smooth wall of the cave, we came out of the cave right under the statue of Mary which rests in a niche high up in the rock face exactly where she appeared to Bernadette. We then moved to the left and lit lots of candles for you, dear readers, and all our families and placed them in the special candle stands. We finished with more happy prayers. All this praying makes one very thirsty and hungry so we headed back to a cafe for drinks, biscuits and a sing song. We found a café with an outside veranda by the river and IN THE SUNSHINE….Oh what bliss. One of our girls couldn’t always get her words out correctly and whenever she said ‘Bernadette’ .. the words that came out were ‘Burnley debt’… a great source of amusement to the Rovers fans in our group!

After our evening meal quite a few yawns were evident, possibly something to do with getting up at 3am!! It was agreed that it was time for pyjamas and a bedtime story. The tale of the 3 Trees was read. An Easter story which has somw sad moments but a really happy ending. ZZZzzzz and that was the Helpers!! Thank you God for a lovely day!

We woke up to the ‘pitter patter’ not of tiny feet but of raindrops on Tuesday morning and had to get used to it for the rest of the week! This was a wonderful day for 3 of our young men. Zack, Jules and Shay were about to make their first Holy Communion at our mass today. Our Durham ladies, Mary & Monica had prepared this mass. They reminded us that if we wanted to give some one a message we could send a text or a video clip or a tweet! Jesus didn’t have any of these and yet he left us, not only a message about himself, but his very self in the food of Holy Communion. Later in the mass our 3 young men made their holy communion for the first time in our special Chapel of Mary.

After mass it was time for the group photograph in the Domain in front of the huge Rosary Basilica. Oh dear! The heavens had opened and plan B photo was to have us gather in a semi enclosed chapel a little bit out of the rain. In spite of the conditions it has turned out to be one of the best pictures we have ever had taken! We then went past the Grotto to the candle stand to place our massive Group 72 candle along with other HCPT group candles. Each person in our group had written a personal message on a strip of paper which was then stuck to the great candle. It was a fabulous sight and as Chris lit our candle we all said prayers for one and all. Time for lunch.

After a 3 course lunch it was time to go on our Lourdes tour. The first stop was the newly refurbished Diorama. Inside the studio the story of Bernadette’s life is told over loud speakers. The stage area is divided up into a dozen scenes of statues that show the people in her life. It is cleverly done and really child friendly. We then paddled through puddles up to the Rue de Petit Fosse where we found the Cachot. This is the old one roomed jail house of Lourdes in which Bernadette’s family were forced to live. It is so small, cold and grim. The wetness of the afternoon only added to the stark reality of the poverty in Bernadette’s life. On our way back down the town we stopped in the HCPT shop where the children could buy lots of souvenirs. By now we were on the point of hypothermia and hot drinks were urgently needed as well as a change of socks and clothes!! We headed for the Hotel which once again provided for all our needs.

After dinner we cut our beautiful communion cake which was brought all the way from Colne and had managed to remain all in one piece. Soon it was in many pieces and eaten by everyone in the dining room. Louise had a surprise for the children – it was ‘Star Time’. All the children received a STAR which they stuck to their own star charts on their bedroom doors. Stars were given for smiles // helpfulness // being first down at breakfast // big hugs // to mention but a few. Soon it was time to put on our top coats as we were off to the night time Torchlight Procession with all the other HCPT groups. It was really busy but very well organised and the children love being out with 1000’s of people. When we got back to the Hotel the kind man behind the bar made vast quantities of hot chocolate to warm us all up!

Wednesday morning saw small breaks in the sky which was a good do as we had an early start and a long walk down to the very bottom of the domain to the Chapel of John the Baptist. There Steve and Tony explained about the spring of water that Bernadette discovered in the corner of the Grotto. They told the children the exact story of how Mary directed the little girl to find and drink the water. You could hear a pin drop! Then it was time for each of us to be blessed with the water of Lourdes which has been piped into this chapel. Leonie & Kate led the bidding prayers and after this the children made up their own prayers which were very special.

After all this water it was great to see that it had stopped raining when we came outside. Just around the corner of the chapel are the new Low Stations of the Cross. Once upon a time we took the children up the ‘High Stations’ but this has been banned… boo.. Hiss…  but these little ones are very attractive and it was lovely to see a few of them. We went back via the Grotto and another visit to Mary until we arrived at the Terrace Café by the river. Lots of community singing, biscuits and drinks. Time for lunch.

Straight after lunch it was time to board a coach for the trip to Gavarnie. The River Gave outside our Hotel begins its life up here, hence the name Gave-arnie. Thank God it didn’t rain – cold, but no rain. Footballs, rugby balls and lots of running about. It is a fabulous drive up to the ski mountain village and is one of the most photographed places in France. It is also one of the ‘mountain climbs’ in the Tour de France. One or two, some might say, ‘sensible people’ stayed in the village when the others went into the fields. They stayed in a café around a huge wood fire eating crepes, chips and drinking hot chocolate. Our Group Leader Louise had drawn the short straw to look after these sad unfortunate creatures in the warm cafe!!! Poor Louise!!

After dinner it was ‘time for team bingo’. In the spirit of the Olympics we had 5 teams representing the 5 continental rings. The 5 team trimmed up in appropriate headgear which included Australian bush hats complete with corks, European Union crowns, African animal masks (via Chester Zoo), glitzy American stetsons and san pan Chinese hats with ‘year of the Pig’ emblem. This team bBingo is as competitive as any Olympic sport where there is as much rivalry, banter and cheating as they can get away with! In the end the winners of the massive gold medals (chocolate) were Africa under Captain Steve. They amassed as many points as Asia, Australia and Europe put together. Great fun…….. 59…. The Brighton Line!!t

Everything calmed down after this when Sue, Margaret & our healing nurse Sheila led us all in a soothing and gentle service of Anointing. We use ‘OIL’ for cooking, healing, lighting, and ensuring that things move and flow properly amongst many other uses. At this ceremony we blessed everyone with the Holy Oils of the Church. One and all was touched by God’s healing presence, deep into our bodies, hearts and souls while we sang the hymn ‘Lay your Hands gently upon us’.

Our dear nurse Sheila does her round every morning and evening giving pills and medicines and checks up that everyone is fit and healthy. To her surprise one of the children said to her this morning ‘my helper has been horrible to me’. Somewhat puzzled she asked the child the reason and the particular reply was ‘he has made me wash my face’. What cruel helpers we have!!

Thursday is our great Trust day when the entire pilgrimage gathers in the underground Basilica for a magnificent celebration of mass. This year the Scottish Region of HCPT led the service. We had a fanfare of bagpipes and many people dressed in kilts and Tam O’Shanters. One of our girls who wasn’t known for wearing a skirt but was still fascinated by ‘men in kilts’ was asked if she would like to wear a kilt. After a speedy negative response she then marched over to one of them and asked him ‘are you Welsh?’ If it was a chat line it was a cracker but it didn’t work!! Bishop Joe Conti was the main bishop at mass this year and his sermon centred on the ‘theme of the year’ - “We are all God’s Work of Art”. At the end of his little talk he asked the priests to go around the people in their group holding a special mirror in front of each person and repeat the word’s “You are God’s Work of Art”. It was a marvellous celebration of prayer, music and joy.

In the afternoon we split up into 3 groups. One went with Steve on his tour of the churches in the Domain. This is a great trip as Steve takes people to lots of places that few know of. He has a grand way with words having been a primary head teacher for years and his explanations are second to none. He always ends up in a café that sells Guinness so the helpers got a treat that afternoon. Big Dave took another group to the Castle which has fantastic views over Lourdes and even up to the Pyrenees mountains. The children could see all of Lourdes town from the top of the castle which towers over the town. They pointed out our Hotel, the Parish Church and the great churches around the domain and Grotto area. The clouds that afternoon were down at 2nd floor window level the views weren’t too good this year! Fr Jude took the 3rd group to a childrens museum. This takes you through Lourdes over the centuries. They give you a pre-recorded tape to describe all the old shops, work places, farms and mills back in the days of St Bernadette’s life time. It is cleverly done as you pass through the rooms and live the story and times of the 1850’s. It finishes with a large diorama of the apparition of Mary in the Grotto with Pavarotti singing ‘Ave Maria’.

We came out of the museum to be greeted with a monsoon. We dashed into the statue museum, for cover, hoping for a reprieve when we came out, sadly to no avail!! Like drowned rats we dived into a clothes shop and bought our entire little group big plastic capes. Shay then reminded us that it was ‘shopping time’. On asking what he wanted to buy he replied “some rock”. I reminded him that this was Lourdes not Blackpool. “No, a rock like a stone”. Ah, Yes he had a fascination with stones. Rock shop in Lourdes? Guess what; straight across from the clothes shop was … yes … a rock & crystal shop!! This place never ceases to surprise me. In we went and Shay ran around as if he was in heaven. He finally chose a rock, one of the most expensive ones they had on offer!! Beware youngsters and shopping. We then fled back to the Hotel to dry off and drink lots of hot chocolate. Later on in the afternoon we all met up in the underground basilica for the Blessed Sacrament procession. We managed to get the very front seats which allowed the children to enjoy the prayers and receive the blessing of Jesus from the Bishop from just feet away. After the service the Scottish band played some HCPT songs but not as many as usual and they needed a bit of encouragement!! It wasn’t till loads of the young people started shouted ‘boring boring’ before they got going!!

Back at the Hotel for dinner and lots more stars from Louise. Olivia received one for carrying the group banner – One for a little lad who had ’been a good boy’ was asked how many he had been a good boy yesterday -- he replied ‘zero’!! Molly got one for having her photograph taken with ‘the Teletubbies’!! Jules got one for being shown on the Big Screen at the Trust Mass. Zack received a couple, one for the best actions to ‘Rise and Shine’ ever seen and another for trying on every hat in Lourdes! Megan’s was for being the loudest ‘clapper’ at the Trust Mass. Zain’s was for being deputy video man!! It was Matthew’s birthday today and we recycled the remainder of the communion complete with ‘one candle’ – a fine rendition of happy birthday rounded off a great time of fun and laughter.

Off we went downstairs for a night time story from Steve. He reminded everyone that Bernadette faced many difficulties in her life such as ill health, poverty, and little education. Few people believed her story of the apparitions and even in the convent in Nevers some of the nuns there gave he a miserable time. But, as Steve told the children, she never gave up and persevered to the end. He then told them the story of the 3 frogs that fell into a bowl of cream! Two of them gave up and sank to the bottom  -  but the third just paddled and paddled for all he was worth, determined not to give up and die, and in the end he paddled for so long that he ‘churned the cream into butter!! He had survived and jumped out of the bowl and hopped back to his lily-pad. So like St Bernadette, never gave up!! Off to bed …zzzzz

Friday was our day at the sea side town of St Jean de Luz. The journey had a few twists as usual. No motorway police this year, just a coach driver who couldn’t find 4th gear and drove at 50 mph maximum. We discovered at an uncalled for service station stop that he had forgotten his motorway toll pass and had to wait for another coach driver to give him one! We got there eventually and had our picnic lunch in a small park and then headed for the beach. After a short service during which Barbara, Chris & Joanna told the children the story of Jesus feeding the 5000 with a few fish. Everyone received a polished pebble with their name written on it along with the words ‘You are God’s Work of Art’.

Fun and splashing in the sea followed. Sand castles were built, tennis, cricket and rounder’s took place and lots of fun was had by everyone. Gradually as the clouds gathered wet bodies came back from the sea and dried off and had a change of clothes. It was also getting a bit colder as it had been really windy all day. We headed for the centre of town and just reached one of the large cafes in the town square when the heavens opened. Vast numbers of bowls of chips appeared along with biscuits and hot drinks – it really wasn’t the time for ice cold lager!! The driver discovered what his right foot was for on the return journey and made it in 2 hours 15 minutes against the 3 hours it took him to get there!!

After dinner we were all dressed up for our fancy dress party. The usual assortment of pirates, princesses, Indians and guardsmen made their appearance. Even Princess Fiona and Shriek turned up this year. Ross bamboozled us with his cards tricks and all the children did little turns and received loud applause and cheers. Mark, our camera man showed us his talent!! Michael Flatly no less!! We didn’t know there was so much talent in our Group. We will have to write to Simon Cowell or maybe just send him this year’s DVD!! Steve rounded the night away with a lovely story about families and then it was time for zzzzzzzzzzz

On Saturday morning the sun managed to scrape out at last which was great as we were heading off to the Zoo at D’Azzon some 35 minutes from Lourdes. The peacocks strutted their fantails, little lemurs showed how clever they were at catching treats throw to them, the wolves still love malteesers and even the otters came out to play this year. It is a really beautiful zoo with lots of happy animals and we had lots of happy children too!

After lunch we visited our favourite chapel for our final mass. Mike led the mass and Mathew, Laura and Mark helped to build a very special church this year. They actually built a model church with 12 inch square foam jigsaw pieces. Each piece had a part of the story of Lourdes and our holiday glued to it. We had built a great ‘Church/Work of Art’ but ‘what is missing?’ asked Fr Mike.. we were all missing!! Well, Mike had small cut out figures with each person’s name written on one. Then we all came and posted the cut out figure of ourselves through the letter box on our model church and we were then truly ‘Group 72’s Work and Church of Art’!!

We made our way down to the Crown Statue for our final prayers. We were also able this year to make a last visit to the Grotto and light more candles for family and you, our good readers, back home. The rain stayed off and we were able to have a happy and DRY end to the pilgrimage!

Our journey home had the same mystery as the outward journey.  What size would the plane be? Just like the outward plane it was not the one we had a seating plan for, but fortunately it was much bigger. I had suspected this might happen and, as with the plane to Lourdes, I had a Plan B seating arrangement for everyone on board. A bigger plane is easy and we all ended up with 2 seats each; but we only received one lunch each! Another bit of fun took place on the plane with…. clothes pegs! In Lourdes a couple of groups take great delight by attaching clothes pegs to anyone an anything they can. These pegs have the group number on them and a small greeting. Obviously they ‘peg you’ from behind and so you walk along with one or more ‘pegs’ clipped to the back of your cap, coat etc.. Our camera lady Sue was the recipient of many pegs during the week. The joke continued on the plane and by the time we arrived in Manchester all the airhostesses had been pecked on the pleats of their skirts!!

On arriving back at Manchester airport we had an ‘interesting’ time at Passport Control. When one of our helpers showed a wee boy’s passport to the lady immigration official who smiled and said to him ‘is this you?’ “No” he replied. ‘of course it’s you, his helper said’. Once again the little lad was adamant that it wasn’t his picture. After about 4 sets of questions & answers they all finally managed to convince him that the ‘picture’ in his passport which was about 4 and a half years old really was him. We hear so much about passport control and its strictness etc…. but I saw the immigration lady’s face and could see that she was in a right tiz-waz and saw herself taking our wee lad home!!

The sun was cracking the flags in Lancashire as our coach brought us home. On the coach one of the children asked Louise ‘where were we all going on holiday next year’?? !! Do you get the impression he had had a great time! A huge group of happy parents and families met us in Blackburn and as always the children couldn’t stop talking and the families were already seeing the smiles and twinkles in their children’s eyes.

Since then we have had our sponsored walk along the canal bank in Barrowford and for once this summer it didn’t rain. It is always a beautiful afternoon when lots of HCPT families come together for the walk. Many years of memories. The Chester Zoo trip concludes the gatherings for this year. It is always a lovely day and we will have to hope that the weather on Sunday 8th July is better than the summer so far and definitely better than Lourdes!!

Many thanks, my dear readers, for joining us on our ‘year of pilgrimage’. I truly hope that the next time you look in a mirror you will look at yourself and say ‘I am also one of God’s Work of Art’ and that this letter of thanks to you also brings a ‘twinkle to your eye as well’ All our love and thanks. God bless you all. xxx