|Katey Kerman, far left, a parishioner at St. Henry Church in Nashville, is pictured with other volunteers who help pilgrims to Lourdes bathe in the waters of the grotto where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. Kerman has been a volunteer for the last three years and hopes to continue to return every year. Photos courtesy of Katey Kerman
Katey Kerman was far from happy. The St. Henry parishioner was in her third year at the extremely competitive theatre school at DePaul University in Chicago, her self-esteem battered by constant criticism from peers and faculty. She felt ostracized and isolated in her college community, where her strong Catholic beliefs and her desire to live and practice her faith were an unwelcome anomaly.
A nightly event was venting her frustrations to her family back in Nashville. “I was crying every day on the phone with my mom,” recalled Kerman. “What am I doing? What is God trying to teach me?”
Her mom didn’t have an immediate answer to those difficult questions, but she did have an idea. An avid EWTN watcher, Mary Kerman had seen a segment on a group of young people who went to volunteer in Lourdes, France. During their daily phone call, her mother said, “I think God is calling me to send you.”
“I just kept thinking, this is not what I want,” said Kerman. “I was so angry at God. There was nothing going right for me, and now my mother wanted me to do service for the sick and elderly? I just couldn’t get out of myself to imagine helping anyone.”
According to Kerman, once her mom makes up her mind, you can’t argue with her. “I went along with it because I was too tired to fight,” Kerman said. “But God probably put that in my life at exactly the right time.”
Since Kerman was busy with her classes, Mom organized all the travel details. She even called St. John University in New York and made arrangements for her daughter to travel with a group of students who were also volunteering in Lourdes. She felt it was important for Kerman to be with other American Catholic peers.
“She wanted so desperately for me to find my niche,” Kerman said.
|A statue of the Virgin Mary in the grotto at Lourdes watches over pilgrims who come to bathe in the healing waters.
As the semester wore down and summer break approached, Kerman began to get excited about the trip, though less about the service part and more about the thought of having a glass of wine in the French countryside.
“At 22, I was like, ‘You know what? This is going to be a vacation,’” said Kerman.
“I was not at all prepared for what God had in store.”
Kerman departed JFK airport with the St. John students and landed in Lourdes toward evening. At this point, Kerman knew very little about the Lourdes volunteer “Hospitality” program, nor what would be expected of her. “All I knew was that I was working in the baths for seven days,” Kerman said. “Past that I was going in blind.”
The next day was the first day of “class,” and was comprised of a tour of Lourdes. The volunteers were taken to the tiny two-by-four apartment that St. Bernadette grew up in, and the church that she ran to when she first had her apparition of the Blessed Mother. The tour ended in the Grotto, where Kerman sat down on a bench and prayed. Instantaneously, calm overtook her.
“It was as if I was suddenly made conscious of the words I was praying,” said Kerman.
She asked for healing, recognizing how bitter she had become, especially toward the classmates who had shunned her. “I sat down and started talking to the Virgin Mary like a mom, for the first time in three years. Yes, I’d been going through the motions – going to Mass, confession, talking with my spiritual director – but I hadn’t truly opened my heart to healing.
“In that moment, I made the decision to let go of my anger,” continued Kerman. “I realized that none of the people in Lourdes knew me. None of these people needed to know the bitterness that had plagued me.”
The next day was Kerman’s first day in the baths. Surprisingly there was no training, and none of the other volunteers in the baths spoke English. Kerman quickly realized she had to learn through gestures and observation.
Kerman’s service was to help the visiting women undress and prepare for the baths. Next, Kerman and another volunteer would usher the pilgrim into a second part of the bath where they were guided into the water toward a statue of Our Lady of the Lourdes, and then back again to get dressed and depart. That same routine went on for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, often longer.
|The skyline of Lourdes, France, the town where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. Since then, Lourdes has become a major Roman Catholic pilgrimage site, one of the most visited shrines in the Christian world, welcoming millions of visitors every year, who seek time for prayer, peace, and even miraculous healings.
Many of the pilgrims who come for the healing waters are on stretchers or in wheelchairs, and a large percentage are elderly. For Kerman, the experience was a profound one. “It really hit me hard. I had been so self-involved during college,” said Kerman. “Seeing these pilgrims so joy-filled, and yet clearly plagued with illnesses. I kept thinking, ‘I’m upset because 30 kids don’t like me? And because people think I’m not a good actor? How dare I feel like God is trying to hurt me, after seeing all these people so hopeful.’”
At the end of every day of service the volunteers are invited to have a bath. Kerman jumped at the opportunity. “After having witnessed others’ experiences, I couldn’t say no!” said Kerman. “I wanted to understand why each pilgrim came out of the bath with a grin plastered on their face, tears streaming down their cheeks. I wanted to feel what they felt.”
Kerman entered the freezing water, prayed, kissed the statue of Our Lady and as soon as she climbed out began laughing and crying at the same time. “The water comes off of you, and suddenly you feel a weight is lifted,” Kerman said. “All of the problems that you’ve been holding onto, all of that tension in your shoulders just falls away. I walked out feeling like a new woman, like I could have taken on anything.”
What Kerman took on was deciding to return to France to continue helping the sick and elderly. She has traveled to Lourdes the last three years, to serve and to pray for as many people as possible while there. After five years of service, Kerman will be able to undergo her “engagement” to the Hospitality program, a promise to return each summer to do service in the baths for the rest of her life. She hopes to make her engagement in July, 2016.
Kerman has set up a website to raise funds to make the trip this summer. To read more about her journeys or to contribute to her service work, visit