To Katie Kerman’s classmates at DePaul University’s Theatre School Conservatory, acting was almost like a religion. As a practicing Catholic, Katie was an outcast.
“The theater school at DePaul is affiliated with the university, but it’s not specifically Catholic,” Kerman said. “My classmates were good and kind people, and pretty much all of them had some type of spirituality. But most of them were very anti-established religion. I was one of the few people in my class who practiced any type of formal religion, so I was a misfit.”
But in the summer of 2011, the former parishioner at St. Henry Church found her place. Her mother arranged for her to take a service-oriented pilgrimage to the Shrine of Lourdes in France, where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette. Kerman has gone the past four summers to help sick and elderly pilgrims wash in the baths, the healing pools surrounding the Shrine.
The experience has been transformative for her and she hopes to bring friends and family back with her in the future.
“I don’t know exactly how many people I’ll be taking with me to France, since organizing a volunteer pilgrimage is a big undertaking. The first time around will probably be five people at the most. But eventually I hope to bring along 15, 20 or even 25 people,” she said.
One of the most valuable experiences Kerman hopes to share with others is witnessing the interactions among people of all ages and walks of life. “People of every age flock to Lourdes, from parents bringing their babies and small children to people in their 90s. Many of these people also have physical or mental illnesses and handicaps.
“The younger people care for the older ones, and everyone spends time together. You don’t see that much in America, where young people tend to the physical needs of the sick and elderly and interact with them on a regular basis. People my age don’t go to bars to spend time with 80 year olds,” she said.
Volunteers who return to the shrine for five consecutive summers are eligible to make an Engagement, which is a formal promise to the Virgin Mary to return to Lourdes every summer to volunteer. Kerman’s Engagement will happen next year.
“I am making my Engagement next summer since it will be my fifth year returning,” Kerman said. “Pilgrims receive a special consecration during Mass and a Marian Medal with a blue and white ribbon as a sign of their commitment. They make a promise to spend at least six days of every summer for the rest of their lives to come back and serve the pilgrims as long as they are physically able. And then there’s a reception afterward. I’m very excited for next year because I’m officially becoming a member of the Hospitality family. We all make this special commitment to the Blessed Mother and we get to celebrate it together.”
Kerman is still pursuing acting; preparing to head to England to earn her master’s degree in classical theater. But her time in Lourdes has affected her career goals and how she plans to attain them.
“My time in France reaffirmed my faith and who I want to be as an actress. I’ve decided that I want to make classical theater accessible to people of my generation,” she said. “Since I’ve spent so much time with the elderly in France, I’ve discovered that their stories tend to be the most interesting, because of their unique perspective on life. And I think that’s why so many people are still drawn to classical playwrights like Shakespeare and Moliere. Old plays are famous for a reason.”
She also hopes to create theater that is appealing to families. “After my time in France, I’ve turned down acting gigs that have been offered to me. The theater scene in Chicago often tries to be experimental and cutting edge; but it involves sex, drugs, nudity and other subject matter that is not family-friendly. Before, chances are I would have considered playing those risqué roles that were offered to me. But now I’m more confident in turning those parts down. I’m also into writing and directing plays. I want to do pieces centered on the sick and elderly, since I’ve been around them so much.”
Ultimately, Kerman hopes to help others experience God’s presence in Lourdes. “When you get to experience something so beautiful and healing like I have, you want to share that with other people. In Lourdes, it’s said that Mary invites everyone who comes. You go because she wants you there. I’d like to think of myself as a vessel for her. By inviting others to come to her, I am helping Mary bring people to her Son. Jesus and Mary have brought me so much peace and joy in France, and I want other people to have that same peace and joy.”
For more information about Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers visit lourdesvolunteers.org.