I spent a night at Sainte Anne de Beaupré just before Halloween one year. That giant looming church, the falling leaves and howling wind, and all of the skeletons and jack o'lanterns everywhere almost made me put a chair against the door of my motel room.
I've been quite close to Lourdes on several trips to this area but I felt more compelled to stay away than to go, even for curiosity's sake. I love old churches but some of the oldest have suffered from modernisation that ruins (IMHO) them. I went to a concert of an occitan artist Claude Marti (it coincided with a small festival in a small town in the Ariege Pyrenees) and while the church was lovely in its simplicity, some time in the 50s (I think) they had removed whatever artwork had remained and replaced it with dull, dour paintings of the apostles with the same huge-eyed faces that conveyed nothing. They unfortunately reminded me of the sad-eyes waifs that originated with an artist in San Francisco and spawned generations of sad-eyes children, dogs, cats--you name it. It was difficult to focus on the singer with all those mournful facing looking down on us and I suppose during a mass (at least one should hope!) there might be a measure of joy but aside from the wonderful Claude Marti, there was little to celebrate or enjoy in that place. Seeing some of the mosaics in your pictures brought all that back to me...I have seen wonderful Byzantine mosaics (Greek, Russian and other Orthodox churches) but they have their own established references so a complete image has only the essential elements with embellishments. 'Orthodox art' as bastardised by non-Orthodox artists (and copyists) is worse than just bad art, it's insulting to the source. Unfortunately, that approach has polluted so much of religious observances (and I am most definitely not RC and not a member of a Christian church---probably more a Cathar sympathiser if anything---but the culture of a church is the culture of a people...and the extreme tackiness of what is offered in the name of religion is appalling. Good intentions (producing such things) is not mitigated by the end result.
On the other hand, I think Chartres cathedral does it right...
On one trip in the Aude, I went to Rennes-le-Chateau. Not because I bought into the 'Holy Blood, Holy Grail' schtick but because it was near someplace else I was going and I thought I should see it if only to see the view. It was worth the drive for the view. I noticed all the cats in the church grounds and surrounding area were all black. Not ominous, just decided there was a black unneutered male cat having his way with the familes...unto several generations... Talk about tawdry bad art. The original plaster casting may have had some good lines but the paint jobs...mentally I wondered if the work was done by PS members who were atheists...and once the ugliness has been perpetrated it had to be kept up...nothing like layer upon layer of bad paint to remove any sense of spirituality... At the time the graveyard was still open so I entered. I usually like old cemeteries but this was both uncared for in some areas and over cared for in others. The tomb of old Sauniere was still there and it had only a name and a somewhat large (40cm or so) plaque with a profile of him...and not an attractive image or man. I wondered how the locals felt about their family members having to share the church yard with him...of course probably half of the tended graves had ceramic markers from Lourdes with the statement: At Lourdes I prayed for you. I had a mental image of someone going to Lourdes and praying that the Virgin Mary protect the soul of her (mother/sister/aunt/grandmother) from the unclean presence of that old priest (etc). I visited a wonderful old church between Foix and Laroque d'Olmes (Ariege)...the tall tall cypress trees around the edge, new monuments being erected...and only a few of the Lourdes markers there. I did see one somewhat strange erection...it was in cast iron and it incorporated both Christian (RC) symbols but also those of the Masons...but then, this is the Ariege where one is not supposed to be expected to choose between them, really. The graveyard near the old Cite in Carcassonne has some well-built stone houses and markers (and notices that if the rent isn't paid when due the graves may be taken back and the 'occupants' required to be moved) and yes, enough Lourdes souvenirs to delight those who believe in pilgrimages...at this point I was hoping that unlike so many of the plastic figures/statues of saints and such that are made in China the souvenirs were made in France...I'm sure there's no law against imported religous items...
I know on one travel forum there are people asking for assistance in planning a trip there since there isn't direct service and I wondered what the place was like. After some of your reports Kerouac which fill me with various positive emotions and make me wish I were there, this made me so very very glad I had not gone. The undergound basilica looks more like a shelter for nuclear disaster or the plague or (even worse) a place of containment in case of civil uprising. I wonder how many people discover they are claustrophobic upon entering there? Do they have roller derby in France? I could imagine a women's roller derby team madly skating down the long hallway into the main room and then skating around the room, faster and faster while people cheered them on. The bad acoustics would probably benefit from an event like that...
On your question about the priests and nuns sitting separately....I think the men would worry that the women would gossip and distract them while the women would be very conscious that the men regarded them as lower creatures and necessary for purpose but not really of much value. Then too, priestly misbehavior has a long, long history in the church...better safe than sorry girls!
I think I need to go revisit the Gorges of Kakuetta to cleanse my 'palate'...lovely place.
Oh, Lourdes isn't that bad. What counts is how much people believe in the place, not whether their souvenirs were made in China. I found that I was on the verge of the Stendhal Syndrome more than once as I observed the believers.
Kerouac, if I had not been to Knock in Ireland I would be totally struck dumb by Lourdes. Knock is a huge place that pilgrims swarm to, but compared to Lourdes it is a mini,very mini version of Lourdes. As I viewed your excellent photos - what an effort you made!, I could not help hearing the ching of millions of cash registers clinking with no rest. No wonder the Catholic Church is so rich and powerful and able to come to Africa and the rest of the world and set up schools and hospitals. When I attended a Roman Catholic boarding school for 2 years - age 8yrs - I remember the night they made us sit on the wooden floor of the refectory, and with an old "reel to reel" machine showed the story of Bernadette and her visions. I was shit scared for months.
Lourdes is definitely in the news in France this weekend. As it turns out, the municipality has been the landlord of just about all of the souvenir stores since something like 1911. Back then, it was commercial chaos, and the city took over a pretty big sector of the city near the sacred site. Rents were reasonable but the upkeep of the buildings had to be paid by the tenants. Some did it, some did not. But a few years ago, the law changed in France, and the owner of a building has to pay for all building renovations. The city of Lourdes decided that it cannot afford this. So it is selling all of these buildings. Obviously, the current tenants have priority at a preferential price, but as always, it will turn out than not everybody can pay. So don't be surprised the next time you go to Lourdes to find KFC or Burger King in the place where you last bought your glow-in-the-dark BVM. (I had one of those in my bedroom and I loved it!)
I'm glad you brought this report back up because a friend of mine is going to move there this summer. Mostly because real estate is really cheap and she can afford to buy a house there. It is well-located for hiking in the Pyrenees. However, I don't think I will be going to see her too often.
Someone else told me that the city is really getting less and less lively and it doesn't attract any newcomers, so I'm not surprised that they can't afford to keep up the buildings.