Grotto likely to be reopened in a few days but some churches and prayer rooms to remain closed
Work crews rushed to clear mud and remove debris after a massive flood inundated sections of the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes so that tourists could return to the popular pilgrimage site.
Much of the pilgrimage site was under water for two days as floods swamped much of southwestern France.
Mathias Terrier, who is in charge of communications at the shrine, said it sustained millions of dollars in damage. No date for reopening has been set.
It was the second time in eight months that the normally placid Gave de Pau River broke its banks, forcing officials to close the shrine. Flash floods in October caused an estimated £2 million in damage.
“The damage is much more significant than in 2012,” the shrine reported on its website.
Mr Terrier told the press that the grotto had been under five feet of water and the vast subterranean church was inundated.
The grotto is where Mary is reported to have appeared to St Bernadette Soubirous in 1858.
Even though lower sections of the pilgrimage site were closed, Masses continued to be celebrated in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception above the grotto.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Mr Terrier said the grotto may reopen in a few days but that some churches, prayer rooms and buildings would be closed for months.
“Some facilities will probably remain closed for the rest of the season until October,” Mr Terrier said.
The flooding came at the worst possible time of year for Lourdes, which depends on the summer influx of pilgrims. Nearly six million pilgrims, many of them sick and weak, visit the grotto annually, believing that the waters hold healing powers.
Three people were killed when they were swept away by the rushing waters caused by a day of heavy rain and rapid melting of snow from the nearby Pyrenees. Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, camp grounds and hotels. At the peak of the flooding last week, rescuers were concerned with bringing weak and sick pilgrims to safety.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State, sent a message to Bishop Nicolas Brouwet of Tarbes and Lourdes saying Pope Francis was praying for the three people who died because of the flooding and for all those who have been displaced. The Pope, he said, also hoped Catholics would be generous in helping fund the clean-up and restoration of the Marian shrine.
The shrine put out an appeal for donations to help repair the damage. Insurance is expected to cover much of the damage, but it is not expected to cover the entire cost of repairs and cleanup.
The French government declared Lourdes and the surrounding area a disaster zone. French President Francois Hollande, Interior Minister Manuel Valls and Bishop Brouwet joined Lourdes Mayor Jean-Pierre Artiganave on a tour of the damage.
Mr Artiganave told Agence France-Presse that the flooding left his community “traumatised”.
“Lourdes has one element of good luck,” he said. “It’s that the world is generous with Lourdes. When Lourdes is in trouble – we saw it in October – people respond.”