Pilgrims from across the globe come to the Catholic shrine at Lourdes, France, seeking God’s help through the intercession of Mary in the healing waters of the spring – an extraordinary spring that pumps 30,000 gallons of water per day. It first appeared Feb. 25, 1858, during the ninth of 18 apparitions of Mary to 14-year-old Bernadette in Lourdes.

Lourdes Volunteer, Ken Theys, a member of St. Martin of Tours Parish, Franklin, pours water from the shrine in Lourdes into small containers, on Thursday, Feb. 4 at his parish. Theys has made seven trips to Lourdes, France, as a volunteer. A photo of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary in Lourdes is visible on the table. (Catholic Herald photo by Ricardo Torres)Miraculous cures have been recorded there and the site has grown to consist of seven churches, five conference rooms and hotels for the sick.

Lourdes is almost completely run by volunteers who receive no money, and pay for their own transportation, room and board.

Nearly eight years ago, Ken Theys, a member of St. Martin of Tours Parish, Franklin, signed up with the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers group. The non-profit, headquartered in Syracuse, New York, brings volunteers and the sick to Lourdes and is the only Lourdes hospitality program outside Europe. Lourdes Volunteers has led more than 5,600 pilgrims and volunteers to Lourdes since its establishment in 2002 and leads 12 to 15 physical pilgrimages annually.  

Additionally, more than 115,000 people have made a “virtual pilgrimage” to Lourdes through the organization. The pilgrimage brings Lourdes to those unable to travel to France and includes a 90-minute experience, including images, music, pieces of the grotto, Lourdes water, a eucharistic blessing as done in Lourdes, and a candlelight rosary procession.

Patch of black ice changed everything

Theys served in the U.S. Navy, retired from AT&T as a certified systems technician, and later worked under contract for Milwaukee Public Schools redesigning its telephone and public address system. He imagined doing this work for many years, but one winter evening in 2004, a patch of black ice changed everything.

“My wife, Pat, and I were helping a friend of ours with his dairy farm after he had massive surgery and wasn’t able to get on his machinery. We were coming home for Christmas on Dec. 18 and near Portage I hit the black ice and hydroplaned and it was her side of the car that took the hit,” he said. “My wife died at the scene.”

Paramedics didn’t think Theys would live, but once in a Madison hospital, he began to improve. He attended his wife’s funeral 10 days later.

“After that, I went to rehab for a very long time,” he recalled.

Theys said he and his wife had been volunteers with St. Vincent de Paul for 30 years, helping with the meal program and working in the St. Martin of Tours food pantry.

“She was also a funeral sacristan and now I am a full-time sacristan and also do funerals,” he added.

Volunteering became outlet for grief

For most of his life, Theys was captivated by the story of St. Bernadette, reading about her and watching films on her life. In February 2008, he watched a television program on St. Bernadette and a woman named Marlene Watkins spoke about her miraculous healing from debilitating agoraphobia after a friend convinced her to travel to Lourdes.

After the healing, she began a Lourdes volunteer ministry. In the broadcast, Watkins spoke of her organization and begged for volunteers. Theys was moved and wanted to direct his grief toward helping others.

“I became interested in helping out, and the following Monday I called them, later sending my application, along with recommendations from my parish. I knew it was the right time because Pat would never fly over water, so there would have been no way I could have gone when she was alive,” he explained. “I qualified for the trip, so I went the first year and halfway through the trip, I knew I would be coming back.”

The first five years is a probationary period where the volunteer is assigned to training in all areas of ministry.

“At the end of the fourth year of service, one may be asked if they wish to make a firm commitment during the fifth year,” explained Theys, who made his commitment in July 2013.

Volunteers serve various roles

The Hospitalité service trips allow adult pilgrims in good health to volunteer with Hospitalité Notre-Dame de Lourdes, the association of volunteers at Lourdes. Male volunteers might greet pilgrims at the train station or airport, help transport pilgrims with special needs, or assist in the men’s baths.

Theys, one of the group’s 18 volunteers from North America, has served in each of the ministries.

Female volunteers might work in the women’s baths, arrange flowers, help in the dining hall or provide housekeeping services in the accueil (lodging), where pilgrims with special needs stay during their pilgrimages.

Since his first year, Theys, 71,  has regularly taken French lessons to communicate with the pilgrims and the French in the area.

“I thought it would be useful for me to know the language because I am getting older and physically I can’t do the lifting and taking people off stretchers to the baths anymore,” he said. “I love everything about this ministry and it is amazing to see the people coming off the trains to Lourdes with stress and pain on their faces and then when they leave the baths, they have smiles and their faces radiate peace and joy. You just have to see it to believe it. In fact, once there were some men to came to disprove this and one guy said that Lourdes was a hoax and a farce, but when they walked out of the baths, they were crying and in tears.”

Theys, father of two sons and a daughter, and grandfather of eight, said his family supports his ministry and only expressed concern about his involvement after the terrorist attacks in Paris last fall.

“They are fully supportive of my desire to serve the Lord with simplicity and humility and sincerity with love,” he said. “In fact, my daughter was studying in Rome and came with me one time. It was great.”

Volunteers cover cost of travel

The cost for the pilgrimage runs between $2,600 and $3,000 and includes airfare from a gateway departure series, room, board and transportation in France. Volunteers pay their transportation from home to a gateway city. For Theys, that means taking a bus to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. On some pilgrimages, volunteers remain a few extra days to tour areas of the country.

“Of course this is a little more money,” said Theys, “but it is worth it. All of the expenses for my volunteer time, including my French classes, are tax deductible. But, I don’t do it for that. I really like to help others and I have a devotion to our Blessed Mother. I consecrated myself to her a couple of years ago.”

In addition to the Hospitalité service trips, pilgrimage director Pam Ryan explained there are two other types throughout the year.

“We have a special needs pilgrimage for those who have illnesses, disabilities and other hidden illnesses. We have medical staff travel with these individuals,” she said.

There are also pilgrimage service trips that bring volunteers to assist pilgrims with special needs. They arrive earlier to set up lodging, provide companionship, service and transport during the pilgrimage and to do cleanup afterward.

Though all volunteers and some pilgrims pay for their trips, some special needs pilgrims need financial assistance to cover traveling expenses. A fund called Andrea’s Wish helps offset their fees.

Volunteer described as ‘delightful person’

Ryan said they are blessed to have Theys as a Lourdes Volunteer.

“He is so good with the people and such a delightful person to be around,” she said. “He has great compassion for others. He is wonderful and gives the pilgrims great respect and dignity. He is very prayerful and wonderful with the others.”

Ryan said the organization is looking for volunteers.

“Once you go, you usually want to return,” she said. “Lourdes is a very special place. There have been 69 recognized miracles and 8,000 inexplicable cures. They are all incredible, blessed and grace-filled. Lourdes is manned by doctors from around the world as well as an atheist to keep everything credible. But we have found that all who come are affected in some way.”