A pilgrim people: The Warriors to Lourdes share their stories

image1 2 Army Captain Adam Fisk, Morgan Fisk, and their son Julian on the Warriors to Loudres trip, 2019. Image courtesy of Knights of Columbus.

CNA had a chance to get to know some of the more than 200 pilgrims who traveled to Lourdes as part of the Knights of Columbus' Warriors to Lourdes program during the International Military Pilgrimage, May 16-19. Here are their stories:

A century of tradition

The Knights of Columbus has a long history of supporting the troops and conducting military pilgrimages, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson told CNA, with the Warriors to Lourdes program just the latest way they are continuing this tradition.

The Knights "were very much involved in France during the first World War," Anderson said. "We had the largest military pilgrimage to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, in 1919."

Anderson told CNA that the Knights of Columbus also sponsored military pilgrimages to Lourdes during WWI and that when they learned governmental spending cuts meant that the United States would not be sending a delegation to the International Military Pilgrimage in 2013, they joined up with the Archdiocese of the Military Services, USA, to create Warriors to Lourdes.

While he may have an important role leading the Knights, at Lourdes, Anderson stressed that he is just a pilgrim like everyone else.

"I think I come to Lourdes like any Catholic," said Anderson. "It's a special place for Our Lady, it's a special place to be with people who are taking significant steps on their spiritual journey in life, and deepening their relationship with the Lord through Mary."

Anderson said he has been to other Marian apparition sites, but there is something "very special" about Lourdes, due to all the people seeking some form of healing.

This weekend, Anderson said he is praying especially for his fellow pilgrims, that they find the spiritual or physical healing they may be seeking, but most of all that everyone on the trip can deepen their relationship with God.

"That includes me, that includes my family--we all have to grow in our spiritual life and we all have to grow closer to the Lord. That process is never done," he said.

A journey home

Many of the Warriors to Lourdes pilgrims are Catholic, but they are very different in the practice of their faith. Some attend daily Mass, and others have a more complicated relationship with the Church.

For Sgt. 1st Class Mary Katzenberg, who is a public affairs chief assigned to Ft. Bragg, the pilgrimage gave her the chance for her to attend her first Mass in about 20 years.

"I reconnected with God about a year ago after a 20-year stint of thinking I could do things on my own or do things my way," she said.

After receiving an email about Warriors to Lourdes from her unit's chaplain, Katzenberg said she felt called to apply, "to see if it was something God wanted me to do."  

She told CNA that she was completely unfamiliar with the story of Lourdes prior to being accepted for the pilgrimage.

Katzenberg had the chance to visit the Lourdes baths, a visit that occurred just prior to the opening Mass for American pilgrims at the Rosary Basilica.

More in Europe

Visiting the baths was "a very emotional experience," said Katzenberg. "I prayed for God to cleanse my soul, and it almost felt like it was kind of like a second baptism. It moved me."

The experience has inspired Katzenberg to return to the Catholic faith.

"Well, beginning with this Mass [Friday], I really feel that God led me here to pull me back into the Church, that He knows what I need more than I know what I need," she said.

"I just feel that that's what He's calling me to do--start attending Mass again and serving within the Church."

The next generation

A life of military service is often a family affair, with many people following in their parents' footsteps and entering the armed forces. One family is hoping the graces from Lourdes will assist with their daughter's future career in the Air Force.

The Bellm family of Gunnery Sgt. Justin, his wife Kate, and their daughters Courtney, Trinity, and Allison, came to Lourdes from Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. Sgt. Bellm serves as the Platoon Commander at Wounded Warrior, Battalion East, and has been in the military for 16 years.

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His daughter, Courtney, will be entering the Air Force in just over two months, on July 23. While she could not find the exact words to describe her pilgrimage experience ahead of her military career, she told CNA "there's just something about being here, surrounded by militaries from all over the world, and just seeing how we come together."

The military, Courtney said, is like a "second family."

This is the family's first trip to Lourdes, and Sgt. Bellm said he applied because he "thought it would be a good opportunity to reconnect with the family, and a little bit of spiritual enlightenment." It is also his last year with Wounded Warrior, so he jumped at the opportunity to travel to France.

Kate said that she was praying for family unity throughout the weekend, and that she found the experience to be "enlightening."

"I didn't really know what to expect, so I just took whatever. I just went in with an open mind, really, and encouraged the girls to go in with an open mind."

Fellow travelers

While Lourdes is a site most commonly visited by Catholics, the Warriors to Lourdes pilgrimage is open to people of all religions.

The spiritual needs of non-Catholic pilgrims are tended to by military chaplains. One of those chaplains is Maj. Brian Minietta, an Army Chaplain at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina.

Minietta told CNA that his faith background is in the United Methodist community, and his chaplaincy is supported by the Evangelical Church Alliance. This is his third time joining the Warriors to Lourdes.

"The first time I came as just a pilgrim," said Minietta. One of his friends, a Protestant chaplain, had attended a previous trip and encouraged him to apply. After he was accepted, Minietta was chosen to lead one of the faith and fellowship groups on his pilgrimage, which he said was an "amazing group."

Warriors to Lourdes then invited him back on the pilgrimage the following year, but as a trip leader and chaplain.

Even though the Knights of Columbus are a Catholic fraternal organization, and Lourdes is home to numerous Catholic churches and chapels, Minietta said he did not feel out of place at all as a Protestant. He credited his experience in the Army for how he was able to work alongside the other chaplains.

"In the Army," he said, "we work in a pluralistic environment, and so we kind of have this thing where we say we perform and provide. And so, I perform the things that I can perform as a Protestant chaplain, but it's also my job to provide, so I brought people from my unit on this pilgrimage," said Minietta. He views the pilgrimage as "an opportunity for me to provide for them."

During the pilgrimage, eligible Catholic pilgrims were offered the sacrament of anointing of the sick. Non-Catholics were given the opportunity to pray for healing alongside the non-Catholic chaplains. Minietta told CNA that he was glad he was still able to assist those in need of spiritual help.

"I got to pray for people--even though I can't offer the sacrament, I still got to lay hands on people and pray for them," he said. "And so, it's easy for me to overcome our differences."

Minietta found the experience of going into the baths to be reminiscent of his baptism.

"There's that significance of we need water to survive, water cleanses us. I went into that experience open to however the Lord was gonna work through the usage of water."

Minietta found another way to provide for the pilgrims: during Saturday night's Marian procession, he was one of the people who carried the statue of the Blessed Mother.

Support and healing

A pilgrimage this large needs a solid support staff. There are many nurses, doctors, and other professionals who are part of the delegation who keep everyone safe.

Commander Lance LeClere, M.D., is serving as the medical director for Warriors to Lourdes.

LeClere, a Navy doctor who is stationed in Annapolis, Maryland, was invited by a past pilgrim to attend this year's pilgrimage. The call came at "an opportune time" as Leclere and his wife, a Navy nurse, had been seeking an opportunity to go on a medical mission.

"We've always looked for ways to support active duty service members, especially those that have been injured," said LeClere. "This combined sort of the religious retreat and pilgrimage with the opportunity to serve the wounded, ill, and injured, and so it was a perfect opportunity to combine all of the things that we enjoy supporting."

A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, which boasts its own on-campus grotto modeled after the one in Lourdes, LeClere said it was "very moving" to see the inspiration for the place he spent much time praying as a student.

"It was just very special to be at the original grotto--it was very emotional," he said.

True to his vocation as a doctor, LeClere told CNA that his intentions for the weekend were for his friends back in Maryland who were experiencing illnesses or other conditions. And true to his vocation in military service, he is praying for their mental well-being as well.

"I've also been thinking a lot about the spiritual and emotional healing of the service members that are on the trip, and folks that I know from back home that are in need of that as well," he said.

For all their people

The armed forces is often compared to a tribe. For one couple, there is also a literal tribe back home praying for their pilgrimage.

Ben Black Bear III and his wife Jennifer Black Bear made the journey to Lourdes from the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Both are members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

Ben and Jennifer were invited to apply after meeting Supreme Knight Carl Anderson at a listening session with the USCCB and 13 other tribes. Ben is an Army veteran who served in Iraq in 2006-2007, and also lived at Ft. Hood before returning to Rosebud.

The Black Bears both work for their church, and both were familiar with the story of Lourdes prior to the pilgrimage. Given the sheer distance between South Dakota and France, Ben described the pilgrimage as his "one-in-a-million chance" to visit the Grotto.

"It's a really big honor for us, and also our parents, and also our future generation," he said. They said they will be bringing back Lourdes water to their reservation.

Ben described the trip as "overwhelming," but he has maintained his focus on prayer and the spiritual graces that come with a pilgrimage. He also knows that he and his wife are serving as  role models for their community.

"This is also a good eye-opener for our reservation, knowing us, (and) coming here," said Ben. Back in Rosebud, there are people who are following their pilgrimage with keen interest.

"A lot of people researched it and they're really familiar with what's going on with it," he said.

Jennifer told CNA that her prayer intentions for the weekend would primarily concern the well-being of others, and that she will be praying for "the health of all of our people on the reservation, our families, the health of our people."

Miracles received

Some people come to Lourdes hoping for a miracle from its waters. The Fisk family has already experienced theirs.

Julian Fisk, the 14-month old son of Army Captain Adam Fisk and Morgan Fisk, did not have the easiest entrance into the world when he was born in January of last year.

"He came out not breathing for six minutes," his father told CNA. "He was immediately evac'd to a NICU in a different hospital."

After Julian arrived in the neonatal intensive care unit, doctors took quick action to attempt to prevent any brain damage due to his lack of oxygen at birth. While some of their efforts were successful, Julian had suffered a subgaleal hematoma, which Adam described as "a very large pocket of fluid that had been built up in his head" that could potentially cause major health issues. Doctors predicted it would take up to a month for the hematoma to heal.

Adam's father-in-law, Deacon Mark Mitchell, flew in from Georgia to Texas to be with Morgan, Adam, and Julian while Julian was hospitalized. Mitchell had been to Lourdes, and brought some of the healing water with him to the NICU.

"He sprinkled some on Julian's head, and along his body, and he prayed over him," Adam explained.

"The next day, the hematoma was gone, and it baffled the doctors. Obviously, it was a miracle to us."

Julian has now been entirely cleared by his doctors and is "completely where he needs to be at for his age," said Adam. A few months after his miraculous healing, Adam was encouraged to apply for Warriors to Lourdes by Deacon Mitchell, who is also on this year's pilgrimage. Adam jumped at the opportunity.

Julian was able to join his parents on the pilgrimage to Lourdes, and is one of the youngest people in the program. Adam said it was "amazing" to be in Lourdes, and to see the Grotto and the spring.

The Fisks have not yet had a chance to enter the baths, but they eagerly await the opportunity--having first-hand knowledge of how healing the water can be. Morgan has a progressive form of Lupus, and Adam said that they are praying for some sort of spiritual or physical feeling for her as well.

"We're excited to go to that as a family," said Adam.

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