The cult of the Virgin of Lourdes is followed by many in

Enna, and every year in May a train loaded with pilgrims,

volunteers, and seriously ill people travels to Lourdes. It is

called the White Train. Lourdes is a place for pilgrimages for

Catholics from all over the world, and every year around five

million visit the cave where the apparitions happened.

In 1858, Our Lady appeared to a little girl named

Bernadette Soubirous in a cave called Massabielle in Lourdes.

The apparitions occurred for five months, and were initially

seen with skepticism by the Catholic Church, but when the

apparition revealed herself to be the Immaculate Conception,

all doubts were removed. In fact, the little girl couldn’t

understand a deep theological concept like that of the Virgin


The journey from Enna to Lourdes takes forty-eight hours,

as the White Train stops continuously to give precedence to

regular trains. The volunteer’s main task is serving meals in

the train and pushing the wheelchairs once arriving in Lourdes.

Only the most expert volunteers look after people with serious


One year after Giuseppina’s death, I still acted like an

automaton and a dark fog separated me from the rest of the

world. The police had investigated the incident for a few

months, but I was eventually acquitted. My mother was very

worried about me. She had no idea what to do, and confined

herself to praying for me. Moreover, every week she used to

go to the Convent of Saint Marc to ask the nuns to pray for

me as well. She hoped that all those prayers would sooner

or later rid me of my heavy depression.

What about going to Lourdes?” she said one day.

I was so clouded that I didn’t have the strength and will to

answer her. But she insisted. “Do you want to go to Lourdes

on the White Train? It leaves from Enna in ten days. It is a

good opportunity to take your mind off your idea you are

guilty of Giuseppina’s death.”

I don’t want to go,” I said curtly.

But it is a good opportunity to help the sick!” my mother


I actually considered myself a social waste, but the thought

that I could be helpful to somebody in need made me feel less

despicable. Moreover, I couldn’t remain in a state of inactivity

forever. I had stayed at home like a prisoner for a year, but

sooner or later I had to come down from my ivory tower.

Okay, I’ll go,” I said, and a feeble ray of hope revived in my

heart. Maybe someday I would come back to life as a normal

human being.

After twelve months spent in my room reading books,

magazines, and listening to the radio, my eyes were not

accustomed to daylight. My mother had arranged everything

for my journey, including packing my luggage and providing

my volunteer uniform, which was brown, while the ladies wore

white skirts, white stockings, blue cloaks, and veils similar

to those of nuns.

My parents came to see me off at the station and entrusted

me to the priest who was the spiritual guide of the pilgrimage.

He was from a town near Enna called Valguarnera Caropepe.

Father Guido was a red-haired man who, despite the

reformation of the Second Vatican Council that had given

priests the freedom of dressing, still wore a cassock.

The train was very old, and two special cars dating back to

the Second World War had been arranged to accommodate

disabled people on stretchers. The two cars still bore the huge

red crosses from the war. We didn’t have any hoist, so we had

to lift the people on stretchers into the cars by hand. It wasn’t

that hard a task, since we had many volunteers to do the


We had finished lifting stretchers when I saw a stretcher

on wheels coming from the side entrance of the station. On it

was a young man who had to weigh nearly 200 kilos. I

couldn’t imagine how we were going to get him on the train. It

took six of us to lift the stretcher. My arms and legs were still

weak after a year of inaction, but through our joint efforts we

finally set him on the train.

It was the late afternoon when the train finally left the

station. The sun was setting beyond the mountains, and in a

few hours we would serve dinner to the pilgrims and invalids.

Meanwhile, I went to my compartment and watched the green

countryside and the wheat that waved under the breeze

through the window. My eyes were looking outside, but my

mind still saw the car plunging down into the ravine with its

human load. Apparently, going out of my house had changed

nothing. I was as absentminded and depressed as I was when

secluded in my room. The environment had changed, but my

heart was still shut to life.

Before entering the ferry from Messina to mainland Italy,

the train stopped many times to take on more sick people,

pilgrims, and volunteers. There were four volunteers in our

compartment, but from time to time Father Guido came and

sat down to chat with us.

When the train left the station in Catania we started

serving dinner. The train was very long, and every volunteer

was given the task of serving a certain car. I was told to serve

dinner in the car with the people who were the most seriously


I was doing just that when I heard someone call out my

name. I turned back, thinking that another volunteer from

Enna was calling me, but I didn’t see anybody.

Vincenzino, Vincenzino!” the voice kept calling.

I stopped serving and saw that it was the fat young man

that we had lifted on the car that was calling me. “How do you

know my name?” I asked.

It is written on your badge!” he answered.

I was so absentminded that I hadn’t paid attention to the

badge on my uniform. “What is your name?” I asked.

My name is Carmelo, and I want to thank you for the

great effort you made in lifting me. As you see, my body is all

out of proportion. My weight keeps increasing more and more,

and all I can move are my head, eyes, and lips. All the rest is

paralyzed like dead flesh. I can see that you are not peaceful

but, believe me, your adverse fortune is nothing compared to


Tears streamed down his big cheeks. “Can you see the

moon and the stars out of the window?” he asked.

I bent my head and Carmelo also slowly turned his head to

watch the full moon. “Ask the moon and the stars if it is right

that my body lies on a stretcher from my birth to my death,

while my mind is clear and realizes the uselessness of my life.”

His words dumbfounded me. I had thought that only my

problems existed and other people were immune from them.

After Giuseppina’s death, I had isolated myself in my room,

thinking that I was the most unlucky person in the world. But

now, Carmelo was opening my eyes to real life; his condition

was far worse than mine!

Tell me,” continued Carmelo, “why there are half-men

like me? I have done nothing to deserve such miserable luck.

Do you think that my harrowing life derives from God or from

a different malicious being? I am completely useless. While

you may be helpful to others, Vincenzino, I am just human

waste who is kept alive by a moral and criminal code that

doesn’t allow society to kill the heap of flesh I am.”

It was as if I had been catapulted to life again. After a long

time of seclusion, now in front of me was someone who was

talking to me and wanted me to answer him, but I actually

didn’t know what to say. I looked around to see if the meals

had all been served, and noticed that the other volunteers had

done the work in my place. As for Carmelo, he had been fed in

advance by a qualified nurse.

As for the second of his questions, my answer sprang from

my heart naturally. “You are not a useless person, Carmelo.

Thanks to you, I am coming back to life. I have been living like

a vegetable for a year, except for speaking with my mother in

monosyllables. Now, talking with you has been as if a

thunderbolt has fallen on me. You have shocked me! Now I

can see and watch you, while I saw no one before so immersed

in my thoughts as I was.”

What happened to you?” asked Carmelo.

It is an old love story that ended tragically, but now I can

see that there are people like you who have no hope to live a

normal life, while I am in a better condition. You have been

like a mirror for me. Through you, I have looked inside myself

and realized the uselessness of continuing to torture myself.”

What about my first question?” asked Carmelo.

During my year of insulation, I read many books and

magazines. One of the most significant was the Book of Job in

the Bible.

Do you know the story of Job, Carmelo?”

I have heard something about him. Job was renowned

because of his patience, right?”

Job was a rich, pious man,” I answered, “who later lost all

his riches, his children, and even his body became purulent.

What have I done to deserve such bad luck?’ Job asked God

one day. The answer was that man cannot know what God’s

plans for us are. Therefore, Carmelo, accept your situation and

do your best to live your life fully, even under such bad


The forty-eight hours spent on the train seemed neverending,

but the other volunteers in our compartment were

cheerful. From time to time, Father Guido also joined us to say

the rosary. When we arrived at the station in Lourdes, we had

to offload the baggage and take the invalids to the hospitals.

Then we volunteers went to the hotel.

My task was to carry the invalids from one place to another.

The wheelchairs in Lourdes had a handle in the front, while

some disabled people had their own personal wheelchairs

that could be pushed.

Every day, in the morning and the afternoon, the disabled

in their wheelchairs were lined up in the hospital courtyard

and the volunteers took them wherever they liked to go. The

disabled usually wanted to go to the Massabielle Cave to pray

before the statues of Our Lady and Saint Bernadette, or to the

baths, which stand in the place where Saint Bernadette

found a spring by digging in the ground with her hands. This

water was supposed to be miraculous, and several miracles

have actually been recorded and corroborated by the Catholic

Church. People who wanted to have a bath were just dipped

into the water for a few seconds. They got dressed while they

were still wet, but the water had the properties of drying

immediately, so towels were not needed.

There were frequent Masses both in the cave and in the

churches and basilicas. In the late afternoon, the sick and

disabled were lined up in the vast square in front of the

basilica and Holy Communion was given to them.

One afternoon while I was in the square looking after a

sick old man, I lost my faith. I had the sensation that God was

just a human creation. I saw the earth and the universe like

matter with no spirit inside and no God that could vivify it. It

was a real paradox that I had come to Lourdes to strengthen

my faith in God and in life, but instead I had become an atheist.

I remained in this condition as a disbeliever for several

months, but with the passing time I felt that my life was

completely empty without Jesus. After the terrible accident

with Giuseppina, my only anchor was Jesus. Therefore, my

atheism didn’t last long, and for the rest of my life Jesus has

been my only safe harbor.

During my staying in Lourdes, I wanted to do my very best

to serve the sick people that I looked after. One afternoon I

took a sick lady from the hospital courtyard. She was around

sixty years old and dressed in black.

Where would you like me to take you?” I asked.

I want to go shopping!” she answered. In Lourdes, there

are so many shops that sell holy images, rosary beads, small

statues, and every kind of holy item, that sometimes I had the

impression that big business gravitated around the cult of Our


The sick lady wanted to buy a small golden medal, so we

went around many shops to find the item she liked. After two

hours of shopping, she found the one she wanted. Afterwards,

she wanted me to take her to the top of the hill, as she wanted

to cover the Stations of the Cross. At last, after a long day of

walking, I took her back to the hospital.

As soon as we arrived at the hospital courtyard, the sick

lady got up from the wheelchair and walked at a brisk pace. I

looked at her with a slight annoyance. Why had she asked me

to carry her around when she was able to walk by herself? But

suddenly the lady started crying out, “It is a miracle! A miracle!

I couldn’t walk before. That volunteer can testify to it,” she

said, pointing to me.

A few people gathered around me. “Is it true?” one of them



It was really a miracle?” he insisted.

I don’t know,” I answered. “I can only say that the lady

was already sitting in the wheelchair when I took her out to

the shops. Then I took her to the hill where the Stations of the

Cross are, but I cannot say if she was able to walk before I met


Okay, thank you,” said the man who had questioned me,

and soon the small crowd of onlookers dispersed.

The following day I heard from the volunteers, whom I

used to meet at lunchtime, of a miracle that had happened in

Lourdes. I didn’t ask what kind of miracle they were talking

about. It possibly referred to the lady that had regained her

ability to walk. At the time I had fallen into my feelings of

atheism, so I wasn’t interested in the subject.

Many years went by, and that episode seemed to have

fallen into oblivion, but one day it came to mind for some

reason. I wondered why that sick lady would have deceived

me, pretending to have been miraculously cured when she

was already in good health. What was the point?

That afternoon in Lourdes was still vivid in my mind. I

relived seeing the lady dressed in black sitting in the

wheelchair waiting for a volunteer. When I arrived at the

hospital, as soon as I saw her I headed for her and grasped the

handle of the wheelchair without uttering a word. Once we

were in the street, I asked her where to go. Then we went

shopping and then to the hill. At last I took her back to the


I decided that there had to be a rational explanation.

Maybe the old lady was lazy and didn’t want to walk by herself.

Perhaps she took advantage of me to stroll around Lourdes

while sitting comfortably in the wheelchair. Nevertheless, my

conjecture collided with the fact that the lady had been

admitted to the hospital in Lourdes.

If my memory serves me right, there were two hospitals

for sick people at that time in Lourdes, one bigger and one

smaller. Neither of them admitted patients that were not

disabled. There should be medical records certifying her

disability. Being wise after the event, at that time I was very

shallow. I should have investigated the matter in depth.

However, if she is still in my mind after so many years,

perhaps something supernatural really did happen that

afternoon in Lourdes.

Excerpt from A Hidden Sicilian History by ETTORE GRILLO

Ettore Grillo, author of these books:

– A Hidden Sicilian History

– The Vibrations of Words

– Travels of the Mind



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