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
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
“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