Lourdes only knows

How did these rosary beads end up hanging in a tree near Rennies River?

Published on July 15, 2014

One day in early June, after a record rainfall, No. 5 was making his way along the Rennies River Trail to school when he came across a two-foot yellow and red foam sword on the wet grass next to the river.

The sword looked brand new, as if it had blown straight out of the dollar store and landed near Carpasian Road. I let Surprise Child keep it.

That afternoon on the way home from school along the same path, No. 5 spotted an orange and blue Chuckit! Paraflight dog Frisbee in the river.

We fished it out and I said he could take it home on condition I wash it before he played with it. Pleased as a Newfoundland dog in the shade, he skipped along ahead of me and two minutes later spotted yet another bit of loot — a set of wooden rosary beads hanging in a tree.

What an eclectic batch of goodies.

Had the Frisbee been a shield, we might have thought a crusader had happened up the Grand Concourse shedding things as he galloped by. Of the three items, the beads were the most intriguing.

Who was praying near the river? Did a wasp alight on the bead-holding hands and their owner pitch the rosary and run?

Naw, it was a bit too early in June for wasps. Maybe Rennies River has become a pilgrimage route for lost Townie souls. Perhaps one pilgrim walking a pilgrim dog stooped to pick up some doggy do and the beads fell from her pocket.

I tend to think of the owner as female, but that’s not a given.

Maybe a man hung his rosary beads on the tree praying for better weather. Yes, that could be it.

The man who owns the beads lives in a newfangled subdivision where clotheslines are banned and trees are non-existent and had to resort to hanging his beads on trees in public spaces to beg for an end to the rain. I’m assuming you do remember the rain in early June?

The rosary that Surprise Child found is actually quite beautiful. An Italian cross hangs from the end of the engraved wooden beads, and water from Our Lady of Lourdes in France, which is believed to have healing properties, sits in a little metal case separating the cross from the five sets of 10 mysteries.

I have been to Lourdes, which is in the foothills of the Pyrenees in southwestern France and very close to the Prime Meridian. Rosary beads and holy water are what keep the 15,000 or so residents of Lourdes in grocery money thanks to apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the mid-1850s, witnessed by a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette.

When I was there in the late ’80s, souvenir stalls lined the horseshoe-shaped street that ran in front of Rosary Basilica, the lower part of which is topped by a golden crown near the Gave de Pau River.

In Lourdes, the rosary business is cutthroat. I’m talking millions of tourists descending on the small town every year. Imagine if you owned the last shop that pilgrims came across as they made their way to the Basilica while your next-door neighbour owned the first shop.

I dare say the neighbour would be driving a Bugatti and you’d probably be in a Citroen from the last century. To rectify this, I was told the powers that be dictated that each week they would reverse the direction of the one-way traffic to give shop owners more of an even playing field. Urban legend? Who knows?

One thing I do know, though, is that Lourdes can keep you busy. You can hang out at the grotto where St. Bernadette saw Mary. You can buy a plastic Virgin Mary-shaped water bottle and fill it with holy water from the spring. The cap on the bottle is shaped like a crown. You can visit the underground Basilica of St. Pius X, which reminds me of Coober Pedy, the opal mining town in Australia where one of the Mad Max movies was filmed — you know, the one with Tina Turner.

You can also go to a multilingual mass, and if you arrive about 90 minutes early, you can even sing with the choir. You can purchase a candle as big as yourself to parade with in the evening.

The most amazing thing, however, is watching the sheer number of visitors — can you imagine millions of tourists milling around Mount Pearl?

I was lucky enough to be able to ride my bike to Lourdes from the nearby town of Tarbes where I taught.

Travelling to Lourdes by car can be a bit tricky with the maze of one-way streets, and English visitors who rely on voice-activated GPS directions often end up in a town hundreds of kilometres away from Lourdes if they pronounce the final silent ‘S’ (I know, they should have paid more attention in grade school French and they’d know better).

But once you get to Lourdes, it’s a great town for walkers, strollers and wheelchairs. The town is super accessible due to the large number of physically-challenged visitors who can parade to the Basilica every afternoon to pray for a miracle.

When I got there I locked up my popsicle-green Peugeot bike and went shopping for a few pairs of rosary beads and a few plastic Mary bottles to fill with holy water for Mom and her sisters.

I should mention here that I grew up saying the rosary. Every evening on Bell’s Turn, all present would report to the living room to recite five mysteries (out of a potential 15 at the time) that represent key events in the life of Jesus and Mary.

Each mystery or decade consists of one Our Father, 10 Hail Marys and one Glory Be. At the end of the whole lot my mother would recite the Apostles’ Creed.

We sat with our maternal grandmother and tried to avoid eye contact so we wouldn’t be reduced to giggling like hyenas, which happened more often than you’d think.

The whole prayer session lasted about 12 minutes and taught me current events as we tended to pray for an end to the Falkland Island crisis or release of the hostages in Iran. Oh, and poor kidnapped Patty Hearst — she was up there in our prayers.

Today I have about six pairs of rosary beads, including a Lady of Guadeloupe set from Mexico my father-in-law brought and a set from when I lived in Quebec in 1984 and visited Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré with my parents.

For the past 10 years I have been trying to figure out a way of adapting a set of beads so I can use them to count off laps in the swimming pool. The question is, can I swim 50 metres in the time it takes to say a Hail Mary?


Susan Flanagan just picked up two pairs of rosary beads this spring at the rosary

market in Bruges. She is contemplating selling plastic bottles so people can fill them with water from Rennies River near where Surprise Child found the beads. She can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca.

Soccer Feedback

Angus Barrett writes: “I was the director of finance for the then Newfoundland Soccer Association (NSA). Consequently, I read with great interest your July 8 column recalling the September 1985 World Cup Qualifying game between Canada and Honduras. Needless to say, it brought back many memories of this historic game.

“I wish to thank you for such an interesting article. After considerable thought, I felt I should email you to clarify the way in which the game ended up in St. John’s.

“Credit for getting this game for St. John’s must go to Mr. George Innes who was President of the NSA at that time.  George was attending a Canadian Soccer Association meeting where the CSA was seeking a host for this final game of the qualifying round. The fee to host was $25,000.  George called me and asked if we should bid on it; I immediately replied yes and the rest is history.”